If Chief Bill Blair and the Toronto Police Service are serious about reducing the kind of violent crime this city has seen this summer, then they need to make damn sure that average people feel comfortable and confident when dealing with the city’s police officers. Toronto should be able to trust its cops.
That trust is looking pretty shaky these days.
The incidents keep piling up. This week, we heard about a police encounter at a public housing complex in Lawrence Heights where four teenagers—on their way to a mentoring program—were stopped for no apparent reason. A gun was drawn and an officer threw punches. The incident looks doubly bad when you consider that these cops were part of Blair’s much-touted TAVIS initiative.
Before that, there was the time when a police constable told a group of university students, flat out, that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” He sparked an international movement—and apologized—but left a lot of lingering questions for women in Toronto about how police view sexual assault.
And then there’s the G20 debacle, in which the police rounded up people and threw them in a miserable makeshift prison without charges. Later, they confined a group containing dogwalkers, tourists and weekend shoppers to an intersection at Queen & Spadina, threatening violence in the pouring rain before letting everyone go without explanation.
Add those high-profile incidents to the continued allegations of racial profiling and it’s fair to ask: can’t we do better than this?
Chief Blair came into his rank at a time when the city was still dealing with fall-out from the disastrous reign of former chief—and now MP—Julian Fantino. In comparison to Fantino’s hard-nosed approach, Blair felt like a breath of fresh air. He brought more community policing to the streets and took a more proactive approach to crime reduction. For several years, it felt like this city was making progress.
But lately, that progress has stalled, giving way to what looks like a return of an old-school mentality of policing. It’s bound to have consequences. When the cops canvassed the Danzig neighbourhood following last month’s shooting, they found several people unwilling to talk with them about the details of the case. Looking at how supposed anti-violence officers handled the reported encounter in Lawrence Heights, it’s easy to understand why.
Things aren’t all bad. The police deserve kudos for the patience and sensitive they showed when they handled the dismantling of the Occupy Toronto encampment last year. And I recently attended a community meeting that was spontaneously attended by a couple of officers who were receptive to neighbourhood issues. But the positive press doesn’t even come close to outweighing the negative.
It’s time to acknowledge the problem, the true scope of which is unknown and underreported, concentrated as it is in racialized and low-income communities. Adding officers and resources can’t make up for the growing trust deficit. Toronto deserves better from its finest.