Chief Bill Blair’s Danzig Street dilemma

It was easy to feel a little despairing.


It was easy to feel a little despairing under the pines beside the basketball court on Danzig, where Chief Bill Blair last Thursday night, September 13, reassured residents that police were there for them – and that they in turn should come forward with information.

It’s not that the chief wasn’t charismatic or persuasive, surrounded by an entourage of fellow cops on their most dazzlingly friendly behaviour. Blair raced through the Danzig TCH project, shaking hands, and teasing the kids, at one point placing his hat on a youngster’s head, at another begging a young woman doing cornrows on her friend’s head to do his. Real politician stuff.

The guts of his message, repeated many times in rapid-fire succession, was: you are decent folks the neighbourhood is full of kids “with huge promise” we are here to make you feel safe but safety is a joint responsibility please, please tell us if there’s anything you think we should know.

“We’re close,” he said of the investigation following the July shootings that killed two and wounded 23, “but we need a little help.”

No question the chief was brave to open up the mic to locals in front of the press, and, yes, it was rather deft to pipe Marley’s “We don’t need no more trouble” through the sound system. Blair’s performance was smooth, with a sort of desperate sincerity he committed his officers to treating residents with respect, and gave out the phone number of 43 Division’s unit commander.

But the dilemma remains: every police initiative in a challenged community is a damned double-edged sword. And it didn’t take long at the meeting before you could feel it.

The moment of truth came when youth worker Jam Johnson brandished $60 trespassing tickets that officers, just moments before, had handed out to two teenagers walking through the St. Martin de Porres schoolyard. “We struggle to get up but police bring us right back down,” the enraged Johnson hurled at Blair.

Unhappily for the chief, the complaint arrived not long after he’d enjoined residents to go out and fill up the area’s public spaces and parks to make the place feel safe.

I went to check out the ticketed teens hanging on the fringes of the meeting. Mindful of bitter comments here about young people accumulating police records that prevent them from getting jobs, I refrained from taking their names.

I know it’s fashionable in some activist circles to call targeted policing an “army of occupation,” but that’s missing a complicated dynamic. I could feel the contradictions here. Residents think their youngsters are harassed and demoralized by the police over-focus. “We’re treated like prisoners so we act like prisoners,” one woman said to applause.

But people really are afraid, and there are many versions of reality here. There seems to be a general demand that law enforcement do its job and secure the neighbourhood. But there’s little trust that this can actually happen, and a sense that officers can’t protect locals from the repercussions of naming names. It’s a classic Catch-22. One woman asked Blair if there was a witness protection program. The chief responded with the promise of new TCH digs for frightened folks willing to talk.

So here’s the rub. The city can’t pay this community enough for what it has suffered, and I don’t just mean in July. I notice that no government official, local or otherwise, stood there beside the basketball court to announce immediate jobs for the area’s youth, new daycare centres, a mass fix-up of deteriorating buildings.

Meanwhile, locals are treated in intrusive ways residents of Cabbagetown, Riverdale and the Annex probably can’t imagine. There were the media cameras following the chief to people’s front doors. I’ll tell you right now, if an officer came up my porch steps trailed by TV lights, I wouldn’t be capable of mustering the grace I saw last Thursday.

Blair told the crowd they should get to know the names of local officers the way they know the names of their doctors. Yet living in ignorance of your local cop’s name is a luxury some, but not all, of us have, and that everyone has a right to. It means you live in a relatively peaceful space.

Danzig is the crunch. The fact that the province and city are so uninterested in the needs of marginalized communities only gives permission for dinosaur-era invasive policing based on stereotyping and suspicion. That’s a permission it’s time to withdraw.

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