Toronto
4 min

Taming the monster cop

How to get the police under control

HEADLESS WONDER. Who's the brain behind the brawn. Credit: John Webster

The Toronto Police Service is such a ornery monster, does it really matter who’s running it? The Toronto Police Association fights almost every attempt to direct the force. Recommendations from the Toronto Police Services Board are regularly ignored or forgotten.



The force’s ethos seems far removed from values of Toronto itself, making police actions appear arbitrary and inexplicable. Officers say they tend not to pursue victimless crimes unless there are complaints. But the repeated raids on the Bijou porn bar in June fly in the face of this defence. It seemed the police were searching dark corners for infractions of Canada’s indecency laws, without any complaints. What motivated those raids is still a mystery to the people who are supposed to be setting police priorities.



“With that case, there could have been a systemic directive. I don’t know,” says Jeff Lyons, one of seven appointees on the Toronto Police Services Board. “The question is whether [52] Division enacted systematically. Would I get an answer? Maybe.”



There is some acknowledgment that the system isn’t working. The board now gives hiring points to applicants who are Toronto residents, as most of the almost 5,000 uniformed employees of the service don’t live in the city. (Exact numbers aren’t available.) Boundaries for police units defy community boundaries and city wards, but they are being redrawn. Policy and procedure is helter-skelter, but the province has ordered all provincial police forces to clean things up. As well, the board has initiated its own review of the management structure which will examine police hierarchy and budgeting.



Sound hopeless? Well, we have some suggestions of our own for getting the police under control.



BEEF UP THE BOARD

The Toronto Police Services Board is suppose to be the civilian control over the cops. But members are barely paid and share a staff of only seven. “I end up spending my own money,” says Lyons. That means the board is led more often than it leads. Reports about the police by the police don’t do much for civilian control. If the board is going to set policy, it needs to get one step ahead of the chief. That also means changing the regulation and tying the board more closely to city government, so councillors will be in a position to initiate policy.



BE BOSSY

Though the board is not suppose to address day-to-day policing business, that shouldn’t stop it from making very specific policies. “The board has been hoodwinked by the police,” says activist lawyer Mark Wainberg of the Law Union. “They think they can’t micromanage, but they can.” Indeed, Lyons worked with departing chief David Boothby shaping the city’s policy on strip searches. Senior brass didn’t like it, but so what?



HARD QUESTIONS

Though the board can’t tell the police who to arrest, it can ask for information, all kinds of it. When police start busting escort agencies, the board could ask for a list of complainants or the directive that motivated the raids.



It’s surprising how little vital information is made available. For example, the board wants beat cops to stay in a community for at least two years, a goal that is important in building bonds between cops and people. Do they?



“I hope so,” says board member and Downtown City Councillor Olivia Chow.



FOLLOW UP

“Most board members join in good faith,” says Judy Pfeifer, senior advisor to the board. “You have to assume it’s being done.” Once the board has given a directive to the police chief, the system of accountability is ad hoc.



“We try to keep a list of when we’re not getting reports,” says Lyons. “When I ask for a report, I put a date on it myself.”



It’s not always easy, going up against the blue wall of silence. “The police association has all but advocated non-cooperation,” says Sri Sri-Skanda-Ragah, interim executive director at the Urban Alliance.



The social audit on sexual assault released Oct 25 is an example of a way to extract commitments from the police. Not only does it give specific recommendations, it gives timelines and sets up a second audit in a year’s time to check on progress. It was ordered by the city, showing how easy it is to go over the head of the board.



DISCIPLINE TOP BRASS

Being tough on senior cops has two excellent effects. It ensures they will implement policy and remain accountable. It also placates the police association, since there’s a connection between its belligerence and its feeling of being hard done by.



“The association’s criticism is valid. There seems to be a different standard for the top brass and the rank and file,” says Sri-Skanda-Ragah.



FIGHT IN THE MEDIA

A guiding principle of policing in Toronto is that the more public the issue, the better the results. “The police care very much about their public image,” says Eng.



“People could have thought I was radical and that the chief was standing up for them,” she says. “So I tried to keep things public. They tried to discredit me, but you can’t worry about disparaging remarks.”



Though policy set by the police board is public information, policy within the force is usually kept secret in the name of being able to surprise the bad guys. A recent exception is the public development of the new search and seizure policy – and it’s a good one.



IGNORE SOME LAWS

Just try to find someone who thinks the police should be spending time and resources arresting adults engaged in consensual sex in unobtrusive places. You can’t.



“I’m not interested in that stuff. Let them be,” says Lyons.



But the same people will also say that no one can order the police to ignore laws, no matter how stupid they are. Common law gives police officers the status of independent agents. The board and the brass can set priorities to keep cops otherwise occupied, but they can’t order them to close their eyes.



But, well, it’s not that simple. In Vancouver, for example, the force has a – we can’t call it a policy – tendency to ignore the simple possession of marijuana.



“Our focus is not on simple possession,” says Const Ann Drennan, media liaison for the department. “If, in a search, joints are found, the joints are seized and destroyed. No charges are laid. Across the board, that’s what happens.”



It’s just a matter of communicating those other focusses to the rank and file – and making them follow.