Black community split over black chief

In marginalized communities hit hardest by racial profiling, distrust of police runs deep and the possibility of Toronto choosing its first black chief won't change that


Butterfly Gopaul says she knows of little children who have been put into the backs of police cruisers so they could be kept out of the way during raids in her neighbourhood. She says she has spoken to grandmothers who have been pushed to the ground by officers during searches for a drug dealer in their apartment buildings.

She offers these incidents as examples of police brutality in her Jane-Finch neighbourhood, an economically depressed part of the city’s north end where approximately 70 per cent of residents belong to visible minority groups, according to the 2006 Census.

Toronto may soon set a historic precedent by appointing its first black police chief. An announcement could come as early as this weekend. And some in the black community have hailed that possibility as a sign of change. But it doesn’t even register as a symbolic victory for Gopaul and many others within the city’s African-Canadian diaspora.

“I couldn’t care less who the next chief will be,” Gopaul says. “When it comes to who the leadership is, it doesn’t matter. The institution itself is malicious.”

Deputy chiefs Peter Sloly and Mark Saunders, who are both of Jamaican origin, have been touted as top contenders to succeed Chief Bill Blair, whose last day is April 25.

But to advocates who have been calling for an end to controversial practices such as carding that have primarily targeted people of colour, their selection will do nothing to end systemic racism within Canada’s largest municipal police force.

The anger against the Toronto Police Service was palpable at a forum hosted last Wednesday night by the Network for the Elimination of Police Violence (NEPV) and Jane Finch Action Against Poverty (JFAAP), of which Gopaul is a resident organizer. Nearly 60 people from the Jane-Finch corridor attended the panel discussion on the significance of having a black police chief. The overwhelming consensus in the room was that a black police chief is tokenism at best.

Although many came with an anti-police perspective in general, they also rejected Sloly and Saunders as cops who have risen through the ranks by conforming to the organization they are a part of. They likened the heavy police presence in Toronto’s poorer communities to an occupation where cops randomly stop and search civilians. They criticized the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), a policing initiative that aims to reduce crime by working closely with affected communities, as a “destructive” force that subversively collects intelligence on residents whenever officers attend community barbeques and play basketball with youth.

Sloly has publicly defended carding, which to residents here is essentially about stopping people on the streets, asking for their identification and questioning them even if there are no solid grounds to suspect them of having committed crimes. Although Sloly said in a CBC interview two years ago that carding can make youth feel disenfranchised and unfairly targeted, he also said the practice is a useful tool for sussing out the criminal element.

Saunders was also blasted by forum organizers as the co-author of a Police and Community Engagement Review on carding that referred to community concerns about racial profiling as “isolated incidents.”

“These men have been part of, and often times in charge of, the present framework that targets young men and women of colour and harasses them,” said Ellie Adekur-Carlson, the chair of NEPV. “Are they looking to dramatically reform or remove carding practices? Are they looking to shut down TAVIS or the poor oversight? No, they’re not,” she charged.

Grace-Edward Galabuzi, an associate professor in Ryerson University’s Department of Politics and Public Administration, understands that the skepticism about a new police chief stems from very real and lived experiences

He does not subscribe to the ideology that policing cannot change, but it is difficult for Toronto’s black community to throw their weight behind either Sloly or Saunders because they have not distinguished themselves from the status quo on issues that are important to the community, he says.

“[A black police chief] does have symbolic significance, but for it to be substantially significant, it would mean that before they become police chiefs, they send a clear signal that they are open to the arguments that the community is making on some key issues,” Galabuzi says. “And that’s just not there.”

There are others within Toronto’s black community who have taken a more moderate stance. The African Canadian Legal Clinic has publicly endorsed Sloly.

Anthony Morgan, a policy and research lawyer with ACLC, was at Wednesday night’s forum. In a room full of anti-police sentiment, he defended the clinic’s endorsement as one based on qualifications and not on skin colour. Sloly is the one most likely, from the shortlist of candidates, to listen and engage with African-Canadians, Morgan says.

“When we compare his experience, when you compare his credentials or you compare his relationship to the community to other candidates, we feel that he is far ahead of the others in terms of what would be best not just for the African Canadian community but the Toronto community at large,” Morgan says.

Sloly has also been more visible at community events talking about difficult issues such as race and has been able to build a rapport that other candidates are lacking, he adds.

One man in the audience at Wednesday night’s forum, who would only identify himself as Gary, says that it may be easier for the residents of Jane and Finch to work with police if Sloly or Saunders are at the helm.

Gary says that he has been racially profiled and held in police cells in the past, but he still advocates for a black chief.

“We can’t just write if off without giving it a chance,” he says. “We need someone at the top who will advocate for us.”

There are others who say it is empowering to see leaders who look like them and share their background.

Ameen Binwalee is the founder of Out of the Box, an organization that helps black youth in Scarborough find construction jobs and also trains them on the significance of their cultural heritage.

Binwalee says his teenage years were difficult. He moved out of his family’s home when he was 16, got involved with the wrong crowd and even served eight months in jail for drug trafficking. Now 26, he has turned his life around and says a black police chief could have changed him when he was younger, regardless of the force’s policies.

“It changes the dynamic a little bit,” Binwalee says. “Even Obama naming off your favourite rapper… or tweeting about your favourite basketball player, it does something to you. It validates your experience. It changes the atmosphere and culture of the whole city.”

Nigel Bariffe, president of Toronto’s Urban Alliance on Race Relations, a non-profit that provides educational programs and does research on racism in the city, says there is no doubt that it is inspiring for youth to have role models in positions of power. He gets how influential leaders can be given his own position as an elementary school teacher. But it is how that power is being used that really counts, he says. The UARR has been vocal in its criticism of carding.

“I empathize with those voices within the community who say it doesn’t matter who the chief is going to be,” Bariffe says. “The effects of policing is disproportionate for people of colour. That data is clear… You’re still going to have a chief who is going to support this particular policy regardless of their cultural or ethnic heritage,” Bariffe says.

Regardless of whether Toronto’s black population supports a black chief or not, there is one thing they are united on: It’s not about skin colour. It’s about ideology, and that’s where both Sloly and Saunders have failed to inspire people calling for greater accountability and transparency from police.

“I think the colour of the skin of the new chief is really irrelevant,” says John Sewell, former mayor of Toronto and coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition which is not supporting any of the shortlisted candidates. “I don’t like racializing and that’s what that’s about. It’s got to be about how the person approaches the key issues facing Toronto.”

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