Why The Police Chief’s Letter to Pride Toronto Misses The Point
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Why The Police Chief’s Letter to Pride Toronto Misses The Point

Highlighting coffee socials misses the larger context when it comes to LGBTQ and TPS community relations.

A screenshot from "@TorontoPolice in the 2016 Pride Parade" by Youtube user #HowWeDoIt TPS.

A screenshot from “@TorontoPolice in the 2016 Pride Parade” by YouTube user #HowWeDoIt TPS.

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.


55 Responses

  1. Matthew Harper says:

    The police are “dabbing” with kids in parking lots now? Did you mean “dancing”?

    • tyrannosaurus_rek says:

      Dabbing is a type of dance kids do. It looks like you’re pointing away and sniffing your arm pit.

      • Matthew Harper says:

        Damn, I thought i was reasonably hip just being aware of the drug-taking meaning.

  2. tyrannosaurus_rek says:

    “But the public’s safety should always take precedent.”

    Police officers and staff on a float does not actually endanger public safety. Removing the float but allowing police to march (to say nothing of their continued presence along the parade route) also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    “[Police] visibility continues to represent an institution that for many has actively, both abroad and at home, been used to murder civilians.”

    How far do you want to take this? Our Pride parade is also populated by representatives of government and religion, in a world still stacked with examples of governments and religions oppressing homosexuals and other minorities in other countries and in our own recent past (if not now, behind closed doors).

    • rich1299 says:

      There’s also an issue with politicians from city council to Queen’s Park who have largely ignored the issues around the lack of police accountability who could legislate to make sure cops are accountable. As often the case rage is directed at those most visible while those in control are largely ignored. If we had effective accountability for cops in Ontario, changes to hiring and training, and a willingness to fire the surely well known problem cops, a willingness to fire cops who assault or intimidate witnesses to the crimes committed by cops, it would be the radical change needed. It’s those at the top, especially politicians, who refuse to do these things which are perpetuating the current disfunctual state of policing in Ontario.

      I take the right of free expression extremely seriously, especially when it comes to events like Pride. Because of that I reject censoring what LGBTQ cops can wear at Pride. Plenty of people genuinely felt threatened by QuAIA, even if there was no rational reason to feel threatened, you can’t dictate how people react to certain groups at Pride. But I think there is room for movement. Is it really necessary to have a virtual army of cops marching? That sea of uniforms is much more threatening than the smaller cop contingents in past Prides. Perhaps limits on the numbers of cops marching or restricting it to Toronto cops. Other forces can show their support in their own local Prides.

      • tyrannosaurus_rek says:

        You can’t dictate, or always predict, how people will react, but expunging the symbol won’t fix the reason for it. The float issue is pointless and wouldn’t change anything if agreed to (except put BLMTO in a position of greater influence). Does anyone, even within BLMTO, really think if cops were restricted or banned entirely the occasional act of brutality or hostility would stop and training improve?

        Do there need to be so many cops marching? That’s like asking if there needs to be so many out gay people and allies marching.

        • Canadianskeezix says:

          Well said. As much as I agree with BLMTO’s objectives, I fail to understand how their demands in these circumstances actually help them with achieving such objectives.

        • Mickey Mousaroni says:

          BLMto loves to dicaate

      • Canadianskeezix says:

        “Plenty of people genuinely felt threatened by QuAIA, even if there was no rational reason to feel threatened”

        QuAIA were neo-Nazis spreading hate propaganda. Of course there was reason to feel threatened.

        But I completely agree with you that if the right of free expression at Pride extended to hate mongers like QuAIA, then it certainly extends to cops.

      • billy3b says:

        More aptly the politicians of all levels of government are responsible for the laws and institutions that created the current situation. Unaffordable housing, lack of equal access to healthcare and education, especially mental healthcare, lack of transit and so on. This, more than the possibility of racist or violent police, has caused the disproportionate prosecution minority groups.

        • Dusty Ayres says:

          That’s just a lot of bullshit from you obscuring and ignoring the main issues mentioned here in this article.

          • billy3b says:

            I would argue this police v. Black people is bullshit obscuring the real issues that created the he imbalance in the first place. Unless you believe racist cops are behind everything or that black people are naturally inclined to poverty. Either way you would be an idiot and a bigot.

          • Dusty Ayres says:

            I would argue you’re a stupid silly white guy comically missing the point of BLM in order to say bullshit to black people about personal responsibility, and also that you’re a fucking dumb-assed victim blamer blaming blacks and other for being abused and shot by cops, but I see that people like you wouldn’t be able to handle the truth about yourself, so I’ll leave you to your delusions.

          • billy3b says:

            How is blaming politicians and institutional racism victim blaming? Do you read before writing or just spout off whatever comes into your head at the drop of a hat? Unless you don’t believe in institutional racism in which case I can’t help you.

    • joe the grinder says:

      The queer lobby in North American politics is huge-who are you trying to fool?

  3. Mickey Mousaroni says:

    yet blmTO just want everything handed to them goldwenplatter!

  4. joe the grinder says:

    Yes, definitely…get a police float in the queer parade. Have some cops dressed up like th one in the Village People and do the YMCA dance. We’ll all feel so warm and fuzzy then, won’t we?

  5. billy3b says:

    I would have to assume that this letter was intended as a a precursor to the upcoming town-hall and therefore highlights the TPS involvement in the LGBTQ community. It is not intended to address the assortment of other issues the police are dealing with because clearly Saunders does not feel they are relevant.