Just how deep in the police union’s pocket is John Tory?

Media pundits who still believe in Elmer the Elephant are lapping up assurances that change is nigh, but the truth is the mayor is just not that into the kind of radical shift needed to modernize policing.

“Forgive the delay in responding, but my first week of retirement has been a busy one for me. I really appreciate the insightful (and sometimes humorous) articles you have done on the police over the years. That said, it is best that the media coverage on the current hot topic of modernizing policing happens with those who are formally involved in the process. I may take up your kind offer if the opportunity presents itself in the future. Best regards and with genuine respect. Peter.”

That was the text message that former deputy chief Peter Sloly sent me saying thanks but no thanks to my request for an interview last week. Not sure if he was blowing smoke up my ass with that bit about genuine respect. I don’t recall the deputy being particularly quick to return my calls in the past. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

There was, for example, that time when the you-know-what was hitting the fan over the Danzig and Eaton Centre shootings and Sloly, the force’s most high-profile minority face, was dispatched to sell the massive police build-up in priority neighborhoods that followed. Sloly, left to defend against charges of racial profiling by cops under his command, was slightly taken aback when I approached him after a press conference at 23 Division. It was a tricky situation for Sloly, and he didn’t want to talk about it outside the packaged soundbites. There was also the matter back then of Mayor Rob Ford’s office gearing up to off Bill Blair, and Sloly was supposed to be next in line for the top job.

Sloly knows how to pick his spots. It’s fair to say he’s a smooth operator. Maybe too smooth by half. And maybe it’s true what his critics have been saying about the polished, chrome-like exterior costing him the coveted chief’s job. If that has the ring of institutional racism (can you say “uppity”?), it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Police politics are as dirty as they come. And under Mayor John Tory, the bad old days of collusion and the cop union calling the shots are back with a vengeance. 

That’s the funny thing about the Sloly saga. For all his supposed slickness, it was speaking the truth that ultimately got him canned – or rather, forced him to resign. We demand honesty from our public officials. Yet when they do tell it like it is, as Sloly did last month about a force too married to the old way of doing things and not at all serious about reform, they’re drummed out. No one on the Police Services Board – the folks charged with overseeing the police department and those vaunted reforms Tory keeps promising – said boo. 

So Sloly can be excused for keeping his thoughts to himself for now. What more is there for him to say that he hasn’t already? We’d all like to hear more about him “bleeding from multiple cuts in the back and the front” from the long knives out to get him. That has yet to be fully explained. The details on that are a little sketchy, but I’m told it has something to do with a whisper campaign orchestrated by Tory, Blair and cop union head Mike McCormack at a local steakhouse where the original plot was hatched to job Sloly out of the top job. That nasty piece of business reportedly involved recruiting a number of prominent progressive voices in the city to badmouth Sloly to councillors. 

Whatever the fallout from that, it’s clearly now up to Tory and the man who chumped Sloly out of the chief’s job, Mark Saunders, to pick up the broken pieces.

On that front, the damage control has been in overdrive since Sloly last walked out the doors of police headquarters February 10. The effects were still being felt last week in the corridors of power at City Hall, where the chief was busy engaging in an unusual bit of lobbying ahead of council’s vote on the police budget. Saunders had sitdowns with a number of councillors conveniently arranged by the mayor’s office as part of an effort to shoot down an attempt by former Board vice-chair Michael Thompson to slice some $24 million out of the cop’s $1 billion-plus stipend for 2016. Police union head Mike McCormack, who only surfaces these days when there are fires to put out, was also spotted at City Hall, in there like a dirty shirt to flex some union muscle. 

It’s not clear what shit Saunders and McCormack were saying in those meetings – Saunders had already publicly raised the old saw about increased crime if cops don’t get their money. But whatever the pitch, it was clearly enough to turn the tide and convince more than a few councillors to reconsider backing Thompson’s motions. 

To add a little window-dressing to the cause, the Police Services Board announced the formation of a so-called “transformational task force” at the 11th-hour just before council’s debate, to “examine recommendations related to the long-term reform of how policing is delivered in Toronto.”   

Not sure how much “transformation” we can expect from a committee chaired by the current chief. After nearly a year on the job, it’s pretty clear that Saunders is not interested in reform, if he has a clue at all. Deputy Chief Mike Federico decided to stay on after announcing his retirement from the force last year for the simple reason that Saunders was not ready for prime time. But that’s another story.

From police headquarters, it’s been one PR offensive after another under Saunders’ watch, with not much substance on the reform agenda. There have been media tours of the Toronto Police College to offer a bird’s-eye view of police use-of-force training, presumably just in case there are any lingering doubts about their commitment to that after James Forcillo’s conviction on an attempted murder charge for the shooting death of Sammy Yatim. Just the other day, media were called to record a demonstration by Saunders of the latest addition to the police arsenal, a “sock gun” (which is actually a rifle) that will soon join Tasers as another “less lethal” use-of-force option that will be made available to frontline officers. 

