LGBT liaison officer Danielle Bottineau pictured at Toronto Police Service headquarters on July 24, 2018. Credit: Nick Lachance/Xtra
Policing
16 min

The gay cop trying to fix the relationship between Toronto’s LGBT communities and the police

Toronto police have been under intense scrutiny over their relationship with the LGBT community, but Danielle Bottineau welcomes the criticism

Danielle Bottineau talks like a cop.

Even when the Toronto police’s LGBT liaison officer is discussing her personal life — her time in university or her wedding — she does so with the punctuated descriptiveness of court testimony.

But when Bottineau talks about policing, what she says veers off the usual script we’re used to hearing from officers.

“As a service we need to start doing a better job,” she says. “And if some of my colleagues don’t think that should happen, that’s not reality.”

Bottineau is willing to publicly engage on topics that are taboo for most other officers, including systemic discrimination, police misconduct and the need for structural reform within the service.

That willingness has led to her sometimes getting flak from some of her colleagues.

In January 2017, when an officer warned bystanders that a man being arrested would “spit in your face and you’re going to get AIDS,” Bottineau quickly worked with the police communications team to put out a public apology.

She says she immediately got pushback from other officers who said that she had thrown a fellow cop under the bus.

“And I said, ‘time out; he threw himself under the bus when he made that comment,” she says.

Over the past two years, Bottineau has been in the middle of many of Toronto’s biggest debates around policing.

Whether it’s the ban on uniformed officers marching in the Pride parade or questions about the police response to the disappearances and murders of queer and trans Torontonians, Bottineau has been the public face of an institution reckoning with its treatment of LGBT communities.

And for Bottineau, it’s not the most comfortable position.

“I’m not a political person,” she says.

Raised in a small town in Ontario, Bottineau knew from a young age she wanted to be a police officer. After attending the University of Windsor, where she played on the basketball team, Bottineau went to police college and ended up joining the Toronto Police Service in 1999. And from the very beginning, she was open about her sexual orientation.

“I’ve been very fortunate within the work realm, but I think I was also a little bit naive when back when I started,” she says.

Bottineau was so focused on becoming a cop that the casual homophobia that’s common in so many professions, including policing, didn’t really bother her.

“I’ve heard the inappropriate language and the derogatory terms, but I’ve always been able to take people to task on that,” she says.

Bottineau served as a road cop for years. Later she went on to investigate child abuse and sexual assault. She found the work fulfilling. When a staff sergeant recommended she put her name in for the LGBT liaison position, Bottineau had no interest. But after some cajoling, she decided to give it a go.

“I can tell you that it’s been the most rewarding position that I’ve been in,” she says.

The last seven years have been a learning experience for Bottineau, especially when she’s talking to LGBT people who have suffered mistreatment by the broader society and at the hands of her own colleagues.

“I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for and recognize even more the privilege that I have,” she says.

Danielle Bottineau at Toronto police headquarters. Credit: Nick Lachance/Xtra

But it was when Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) held a sit-in during the 2016 Pride parade that the types of conversations Bottineau had been having with individuals and community groups became one that the whole city was having at once.

“When it was announced that Black Lives Matter would be leading that parade, I had several phone calls from colleagues saying they need to get them out of the parade,” she says.

Bottineau says she told her colleagues that it wasn’t a police parade and that BLMTO had every right to be there.

So when the sit-in took place, officers again got in touch with her, insisting that “we need to go drag them out of there.”

Again, Bottineau pushed back.

“Just because they’re protesting us, it doesn’t mean that we go drag them off the streets,” she says.

When she learned about the demands that BLMTO made — specifically around banning uniformed police officers from the parade — Bottineau says she was shocked.

Since then, Bottineau has been having many conversations about the issue. Some of her fellow officers, both within the Toronto police as well as other services, were livid.

“People were on fire,” she says.

And Bottineau, herself, was upset.

“I don’t disagree with parts of the conversation that Black Lives Matter triggered,” she says. “I don’t agree with their demands and making that demand to keep us out of the parade.”

“But I also recognize through the work that I’m doing that I know the uniform is a trigger for some.”

The issue of police mistreatment and neglect of LGBT communities became even more urgent in 2017.

The murder of Tess Richey and the fact that her mother drove down from North Bay, Ontario, and found her body, shocked the city. Police allegedly brushed off the father of Alloura Wells, a trans woman who had been found dead in August, when he tried to report her missing. And the the disappearances of Selim Esen and Andrew Kinsman led to renewed suspicions that someone was targeting queer men in the gay village, which was confirmed when police arrested and charged Bruce McArthur with the deaths of eight men earlier this year.

All of those instances are now the subject of a variety of investigations and reviews.

While Bottineau can’t speak to the specifics of each situation, she says it’s clear mistakes were made.

“I get why people don’t report,” she says. “I think we have to take ownership for where we’ve messed up.”

And Bottineau believes that people need to continue to be critical of the police service when it falls short.

“I don’t think being critical is a bad thing,” she says. “That’s the only way that we’re going to get better at what we do.”

But Bottineau is still only willing to go so far in criticizing the police. Take the previously mentioned AIDS comments: while Bottineau was decisive in apologizing for the officer’s disparaging remarks, the apology didn’t contain any mention of the fact that a Black man could also be seen being tasered and kicked in that same video.

When asked about that aspect, Bottineau begins to sound a bit more defensive.

“Unless I’m there, I can’t pass judgement on it,” she says. “Because unless you’re going to be there and hear that directly from who was involved, I don’t know that we can pass judgement.”

Toronto police have a history of racially profiling and carding Black men, as well as using deadly force against unarmed and mentally ill people of colour.

For Bottineau, the most important way to change the culture of the Toronto police is to continue to have the difficult conversations.

“Conversations are only effective, in my opinion, if we’re actually listening to the voices of the community,” she says.

But her faith in conversation will certainly not appease many police critics who maintain that these conversations have been going on for decades, but little has changed.

Whether it’s on police shootings, immigration checks, over-policing or accountability for officers accused of misconduct, the Toronto police have resisted institutional change for a very long time.

And Bottineau says she understands that, but still believes that important progress has been made.

“I think some people don’t think we’ve ever done anything and that we’re still stuck in the 20, 30 year-ago mindset sometimes.” she says. “And they’re actually pleasantly surprised what we have in place.”

The past two years have been draining, Bottineau says.

“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster,” she says. “It’s taken its toll on me.”

But whether or not real, substantive change will ever come to the Toronto police, Bottineau for her part will still be out there in the community — talking like a cop, but listening too.