How does a police culture change occur?
Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders tosses the basketball to the boy, who has been watching him with wide-eyed curiosity.
The boy catches it and throws it back. “You got skills, man,” Saunders says. The kid, who is wearing grey sweatpants and a T-shirt, dribbles, deking around the Chief, who tries to snatch the ball.
He answers Saunders’ questions: Yes, he lives in the neighbourhood. He’s in Grade 7. “You’re doing alright?” Saunders asks. The boy says yes.
“My son is one year younger than you,” Saunders tells him.
Around them, about 40 people mill about the gym at the Driftwood Community Recreation Centre, at the corner of Jane and Driftwood, less than one kilometre north of Finch Avenue.
They’re here for the Toronto Police Service’s sixth consultation meeting on its interim report, The Way Forward: Modernizing Community Safety in Toronto.
The report was released in June by a task force made up of police officers and civilians. The goal? Overhauling the TPS. It includes 24 recommendations, including cost-cutting and making the force more neighbourhood-centric, with officers out in the community on foot or bike.
The final report will be completed in December, but in the meantime, the TPS is hosting consultations in various neighbourhoods around the city.
Around the gym at Driftwood, five stations are set up—one for each of the steps outlined in the report:
- How we relate to the public: Focusing on safe communities and neighbourhoods
- How we deliver services: From primary to priority response
- Access to services
- Affordability and sustainability
- Culture change
Police officers in uniform stand at each one, and people make a beeline for them. Some attendees also write down suggestions and stick them onto comment boards.
Nicola Holness, a community outreach counsellor with the Community and Legal Aid Services Programme, lives in the area. She’s read the report, but wants to talk to police in person about the details: How will it be implemented? What is the timeline? Where will the money come from?
Holness says she thinks much of what’s in the report sounds “really good,” but whether it will be all be implemented as proposed has yet to be determined.
Trust-building between police and residents is key, she says.
“In this community especially, you have kids who, even if they’ve never had negative encounters with police, their brother, their father, somebody close to them, has had that experience, so they’re already being told that police are the enemy,” Holness says.
Jane and Finch is CLASP’s priority neighbourhood. The free legal clinic offers assistance most often to people who are unlawfully searched, as well as those who are stopped and questioned randomly. Holness hears complaints like this “all the time.”
Her father was stopped and questioned a few years ago, when he got off the bus in the neighbourhood. And her boyfriend was once pulled over. “He was told he fit the description of somebody, blah, blah, blah, and he was searched,” Holness says. “Nothing actually came out of it.”
After about an hour, the group has a chance to question Saunders and Andy Pringle, chair of the Toronto Police Services Board.
Several people speak about negative experiences they’ve had with police. The importance of culture change is mentioned again and again.
“People fear the police,” says Yolande Davidson of the Jamaican Canadian Association. “Whether you agree or disagree, that’s a reality for many people in the community. There is a sense of mistrust that exists. Culture change is the first step to changing that.”
Police have to prove that things will be different this time, Davidson says.
Service providers express some concern about a lack of resources when it comes to the proposed transition from primary to priority response.
Last year, Toronto police were dispatched to 147,000 non-emergency incidents. The report suggests working more closely with community organizations and the City of Toronto, so that other service providers can respond to some of these incidents instead of police.
“If, in effect, responsibilities are going to be downloaded, and there will be greater dependence on service providers in the community, how can we make sure that that happens properly, and how can we expect some of these very important jobs to be done by people who won’t be paid the salaries of officers?” asks Amber Kellen of the John Howard Society.
Pringle and Saunders stress the report isn’t complete—that they genuinely want people’s feedback and that that feedback will be worked into the final report.
“We’re listening a heck of a lot more than we have before,” Saunders says.
“This meeting is not to oversimplify things and say, ‘Ta-da! We’re saying this, therefore let’s all rally together.’ When walls are built one brick at a time, you have to remove them one brick at a time. We’re in the process of doing that right now. It is going to take a lot of time, and our actions have to be consistent and they have to be monitored.”
Holness says she thinks this consultation effort can help to chip away at the deep-rooted distrust of police in the community. But, as she looks around the room, she notices something dispiriting: “All these people are agency-related,” she says.
“Where are all the actual residents? They’re not here.”