An Open Letter to Toronto’s Next Police Chief
It's not your job to defend racist police practices. It's your job to correct them.
Dear Madam or, most likely, Sir:
As Toronto’s next police chief, you doubtless face a daunting list of institutional priorities. I hope the acknowledgment and elimination of racist policing in our city is at or near the top of this list. Otherwise, I suggest you resign.
Your predecessor, Bill Blair, seemed to believe it was his job to defend and downplay the serial racial profiling and documentation of black and brown bodies in Toronto by our police. Your job is not to defend racist policing. Your job is to expose it, condemn it, and ultimately stamp it out.
By now you are keenly aware of the status quo: unnecessary and unwanted interactions with police are a birthright for young racialized men—particularly those with black or brown skin. No matter where they are in Toronto, these men can expect to be stopped, questioned, and asked for identifying information that will later be entered into a massive police database. Your force calls this process “carding.” Many Torontonians call it racist.
Please spare us the insulting language of “unintended consequences.” The police are not stopping black and brown people by accident. About 27 percent of the people your officers carded in 2013 had black skin; about eight per cent of Toronto’s population is black. Some officers may feel that over-policing these bodies keeps the city safe, but carding actually undermines the trust and co-operation they need to help protect everyone.
Spare us, also, the argument that carding has decreased by 90 per cent since last year. This makes little difference to the tens or hundreds of thousands of people whose names and other personal information are already in a police database. How many times has that database been used to justify yet another stop, yet another round of questions? How many people are now “known to police” because they are black and live or work in Toronto?
As chief, you should heed the words of the Ontario Human Rights Commission: “Racial profiling is systemic; it encompasses more than ‘carding’ and affects many communities. A police stop may amount to racial profiling whether or not personal information is recorded. Although reports indicate that the Toronto Police Service has reduced carding by 90%, this does not necessarily mean that racial profiling has also declined.”
The anger, fear, and mistrust that result from racist policing have been well-documented—most recently in the Community Assessment of Police Practices [PDF], which asked residents in 31 Division how the police treat them. When this report was presented to the Police Services Board last month, Chief Blair dismissed it. You would do better to read it, and to hear the voices of the residents you intend to serve and protect.
“Although I do not feel personally targeted by the police,” says a CAPP survey participant, “it is very obvious the unfair treatment exacted on my fellow African Canadians around me. It creates fear in me for my children, especially my 8 year old son. I hope changes will take place in the system before he gets to be a teenager.”
You can use such feedback to demonstrate the futility of racist policing to your own force. Or, as Blair has done, you can embark upon a public relations offensive against your own residents. You can even lash out in concert with Mike McCormack, the police union leader who cried that his officers are “offended” by public questioning of police conduct. Whatever actions you take will be duly scrutinized by an educated and mobilized cohort of residents and activists.
Yesterday’s police board meeting was packed with the same community workers, lawyers, and human rights activists that have been condemning racist policing for, in some cases, decades. They do not tire, and are bolstered by the increasing skepticism of a public that has witnessed police misconduct in the form of violence at the G20 summit, the senseless intimidation and arrest of four black teenage boys in Lawrence Heights, and the killing of Sammy Yatim on a Dundas streetcar.
You are also no doubt aware of the “Black Lives Matter” movement sparked by racist policing practices in the United States. Several hundred Torontonians marched in solidarity with that movement this past weekend, and shed light on troubling local incidents, including the recent police killing of Jermaine Carby by a yet-to-be-named Peel Regional Police officer.
Akio Maroon, who helped organize the Toronto protest, also attended yesterday’s board meeting. She fumed as 31 Division superintendent Tony Riviere showed a 10-minute promotional video that gave an overview of his division’s outreach programs. Blair had introduced Riviere—who is black—as someone who could give “context” about policing in northwest Toronto, rather than someone who would speak to the CAPP report’s findings.
Maroon, who spoke with me afterward, wasn’t buying it. “The white men in suits and in uniforms, who are the ones governing this policy, are not changing it,” she said. “Bill Blair’s had over six months to come up with new policies, and he’s chosen not to. This is very telling.”
Chief, regardless of your own race, gender, ability, or good intentions, you have been chosen to lead an organization with a history of violence against racialized people (including the indigenous people of this land). You cannot escape this legacy, and you must never downplay its lasting impact on modern policing, even in a city as diverse as ours.
Winnipeg police chief Devon Clunis recently demonstrated how someone in his position can lead these conversations. Clunis had this to say while addressing his police board’s new measures to protect indigenous women and girls: “The current situation we see many indigenous individuals in is part of a past. We have to have that difficult conversation and say ‘what’s happened in the past,’ and what we’re seeing is a reflection of the past in the current context.”
These words are radical coming from any authority figure, let alone the head of a police force, and they are most welcome. As our new chief, you can help by changing not only the tactics your officers use, but also the conversations we have about policing. This is the responsibility of anyone who aims to serve and protect the people of Toronto.