Hail to the new chief

Who’s the smart money on? Here’s what we know

An announcement is imminent.

If it’s not leaked to the press for the papers Saturday, we should know by next Wednesday at the latest. Timing is important. The Police Services Board meets today (Thursday, April 16) to discuss the force’s carding policy. The board would like to have the policy in place before a new chief is announced. To that end, there will be a recommendation from board chair Alok Mukherjee to adopt the revised policy, which has met with widespread condemnation in policing reform circles. And then hire an outside consultant to conduct a six-month review on how it’s working. The move buys the Board time to revisit the policy and amend as required at a later date. At least, progressives on the Board are hoping a new chief might be more amenable to moving toward a better version of the carding policy passed a year ago, but that was met with resistance from current chief Bill Blair.

The new chief won’t be an outsider.

For all the talk of looking farther afield for a new top cop in the interests of maybe bringing in some new blood to shake up the established order – not to mention, modernize the force – Blair’s replacement will come from the current command. The three candidates on the short list are (in alphabetical order) current deputy chiefs: Mike Federico, Mark Saunders and Peter Sloly. No surprise really. The cop union and rank and file in general, are wary of outsiders. Last time an outsider was chosen to head up Toronto police, horse-drawn wagons still roamed the streets of Toronto. The year was 1880. No, that’s not a misprint. There were a handful of applications from outside candidates this time, unlike the last time the Board talked about it. But none of them made the cut. 

Who’s the smart money on?

Unlike past contests for the job, this one hasn’t been marked by the usual leaks and potentially embarrassing stories about candidates the cop union may not be keen on. Which, barring any last-minute madness, is a sign the police association kinda knows which way this one is headed and are fine with it. The smart money is probably on Federico, who has been cast as the dark horse in the race, but whose career trajectory fits more the mould of chiefs past. He’s also more seasoned than his two rivals, who are substantially younger. The one fly in the ointment for Federico: the force’s handling of the Sammy Yatim shooting specifically, and its less than stellar record of dealing with people in mental crisis in general. More of them still get Tasered or killed in interactions with police than any other group in the city. Federico was Blair’s Mr. Fix-It on the file after the Yatim shooting led to protests in the streets. And while Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams have now been expanded across divisions in the city to handle more situations of people in distress, it took video of the Yatim shooting – and legal action from the Yatim family – to shock the force’s leadership into action. If there’s a candidate the police union favours, it would be Federico.  He’s no change agent, and that’s just the way the cop union likes it.

What are the chances we’ll have Toronto’s first ever black police chief?

Peter Sloly, the other leading candidate, has the advantage of being loved by minority communities, whose trust in the force has taken a huge hit, and not just because of the controversial carding policy. Blair’s vaunted community policing initiatives that were met with great favour early in his term, have fallen by the wayside. Sloly would go a long way toward repairing the damage done to the force’s street cred. And sending the message that the Board is serious about becoming a truly modern force, instead of a para-military organization. Policing reformers who think the Board has sold out the community with its new carding policy, would also welcome Sloly’s appointment. The police union is not so convinced. And not just because of that apology Sloly was forced to give a few years back for calling it like it is: that some cops are, well, racist and not fit to wear the uniform. It has been the view of some cop watchers that Sloly is not ready for prime time. Too young. Not enough street smarts or experience, etc… Scuttlebutt for a while was that he really didn’t want the job. But that’s when it looked like Blair might stick around for another term. Sloly has proved himself capable of handling the politics that comes with being a member of senior command. His was the face of the force when the Eaton Centre and Danzig shootings scared the fuck out of the city and made it look like gangsters controlled the streets. The big problem for Sloly: he’s seen as a crusader – as outside as insider can be – which is an advantage for a Board looking for change, but a disadvantage for an institution averse to it.

And then there’s Mark Saunders…

He’s the real wild card in this race. Seems odd to be talking about his chances being determined, in part, by the fact the colour of his skin happens to be a different hue. Save for finding himself in the middle of the force’s embarrassing handling of the terror tunnel mystery that turned out not to be about terror at all, Saunders has an impressive resume. It includes stints with the street gangs unit and command of the homicide squad. Both have long been considered proving grounds for past chiefs. Saunders’s only real hope, however, is if the Board is so split between Federico and Sloly that they can’t come to some kind of consensus, which would make Saunders the compromise candidate. It’s happened before in volatile political climates like the one we’re in with policing right now with a Board eager to push reform, a police union fighting for shrinking turf and the mayor’s office, not to mention the province, which has three members on the Board, concerned about ballooning budgets. Blair too might have a hand in the decision, however indirectly. No doubt he has an opinion on whom should succeed him and no doubt that has filtered to the members of the board, with which he still has some sway, including the current mayor.

How will Bill Blair be remembered?

It’s a tricky question because there’s some good with the bad. And history tends to be kinder to former chiefs once they’re gone and people have had an opportunity to reflect. Blair started on a high, establishing community policing values early on, and helping to increase diversity in the force. But there was a steep fall off after a good start. And then the Summer of the Gun happened and the special response team formed to deal with the situation, TAVIS, began running roughshod over marginalized neighbourhoods and undoing the good work that had been done in community policing. Trust became an issue and any that was left for Blair’s leadership, both politically and among the public, was crushed after the G20. Indeed, the G20 debacle and lies that followed may be Blair’s most enduring legacy. It’s time for Blair to go. The Board made that known very quickly. His handling of the recent carding controversy has only reinforced the fact. Blair wouldn’t be the first who came into the job promising change and left having mostly failed, and he won’t be the last. The Board is hoping that won’t be the case with his successor.

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo 


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