Wait, there’s more. The Board announced the formation this week of yet another committee, this one to advise on police handling of people with mental health issues. As if we need that after the countless coroners’ inquests and recommendations on the subject.

But there has been zero movement on the key recommendations of former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci’s report into the shooting of Yatim and the Toronto police handling of people in crisis. In fact, to what extent the recommendations have been adopted is currently the subject of a formal complaint by former Board chair Alok Mukherjee against Saunders with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director.  

It was probably just a coincidence that the mayor appeared at the auto show last weekend to pose for a pic with the new Batmobile, but after all the bafflegab over police reform, it’s hard for the cynical among us not to view the photo opportunity as a bad metaphor for Tory in his new role as caped reformer.

Most of the mainstream media pundits, at least those who still believe in Elmer the Elephant, are lapping up the assurances from the mayor’s office of change being just a matter of time. Tory apparently still has some political capital left to burn, not to mention the very capable Shelley Carroll on the Board providing valuable political cover for the cause. 

But the truth is, Tory’s just not that into the kind of radical shift needed to truly modernize policing.

There was more evidence of that this week when he trotted up to Queen’s Park to ask the province to give the city authority to implement photo radar to help, he says, free up more cop resources. That’s not modernization. That’s a money grab. Besides, the problem with the force is not a shortage of resources. Resources, the cops have up the wazoo. It’s how police resources are being used, or more accurately misused, that’s the problem. To put a different spin on the old adage, the cops don’t have a revenue problem, they have a spending problem.

Contrary to Tory’s suggestion that it would be “irresponsible” to begin the cost cutting immediately, a kick in the ass, or “blunt instrument” as Thompson called it, is precisely what’s needed to effect change at 40 College. Large organizations, and in particular large paramilitary organizations that have had their way for far too long, are by their nature resistant to change. They’re used to waiting out their critics because they know there’s always another election (and the chance to replace them) just around the corner. 

The road map to transformation already exists. It’s writ large in the KPMG report commissioned by former Board chair Mukherjee. Yes, that would be the same report Tory and his Board tried to bury before the Star came calling. Board chair Andrew Pringle described it as an “internal think document.” Uh huh. 

But more than just dollars and sense, the report lays bare just how belligerent senior police command under Blair had become towards their political masters on the Board. The poisoned relationship and dysfunction ran deep. Indeed, KPMG was hired to undertake its report because the one Blair was supposed to conduct to identify internal opportunities for savings was essentially a snow job. 

Tory put himself on the Board after his election, he said, to address the dysfunction. But it turns out his solution is doing what the cops want, instead of holding them accountable. Just how deep is Tory in the pocket of the police union and the current command? The proof is overwhelming.

Every time the mayor has been presented with an opportunity to blaze a new trail on the policing file, he’s backed the status quo, from his support of Saunders, to his mishandling of the carding file, to his making his bud Andrew Pringle chair of the Board (after saying very publicly, it should be noted, that Pringle was too busy to take the job).

It takes guts to take on the cops. And pardon my Spanglish, but Tory just doesn’t have the cojones – or, at least, he hasn’t shown that he does. And that’s as true today as it has been historically. He is, in matters policing, the consummate backroomer, a member in good standing of the old boys’ network.

Tory said during the 2015 campaign that controlling cop costs is “absolutely necessary” but hinted at the same time that the city needs more cops. He also argued that changing the current shift structure, which is fundamental to curbing costs, is unrealistic. Meanwhile, we’ve heard precious little of his promise to rein in overtime and paid-duty costs.

Go back a little further to Tory’s failed mayoral bid in 2003, and just how beholden he is to the cops snaps more clearly into focus. Back then, for example, Tory thought nothing of accepting the police union’s endorsement, even though he knew it was probably illegal for the Toronto Police Association to engage in political activity – to say nothing of the potential conflict that would have put him in if he won the election.

He also wasn’t above whipping up a moral panic to scare up a few votes. Part of his platform back then included banning panhandling in the downtown for people “not in genuine need” and allowing police easier access to DNA samples. Tory pledged to hire 400 more cops even while crime was declining.

His then-rival, eventual winner David Miller, did manage to push a reform agenda, particularly in the area of minority recruitment and, to a lesser degree, community policing. But to cut that deal with Blair meant hands off the police budget, and we all know what happened to the bottom line as a result.

Maybe Tory has made a pact of his own. We’re prepared to be pleasantly surprised. After all, Tory is supposed to have a background in business, so he presumably understands that the status quo in policing is financially unsustainable. 

But like the carding issue, it may ultimately be up to the province to save Tory’s ass. The Wynne government is currently reviewing the Police Services Act, which could mean more power for police services boards over the forces they oversee. In which case, we eagerly await the metamorphosis of John Tory. 

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

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