Highlighting coffee socials misses the larger context when it comes to LGBTQ and TPS community relations.
Last week, Police Chief Mark Saunders sent a letter of support [PDF] to Pride Toronto’s Board of Directors. Officially, he says he wrote the letter to reassure LGBTQ Torontonians of an ongoing commitment to outreach, a goal that should not be in doubt.
But there is another unmistakable reason for writing this letter. Without mentioning Black Lives Matter’s Toronto Coalition (BLMTO) by name, Saunders provides a rebuttal to their sit-in protest at this year’s Pride Toronto parade. In his words, Saunders is keen to prevent “attempts to undermine the relationship between my Service and the LGBTQ communities.”
In doing so, the Police Chief evades criticisms of policing in Toronto, and misses an opportunity for meaningful outreach.
Saunders’s letter does not directly address the critiques from BLMTO; instead it mostly focuses on the Toronto Police Service’s (TPS) existing LGBTQ community outreach programs and initiatives, such as a coffee social and a youth bursary.
“We’ve heard concerns from some of the LGBTQ communities, that feel marginalized, that the current uncertainty might have an impact on our outreach efforts,” Saunders writes. “Nothing could be further from the truth … We value our relationship with Pride and it is important to us to continue playing an active role in the parade.”
His letter does not refute what TPS’s detractors say of the police force’s role at Pride. So why did Saunders release a letter at all?
Following weeks of anti-Black police brutality in the U.S., the mass shooting of Dallas officers, as well as the violent death of Somali man Abdirahman Abdi by Ottawa police, social media feeds and news outlets have seen a surge in the so-called dancing cop phenomenon. These are media stories that feature police officers at cookouts, birthday parties, and dabbing with kids in parking lots. They provide the humanized and implicit counterpoint to rage felt over systemic police failure.
Saunders’s letter is the written equivalent of the dancing cop. Like those viral officers, the letter is a reminder that outreach exists. But these efforts alone are not enough to build trust. Declarations of community initiatives are not a substitute for justice, and do not paper over decades of poor community relations.
That’s not to say that the institutional and cultural changes in cop culture are meaningless—they can be important steps in a larger cultural change. Saunders mentions gender-neutral washrooms in all future TPS buildings, which is undeniably a good thing. A $1,000 scholarship for LGBTQ youth is a good thing too. But progress in these areas deflects from what the letter should have really addressed.
Aside from listing outreach initiatives, Saunders commends one officer’s efforts specifically: LGBTQ Liaison Officer Danielle Bottineau, an openly gay officer who has served as liaison for the past five years. Her Twitter handle LGBTCop is awash in rainbows, cop-positive tweets, and selfies with local queer and trans community members—the most recent activity is a retweet of Scottish police dancing and swaying on a float.
At Pride, Bottineau said in a TPS interview that the police should be represented in the parade for three reasons: concerns following Orlando’s mass shooting, their role as a service provider, and solidarity with their own LGBTQ cops.
Police presence along the perimeters of the parade or marching without a float can resolve the first two reasons, but the issue of solidarity is probably what Saunders and Bottineau are more invested in float-wise.
The TPS is far from the Irish working-class male homogeneity they once were, but there’s still a tight-knit culture within precincts. A 2014 study of 21 queer and trans Ontario officers found those on the force dealt with a hypermasculine “old boy’s network” that, while miles ahead of how homophobic and transphobic police forces were decades ago, was still unaccepting. A float can go a long way for internal morale.
But the public’s safety should always take precedent. TPS’s community efforts outside of Pride do not change how their very visibility continues to represent an institution that for many has actively, both abroad and at home, been used to murder civilians. Although officers may not individually be responsible, their uniforms make them uniform in a shared culture of their own.
Neither Saunders or Bottineau address BLMTO’s main assertion: that a police float, with a high degree of uniformed officers on it and around it, would make those in the parade who experience violence from the police feel alienated and afraid to participate. They do not explain why TPS retweets dancing cops and highlights coffee socials while downplaying the possibility of a real conversation with Pride Toronto that addresses how their historic authority is oppressive, and recourse that involves input from one community they don’t seem to be adequately reaching out to: LGBTQ Black community members. Until they do, Toronto police have not adequately proved that they are committed to preventing anti-Black police brutality.
Pride Toronto has yet to publicly respond to Saunders. His letter comes before Pride Toronto announced it would hold an August townhall with its membership that would start the process of determining whether or not BLMTO would take part in future parades.