It's refreshing to see a public space made into a decision-making space. Such is the case at the Scarborough Civic Centre on February 10 at the police board's consultation on the selection criteria for Toronto's next chief of police.
The meeting, one of four, is part of a process that has also included the Toronto Youth Cabinet, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, city councillors, community councils, the Toronto Board of Trade, community police liaison committees and police officers.
An alternative to the usual deputations, the process was designed and facilitated by consultant Sandy Wong based on a model called "dotmocracy" that begins with conversation.
Residents filter into the impressive foyer and seat themselves at large round tables. Some arrive as groups; others take the first free chair. After brief speeches from Wong and board chair Pam McConnell, facilitators at each table begin guided conversations on two questions: "What should be the priorities for the new chief over the next five years?" and "What matters most to you about a police chief?"
Both explicit suggestions and dominant themes are summed up by a facilitator and written down by another volunteer on a large flip chart. Within minutes, one table's chart has "honesty" crossed out and replaced with "guns, gangs." Truth is no good to the dead, I suppose.
Violence of all sorts is a recurring concern here. "Less aggressive" reads one suggestion. "More alternatives to force" says another. Or "move from paramilitary mindset to that of a service provider."
"They told us, 'More than five of you in one place, you get a ticket,'" relates a young man about growing up in Malvern.
"Try to relate that to a police chief," suggests the facilitator. "How about 'establish relationship with school boards'?" Well, a few things may get lost in translation. But people get a chance to hear raw opinions floating around, something that doesn't exist in unidirectional traditions like polls, surveys and petitions.
Though Wong cautions during his opening speech, "You won't have time to convince anyone of anything, so don't get into debates,' thoughts are openly shared with peers and enter the ecosystem of opinion, rather than simply being digested and regurgitated by mama-bird state.
After 45 minutes or so of conversing, everyone at a table is given six small circular stickers (the dots in "dotmocracy") to place beside recorded statements that they feel are most important. The three most popular will then be presented briefly to the group as a whole.
The results of the four meetings - here, downtown, in Etobicoke and in North York - add pieces of the megacity puzzle to the final picture. The most prominent - or dotted - of these themes for both North Yorkers and Scarberians seems to be respect for cultural diversity. Downtown, getting officers out of their cars as a part of community policing is desired. In Etobicoke, increased civilian oversight is the clear champion.
Many other themes are resoundingly popular across meetings though they receive of no magic dots: commitment to an effective complaints process, no political endorsement, respect for civil rights and "less intimidating" officers.
"There's an awful lot of understanding in this city of what we need," Councillor McConnell later remarks.
"Police have sensitivity trainings," says Andre from the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, "but I don't know if they take it seriously. It should be worked into the hiring process."
A single downtowner and a lone Scarberian both feel name tags should be mandatory for officers. The idea that the chief could be a woman is at long last uttered by someone at City Hall. At that meeting, an officer from the Peel regional force also speaks. "There is an 'us and them' mentality within the force,' he says. "There are also divides within the force... for instance, a lot of homophobia."
These are the opinions of a particular demographic - those who come to consultation meetings. But that demographic isn't as clear-cut as one might expect: it includes police-reform activists and police officers, men in expensive suits and men in Brotherhood of Electrical Workers jackets. Gender and race are split evenly. The only obvious similarity among participants is that most are above 20 years of age.
There's rich soil for much future growth in this kind of process. Imagine if it were extended to police divisions or ward issues. Imagine bottom-up power structures. Imagine networks of consultative communities.
Oh, there I go, daydreaming. But meetings like these on specific issues could start next month. Founding consultative committees, envisioned as an expansion of civilian oversight, is a suggestion well liked in Etobicoke.
But as for choosing the next police chief, what of suggestions that the fix is already in? "We don't have someone under our skirts whom we're going to pull out at the last minute," McConnell says in earnest.
Both she and board member Alok Mukherjee (Case Ootes and Hughe Locke abstained from attending any discussions) react well to the idea that the chief should come from outside the ranks.
During question period, an attendee makes a no-nonsense pitch: "Choose from the top 12 RCMP auditors. Find the one who's fired the most Mounties." Wong steps in to ask him to cut it short, but McConnell motions to Wong to let him finish. "Make sure he's never even seen the CN Tower, and that he owes no favours. Give him our problem and tell him to fix it."
But chair McConnell doesn't believe it should stop there. "I heard, 'You can't just do it at the chief level. You need a force that represents us from the bottom up. ''