Toronto Police Accountability Coalition try to populate the huge space between friend and enemy by speaking in facts instead of emotion.
Tuesday was a busy night for social justice in the city. Ryerson was hosting a discussion as part of their Social Justice Week. Over at Church of the Redeemer there was a panel discussion of Bill C-10, the federal government’s omnibus “tough on crime” bill. Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis were out for Michele Landsberg’s Writing the Revolution book launch. Occupy Toronto had settled in to St. James Park. And over at Innis College, the Toronto Police Accountability Coaltion was hosting their optimistically titled “We can improve Toronto policing!” public forum.
Essentially, the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition suggests ways the police could do their job better. That’s an awkward thing to tell anyone in any job, but an especially awkward thing to tell a traditionally secretive and uncooperative agency. An agency that has the authority to use force and could, potentially, make life difficult. Police are highly organized and fiercely loyal, and they would prefer if the public would just echo that loyalty. When it comes to the police, you are either with them or against them. A fan or an enemy. The Toronto Police Accountability Coalition tries to fill that space in between. The space that says, Thanks for doing the very difficult work you do, but there are issues that need to be addressed.
U of T alumnus Miri Russell was one of about 25 people who made it out on Tuesday, for the keynote address from criminologist Scot Wortley and a subsequent group discussion. Some of those present were longtime members of the 10 year–old police activism group, and some, like Russell, were just starting out.
First-timers or not, TPAC wanted the crowd’s input. On a night when lots of Torontonians were thinking about social justice, TPAC organizers, including founder and former mayor John Sewell, aimed higher: they focused on making concrete plans, devising practical solutions to some of what they see as the greatest issues facing police accountability today. (The word “concrete” was used a lot, in fact—by patient moderators trying to keep the conversation on track and by Wortley in his address. During the group conversation on the topic of changing police culture, when someone suggested that we just throw out the whole lot of goons and start fresh, he was politely asked to be more specific, more concrete.)
When it comes to discussions about police and policing, especially for Toronto—where we are still dealing with the aftermath of the G20—emotions can run high. So TPAC encouraged dispassionate discussions grounded in empirical evidence and tangible solutions. They have seen this tactic work at the Toronto Police Services Board before, when TPAC member Harvey Simmons (who was at Tuesday’s meeting) successfully convinced the board to enact a name-tag policy, despite police resistance in the name of officer safety. Police claimed criminals would seek out the named officers for revenge—an argument that conveniently bypasses the fact that the names of arresting officers were already available to the accused on court documents.
Inspired by Simmons’ success at the Toronto Police Services Board and Wortley’s opening remarks on the importance of collecting data on police activities, the group then sketched out one concrete measure to help combat gender bias and victim-blaming in the force: gather citizen’s and women’s groups, contact the media, and go en masse to the Toronto Police Services Board asking the police to prove, exactly, how they are combating the problem. Ask for data: on what dates did the relevant training on this subject occur, what was the curriculum, who teaches these courses? In this case, that could mean asking for an update on the “further professional training” the Toronto Police Services promised an officer would be required to take after he advised against dressing “slutty” in order to avoid assault.
Training is a recurring word in police apologies—the force will often say it will correct missteps by incorporating training on the subject of, say, gender bias. But in his entire career studying police services and associations, Wortley says he has never come across any comprehensive evaluation of police training efforts in Canada.
“If we don’t know what the police are doing, what challenges and difficulties they’re engaged in, it’s very difficult to see whether things are improving or getting worse.” The only information he has managed to get about sensitivity training—specifially race-relations training—is that it’s ranked among the least popular training sessions. Near the top of the list: investigation techniques and pursuit driving. The fun stuff. In their defense, officers say they don’t like race-relations training because they don’t think it applies. If they were racists, they wouldn’t be cops, they say.
That’s the thing about trying to correct generations of systemic inequality: no one thinks he’s the one that’s guilty. Changing someone’s attitude is difficult, but monitoring could at least have tangible effects on how an officer does his or her job. It could force officers to consider accountability, to think about explaining their actions on a report back at the division office after walking the beat.
Despite being a public agency dedicated to protecting and serving the public, police are notoriously hesitant to let that public in on what they’re up to. By citing safety, whether to the officers or the public, police associations and services can fend off a good deal of attention without any further questions. North American police services and agencies cited officer safety as an argument against mandatory paperwork for discharging a weapon. They eventually lost that battle, and police and civilian deaths declined in the following years. Basically every modern police accountability measure—the SIU, the public police complaints commissions, the name tags—met with opposition in the name of safety when they were first proposed. But they all passed eventually, in part thanks to groups like TPAC.