A sudden insistence by Toronto police that members of the queer police liaison committee submit to full background checks could mean the end of the committee.
Janet Rowe, the program manager of the 519 Community Centre — which houses the LGBT Community Police Consultative Committee — says committee members have never had to undergo the checks since its founding in 2001.
“Why now? It’s been six years,” says Rowe. “We’re not likely to get folks to come forward if they’re going to be police checked. What if someone was up on charges? Members are elected by the community.”
Rowe says the new policy was announced by the cochair, a Toronto police officer, and no reasons have been supplied.
“They’re not saying anything,” she says, “and we’re saying it’s irrelevant.”
Rowe says the new policy could deter the very people who are needed, those who have had encounters with police in the past.
“The reason why this committee was pulled together was our history around policing,” she says. “We’ve certainly been targeted in certain ways — raids on bars and bathhouses, park sex. Those are entirely relevant to police interaction with our community.”
Howard Shulman, the civilian cochair of the committee, says the new policy could affect his own membership on the committee.
“I definitely think it could,” he says. “I think it could discourage people… who have had experience with police.”
The new policy is one of the topics to be discussed at a Mon, Jun 11 panel at The 519. The panel will also look at the ongoing issue of what is known as “vulnerable person screening checks,” where organizations dealing with vulnerable populations — such as children, the disabled or addicts — are required to screen their potential employees through police. Current police policy dictates that any encounters where police are called — even noncriminal and nonviolent ones, including suicide attempts — are passed along to the organization.
Rowe says that because some of The 519’s user groups are considered to be vulnerable, the organization has to submit its potential counsellors to police checks.
“The vulnerable person screening has been expanded to include anyone who has had contact with police under the mental health act or anyone who’s been designated as a person of interest, which could mean anything,” says Rowe. “Even being accused is also included.”
Speaking on the Jun 11 panel will be a member of the province’s independent Psychiatric Patient Advocacy Office, which is leading a coalition to try to change the vulnerable person screening policy. The coalition is calling for Toronto police to adopt the policy now practiced by police in London, Ontario. There, police have trained civilian personnel to review requested records. If they decide that something in the record could indicate a problem relevant to the organization requesting the check, they indicate the concern in their report. The details of the record are not revealed, and the report is only passed to the organization with the permission of the job applicant.
Other panelists on Jun 11 will include Shulman and Jeffrey Patterson, the former chair of the Black Community Police Consultative Committee.
Patterson resigned as chair when police instituted a similar policy for that committee. Patterson says he fears queers may end up following the example of the black committee.
He says that the committee, formed in 1987, began to run into trouble when Julian Fantino became police chief in 2000.
“Suddenly it became a police-driven thing and lost its effectiveness,” says Patterson. “To add insult to injury, they began doing the background checks.”
Patterson says the police never said they would refuse to allow anyone to sit on the committee.
“They said they would look into it. They would look at each case.”
But Patterson says he’s sure the background checks scared people off.
“They have no right to be looking at us. Who are they to say who should sit on the committee? I’m sure it intimidated some folks who would have contributed very well to their community. They should have to sit down with whoever the community sends and talk to them.”
Patterson says the committee had worked hard to gain the confidence of the city’s black population and to address concerns about police treatment of black people in Toronto. Since the inception of background checks, he says the consultative committee has lost respect and stopped addressing crucial issues.
“There’s always people out there who feel sitting with the cops is something great,” says Patterson. “There are those who feel it’s a privilege and an honour. They will open themselves up for all these checks because they get to sit at a table with police. But suddenly you don’t see any criticism any more.”