Rating: NNNNNAs political metamorphoses go, Scarborough councillor Bas Balkissoon's must rank among the more unlikely.Balkissoon has spent the better.
As political metamorphoses go, Scarborough councillor Bas Balkissoon’s must rank among the more unlikely.
Balkissoon has spent the better part of his political career keeping his head down and nose clean, flying underneath the radar. He’s as bland as a bean-counter can be.
That’s why his very public resignation from the police services board two weeks ago — complete with scathing four-page letter filed with the clerk — came as such a shocker.
In his missive, he took issue with everything from the board’s budgeting process and business plan, which he criticized for having no “measured objectives,” to the making of decisions behind closed doors.
“I didn’t go there to be window dressing,” he says. “It seems that some people expected that.”
Others who’ve tried to take a progressive line before Balkissoon have been given the heave-ho: Judy Sgro, Sharene Shaw, Olivia Chow.
“The police culture and political leadership are very hostile to accountability, civilian control and critical thinking,” says Chow.
But Balkissoon caught everyone by surprise.
“He never complained to me,” says board chair Norm Gardner.
A few, like police union head Craig Bromell, wonder about the timing of Balkissoon’s resignation, announced with only two meetings left in his term, and suggest an ulterior motive.
“I talked to the chief about it,” says Bromell. “This came from left field. We’re suspicious of the timing (or) if there’s another agenda. Obviously, he needs the press for some reason. He never (complained) to us.”
But Balkissoon was quietly keeping score. Initial news reports chalked up his resignation to the board’s not being brought into the loop on a deal struck by the chief and union over a long-standing labour dispute.
Balkissoon was indeed miffed that the board was not consulted, since the deal has wider implications for the collective bargaining agreement.
In reality, however, that was only the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. Balkissoon was more worried about the force’s handling — or non-handling, to be more precise — of public complaints against police, as well as the scant info and veil of secrecy that shrouded the internal discipline of officers.
Balkissoon says he received literally “dozens” of complaints from residents and constituents expressing dissatisfaction with their treatment — sometimes violent — by police. The police refused to apologize when he intervened.
Balkassoon was personally touched by two incidents, he says. One involved a 16-year-old who used to play on the soccer team he coached. The youth was harassed by cops for having a beeper and was then dropped off miles from home and forced to walk back. The other, a 14-year-old churchgoing son of a constituent, was roughed up for no apparent reason.
“How are you going to build public support if the perception is you’re governing yourself?” Balkissoon asks.
As a former head of the Scarborough race relations committee, he was also finding it more and more difficult — especially as a member of a visible minority himself — to defend not only the individual actions of officers but also the force’s minority hiring policies.
Three-quarters of all new recruits making the grade are still white and male.
The situation was only about to become more difficult for Balkissoon, says one policing observer, referring to scuttlebutt that the force is poised to outsource race relations programs from its training at C.O. Bick police college.
Then there’s Chief Julian Fantino and board chair Gardner, both of whose penchant for railroading issues through the board didn’t mesh with Balkissoon’s more methodical, attention-to-detail style.
Balkissoon tells of board decisions being made at the chief’s and Gardner’s behest, contrary to legal advice.
Gardner will acknowledge that some of the criticism is legitimate.
“The chief takes a lot of latitude (in decision-making),” he says. “He’s a very pragmatic individual.”
But Gardner denies he’s one to ram policy through. “I do consult with board members. I don’t make decisions in a vacuum.” He says relations between police and public are better than they’ve ever been — but of course he fails to chalk up the drop in complaints to the fact that most people have no faith in the system.
He adds that those like Balkissoon who arrive on the board thinking they’re going to make dramatic changes are deluding themselves.
“Some come thinking the board is here to provide a certain platform for them to do certain things, (but) it’s limited in its scope and human resources.”
Another City Hall observer sees Balkissoon’s very loud resignation as another sign of the waning of Mayor Mel Lastman’s influence.
“You see these kinds of changes when the power centre is weakened and you have a bit more leeway to speak out,” says this observer.
“The police culture and political leadership are very hostile to critical thinking.”