Rating: NNNNNA buzz fills the corridors outside the lecture hall at the Law Society of Upper Canada. Chief Julian Fantino.
A buzz fills the corridors outside the lecture hall at the Law Society of Upper Canada. Chief Julian Fantino is waiting outside. NFor almost two days, representatives of the black community, police, academics and advocates for the mentally ill have been debating alternatives to the police use of lethal force at this conference co-sponsored by the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and the Queen Street Patients Council.
A small miracle, given the black ghosts of police shootings past that still haunt this city.
But it isn’t until 3 pm Saturday, three hours before he’s to deliver the closing speech, that Fantino and his escort roll up in his black sedan with tinted windows.
While some of the more than 40 police officers taking part here agree that, yes, mistakes were made by police in the past, there’s precious little such acknowledgement coming from Fantino himself.
Organizing for this conference actually predates Fantino’s appointment as chief, and he’s been a reluctant participant all along.
For a while, according to a source in the city’s equity office, he was making noise about pulling police involvement altogether.
In the end, Fantino, whose run-ins with the black community go back to his days policing Jane and Finch, decided to keep up appearances — and that he did.
There would be his ceremonial signing of a mission statement promising to keep the channels of communication with the black community open, and a handshake for the benefit of the cameras with his old nemesis Dudley Laws.
The significant goodwill shown by members of his force aside, Fantino couldn’t resist using his closing remarks — during which he called criticism of the force “useless rhetoric” — to throw what amounted to a bucket of cold water on the proceedings.
With target policing in vogue, this is still a force, at least at the top , that’s in denial about why a disproportionate number of black males end up getting shot by police.
Scanning the lecture hall, I’m getting a serious case of deja vu. There’s Dudley Laws of the Black Action Defence Committee in his trademark black beret, sitting next to lawyer Charles Roach. Here they are, ironically, 25 years after the creation of the Urban Alliance following a police shooting death, embarking once again on a discussion of alternatives to the police use of lethal force.
There’ll be frank and sometimes testy debate here. But behind the scenes, the more jaded among the veterans of the race relations wars wonder if race relations, with Julian Fantino at the helm, aren’t about to get much worse. On the street, community workers are already reporting that more cops are drawing their guns.
John Jones, executive director of Miami’s Martin Luther King Institute for Nonviolence, a centre specifically created to curb police use of violence, offers a message of hope. But the good vibrations filling the room quickly turn to apprehension after a performance of the play Vincent.
It’s based on the police shooting death of Domenic Sabatino, a schizophrenic.
Loud applause fills the room when the lights go up. The row of crewcuts in front of me, however, aren’t clapping. The portrayal of the cop in this drama is not to their liking.
There’d been talk in the past, after a rash of police shootings involving mentally ill people, of making the play part of police training. But police brass decided against it. Money was apparently an issue.
“The big blue wall went up,” I overhear the play’s creator say, but he declines to elaborate for me.
Organizers have put the message out. The emphasis at this conference is to be positive. Halfway into day one, there seems to be a reluctance on the part of participants to mix it up. “Where’s the community?” is the question posed by one activist outside the Colony Hotel, where the conference has shifted for lunch. “Man, I’ve been coming to these things and seeing the same faces for years.”
Inside, Greg Meyer, a former captain with the Los Angeles police department, talks about electric-shock-emitting tasers and the other “less than lethal force technology” being employed by police departments in the U.S.
Yet the LAPD has been criticized over its deployment of police dogs in black and hispanic neighbourhoods.
When it’s staff inspector Ken Cenzura’s turn to take the podium, he’s quick to point out how the T.O. force adopted changes in its use-of-force guidelines after a series of shootings involving blacks in 96.
On the street, he says, police are forced to make split-second decisions.
“Yes, we’re human and have probably made errors in personal judgment,” Cenzura says. “But in the cases I’ve been involved in, police officers have been reluctant to use lethal force.”
At the head table next to Cenzura is Katherine Yu, sister of Edmund Yu, the mentally ill man shot on a bus by police after he pulled out a tiny hammer.
While forces in the U.S. are using everything from tear gas to wooden and rubber bullets, even tranquilizers darts, as alternatives to firearms, T.O. police seem married to their 9mm Glocks.
