Looking back at the decade-long legacy of Toronto's outgoing police chief.
Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has served in the post for 10 years—longer than most—but didn’t feel he was done. Recently, the Police Services Board denied his request to be considered for a third term; Blair will conclude his time as chief in April, 2015. While conversation at City Hall has already turned to potential successors, Blair has in many ways reshaped how Torontonians think about and relate to police in this city, and taking stock of those changes before we turn to his replacement is crucial. Blair’s legacy spans controversies about gun ownership, racism within the force, the G20, how officers interact with mentally ill residents, TAVIS and community policing initiatives, and the ongoing investigation into Mayor Rob Ford. But his contract wasn’t renewed, in the end, over a very different kind of challenge: money. The municipal government spends more on policing than on any other single item, and at least some members of the Police Board—notably including its chair—decided that after years of debate about just how much we need to spend to keep Toronto safe, Blair was unable or unwilling to embark on the kind of institutional reform necessary to shrink TPS’s budget.
It is one of the most powerful jobs in Toronto. What has Blair done, what kind of force is he leaving us with, and what do we need in our next chief of police?
The simplest analysis of Blair’s tenure will of course be: has crime decreased while he was chief? The answer to this question is “yes.” Of course, it’s hard to say how much of this Blair is responsible for: over the last 10 years crime rates have decreased not just in Toronto but across Canada and even most of North America, suggesting that the decrease in crime may have more to do with broader sociological trends rather than with anything Blair has done. Regardless: under Blair’s watch, crime has decreased, and that should be considered when assessing his work.
But for a more robust analysis, it is essential to begin not with Blair but with his predecessor, Julian Fantino. It may be damning Blair with faint praise to point just how much of an improvement Blair was, considering that Fantino interfered with investigations into TPS corruption, treated Toronto’s gay community with disdain (or even targeted them outright for harassment) and generally treated every policing problem as a nail which could be fixed with a heavy application of force. Any advance beyond that attitude—and Blair certainly took us much further—constituted necessary work in repairing Toronto’s relationship with its police force. Blair in particular deserves credit for trying to increase TPS’ social outreach, and for making the force more diverse.
Blair has shown (albeit rarely in public) a willingness to challenge his own officers’ attitudes. Although Blair’s video detailing examples of police misconduct was not officially released (the Toronto Star obtained it through a freedom of information request), it was a welcome sight for those who have long kept a concerned eye on the TPS.
Blair deserves praise for his calm response after protesters took over the Gardiner Expressway to raise awareness about the killing of hundreds of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Blair emphasized safety and dialogue during the tense standoff, and the protesters eventually cleared the road without any major confrontations. The TPS also maintained relative calm during the months of protest that preceded that Gardiner incident, including several blockages of University Avenue. Blair’s moderate tenor during these months stood in paradigmatically sharp contrast with his predecessor’s.
We also have to credit Blair for his restraint throughout the Rob Ford circus. Blair has had every opportunity to dive into the muck and squalor that the Fords generate on a daily basis—has been repeatedly baited into doing so—and for the most part he has avoided politicizing his job in this regard. Blair’s decision to publicly verify the existence of a video that shows Ford smoking crack cocaine was a critical moment in the sad mayoral saga. His understated expression of disappointment after viewing the video was—Ford’s protest notwithstanding—an honourable reaction that most Torontonians undoubtedly shared. Although some have criticized Blair for disclosing the existence of the video, the fact of its existence would have eventually come to light in any case thanks to the freedom of information requests that media outlets were pursuing, ultimately making Blair’s verification of that fact simply an expedition of the process. Frankly, it would have been negligent for Blair to allow Ford—who holds one of the most powerful jobs in the city—to continue to lie about his use of illegal drugs.
TPS’ investigation of the Fords has almost certainly been more closely scrutinized by the public than any police investigation in Toronto’s history; Blair has been circumspect and calm throughout. Some hold Blair responsible for the fact that Ford has not (yet) been charged after the TPS followed and investigated him for months. But the complexities of Ford’s involvement with alleged extortionist Sandro Lisi, and the ability of police to charge him for crimes they believed would stick, go well beyond the chief—and the books aren’t closed on the investigation.
All that acknowledged, Blair’s reactions to several major events and decisions on several key policy matters have been disappointing—often dramatically so. The most obvious was, of course, Blair’s performance during the G20. In retrospect, people may wish to lay the primary blame for the ridiculous and excessive abuse of police authority with other agencies: the RCMP, perhaps, or the OPP, or maybe the Prime Minister’s office. The chains of command at that time remain—at least publicly—unclear. The problem with this theory is that, even if you want to assign responsibility to those groups (and there’s no good reason to absolve TPS of a share of the blame), Blair enabled officers’ gross overreaction with his silence and worse, his complicity. During the G20 and for weeks afterward, Blair stonewalled the media, refusing to answer questions during the protests even at his press conferences (excusing himself with the “things are still developing” line, which is bureaucratese for “I’ll get my homework in later, I promise”) and then simply hid from the media for weeks afterward.
When he finally did do an interview, with the Agenda‘s Steve Paikin, Blair repeatedly misrepresented and overstated the threat posed by a few dozen vandals who wanted to smash things (and whose plans police were well aware of before the summit). Blair continually cited the “criminal intent” of those rioters as the reason the police had to arrest and detain a thousand completely different people—some of whom were detained for days in entirely inadequate facilities—and subsequently release them without charges. He failed to discuss the criminal intent of his uniformed officers who covered their name tags to get away with beating people up—and then he docked those officers an insulting one day’s pay for their shameful misconduct.
Blair’s silence and then his mendacity could have been the result of knowing that any failure to toe the line, or calling out those responsible, would have resulted in retribution from the Police Board. It could also have been that his hands were tied with respect to what he was able to publicly disclose (if other forces were the key decision-makers). In the former case our response is “well, tough.” In the latter, given the severity of the abuses in question, he could have demonstrated his rejection of those police tactics by resigning.
We know that it is an easy thing to those of us without power to call for those in power to resign when faced with a moral dilemma, but that was a situation worth risking one’s position over if ever there was one. Blair’s refusal to engage with G20 critics—much less do anything to prevent, curb, or punish TPS’ abuses—is the most dramatic failure of his time as chief, and his choice not to resign over it means he has to own those decisions, even if he wasn’t the one who made them.
Something else Blair has to own: TPS’s remarkable failures when it comes to racial profiling. TPS’ relationships with Toronto’s various black communities have never been particularly strong, but under Blair’s tenure the failures are all the more concerning: we expected them under Fantino, but Blair was hired in large part as a counter to Fantino’s aggressive lack of concern for police mistreatment of minority communities.
Consider police carding. Blair’s response to the revelation that his officers have been serially profiling black and brown men in Toronto has been a disappointing combination of denial and evasion. Blair has never publicly acknowledged the extent of the damage this practice has caused racialized people: the lack of ability to feel safe in one’s community; the denial of the presumption of innocence, which is a fundamental principle of our society; and the cancerous effect on police-community relations in the areas most affected by carding.
In a shameful attempt to justify ongoing revelations of profiling (and perhaps to frame his legacy), Blair doubled down in a recent op-ed, trying to claim that the serial profiling of blacks (and especially black men) in Toronto was not racism, but in fact proof that the police are only human, for who among us has no bias? If not for the elevated language, you could have mistaken it for Rob Ford’s blabbering, such was the level of doublethink. Thousands of young men are now permanently stigmatized because officers decided that stopping black kids qualified as policing—their names now stored in a database and their previous encounters with police, mostly for non-investigative reasons, serve as a justification for further police scrutiny, surveillance, and stops. And even as carding itself has decreased as a practice, the proportion of black men profiled has only increased. The problem is getting worse, and Blair bears great responsibility for failing to remedy it.
Similarly, the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, which Blair introduced in 2006, must be considered a horrible failure in terms of race and community relations. (TAVIS focuses on areas with higher crime rates, deploying a greater number of officers there and attempts—at least in theory—to work pre-emptively on crime prevention through community engagement.) The enormous, showy raids may be good press for the tough-on-crime crowd, but have eroded trust in the police, thanks to indiscriminate arrests and harassment of people who are mostly not criminals but just have the bad luck to live near them. Talk to people in disadvantaged communities about TAVIS, and they practically spit on the ground.
TAVIS’s tactics far outweigh the potential benefits of the program. The force has never clearly demonstrated the strategy’s efficacy: for example, the police report that between 2006 and 2012, TAVIS made 22,000 arrests, but haven’t detailed the nature of those arrests (by type of crime, for instance) or provided further information. However, we do know that TAVIS has been profiling poor and racialized people, and that this practice has severely undermined relationships with police, especially in the communities it was meant to bolster. Toronto has long been a very safe place to live. Any additional reductions in crime TAVIS may have achieved—and again, these are unclear—do not justify the further alienation of entire segments of the city’s population.
There is also the matter of police officers in schools. This was perhaps Blair’s most Fantino-esque decision: responding to the Julian Falconer report on school safety—which called for more social workers and youth workers in schools in response to the 2007 school shooting of Jordan Manners—by instead placing armed officers in some schools. The Falconer report actually suggested limiting police involvement, advice which Blair chose to ignore.
The result: armed officers are now stationed in at least 50 TDSB schools. Their mere presence makes our schools less safe, as it increases the potential for unnecessary confrontations with students. Shortly after the program was introduced, a student at Northern Secondary School—a 16-year-old black male—was arrested and charged with assault after mouthing off to an officer in the hallway, and subsequently expelled. In introducing the Student Resource Officer program, Blair offered no proof that such a program has been shown to reduce violence in schools. To date, the TPS and board have not released any comprehensive data on the impact of this costly program. What we have seen are the ways it can strain relationships with the very students with whom police need more positive contact, and cause situations to escalate unnecessarily.
Our next police chief is going to have to deal with enormous challenges. In order to gain credibility with many of Toronto’s minority communities they will have to force TPS to rethink its entire policing philosophy, and this will most likely have to involve some degree of confrontation with the rank and file in order to be effective. It will be incredibly difficult to do, and still maintain those officers’ co-operation. The next chief will likely have to do this while also dealing with budget pressures that mayoral candidates are (at long last) starting to discuss; it seems possible for the first time in a very long time that we may begin spending less on policing, instead of simply increasing the force’s budget every year. Dealing with either of these issues would be difficult for any chief; dealing with both of them simultaneously will be incredibly challenging.
That, unfortunately, is the legacy of Bill Blair: although he may have meant well, he did not achieve enough.