The last time the force took any serious interest in alternatives to gun power was in the late 70s, when tear gas with talc was deployed.
That experiment ended when an officer hit a man wielding an axe square in the chest with the tear-gas canister. That was the end of that.
The force is now “revisiting” using bean-bag rounds, says staff sergeant Peter Button, the force’s go-to guy when it comes to police equipment. He spent eight years on the Emergency Task Force and looks every inch the hardboiled cop in that flat-top and moustache.
To lawyer Clayton Ruby, all the talk of weaponry is “dangerous nonsense.”
“Do I have the opportunity to do nothing,” is the question police officers should be asking themselves, he says, when they’re faced with a serious situation.
Ruby lights a fire under this crowd. Murmurs of “Thank god,” “Yes” and “Right on” can be heard coming from the back.
Button is red-faced but unapologetic. “We have raised the bar. We have exceeded standards,” he says. “We have an excellent hit rate in combat situations.”
Now it’s U of T criminologist Philip Stenning’s turn to antagonize the crowd.
He suggests that race is not a significant factor in police shootings.
Former Metro councillor Bev Salmon calls him on his statement after the program.
“That’s why we can’t get anything done,” Salmon says. When it comes to police and race, “nobody has the guts to call it like it is.”
Outside, Laws is in conversation with an OPP officer.
“Am I hopeful? No, because what’s coming out now is what a great job police are doing. People need to hear acknowledgement that mistakes have been made. That’s the first step to healing.”
Delegates arrive Saturday to news that councillor Olivia Chow, who’s taking part in a panel this morning, has resigned from the police services board — apparently under pressure from the police union –after she complained publicly of police tactics during the recent Queen’s Park riot.
It leaves Avvy Go of the Metro Toronto Chinese and South Asian Legal Clinic wondering whether she herself should be participating in this conference.
“Clearly, we have a systemic problem, yet we’re still asking, ‘Why does race matter?'”
Inspector Gary Ellis responds by outlining how efforts in 42 Division have bridged the gap between police and the Tamil community.
“We’re not going to change the state of race relations in one day,” Ellis says.
We’ll hear, too, of the force’s efforts to hire visible minorities, but they still rank third behind aboriginals and women in the force’s hiring priorities. The force still has no black female of sergeant rank or higher.
Is it a coincidence that during the years when employment equity was legislated, police forces did little or no hiring? Or that between 1987 and 92 the population of blacks in jail increased by 200 per cent compared to 23 per cent for whites?
“The status quo looks pretty ugly,” says York University prof Toni Williams. “But I’m not sure that beyond this room very many people care.”
Later, at the police accountability session, it comes to light that the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police will be asking the province to assign police officers to the civilian watchdog special investigations unit (SIU).
I ask SIU director Peter Tinsley about his disclaimer before his speech, the one about how his attendance here shouldn’t be seen as support for one side or the other.
Where Tinsley is concerned, the cops are always watching. “Paranoia is healthy for someone in my position,” he says.
Julian Fantino’s at the back of the lecture hall now, listening as Charles Roach dredges up some of those old battles of heady days gone by and speechifies about how blacks who have dared to speak out have been unfairly targeted by police.
“We’ve suffered a great deal,” Roach says.
It’s a sombre-looking Fantino who takes the stage. He seems to be well into a slow burn.
He begins with the words of an unknown author — “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” He then launches into what’s become a familiar refrain to critics.
“It’s unrealistic to hold the police totally accountable for all that ails society. The safety of our police officers is paramount.
“Alternatives to the use of lethal force does not — I repeat not — also mean that police officers are to be prohibited from using lethal force.”
He spends all of two sentences on the issue of race. “Regardless of reality,” he says, “the issue of race must not be ignored or discounted.”
He hardly looks in Roach’s or Laws’s direction. He’s focusing straight ahead as he attacks “those who wish to dwell on the past.”
Conference co-chair Julian Falconer has picked flowers from out front. He presents one to Fantino. Another to Laws.
There’ll be a handshake between the two.
Kike Roach, the new generation of black activist, doesn’t think much of Fantino’s speech.
“I tuned out,” she says, “after the ‘regardless of reality’ part.”