Photo by Ethan Eisenberg
Walking into police headquarters Friday morning, June 29, for retired Court of Appeal judge John Morden's presentation of his Civilian Review of G20 policing, I couldn't help being struck by the Pride rainbow thingies in the lobby.
They were a reminder that the force that went feral during the G20 actually has a rep for a certain degree of community-mindedness.
I'm here for the next instalment in the mystery of Chief William Blair's lost weekend. Yes, we're getting dribs and drabs of understanding thanks to five major reports and a string of smaller ones. But without a royal-commission-type inquiry with the power to subpoena (which Morden didn't have) and an examination of the feds' role, the G20 narrative will always feel like Swiss cheese.
If the May report of the Office of the Independent Police Review Director pointed to an excessive police response and the role of specific senior officers in the fateful decision to "take back the streets," Morden's startling Independent Civilian Review Into Matters Relating To The G20 Summit apportions some of the blame elsewhere.
Let's be clear: the document is nothing short of transformative - if board members want it to be, that is, - and could reset the whole oversight game, which is why those who have had the most profound experience on the Police Services Board trying to check power-protective police chiefs are the most ecstatic about it.
It's been a long road to get to Morden's headline: the board misunderstood its civilian watchdog function and failed to carry out its duties under the Police Services Act. "Civilian oversight of our police is essential. It acts as a check and balance against the legal powers society has given the police."
Because of the prevailing culture of police-civilian relations and incorrect legal advice from the board's lawyer (a city of Toronto legal counsel who also advises the police - yikes!), the board "has limited its consultative mandate," believing it improper "to make recommendations concerning operational matters. The board's approach in this regard has been wrong."
Wow. All that closing down of discussions at board meetings with the word "operational" and charges that members were stepping on the chief's prerogative? Out the window.
Drawing the line where operational issues begin has always been a highly interpretive endeavour. The board, as Morden points out, has been assertive on issues like monitoring taser use and insisting on officer identification, but, alas, has felt legally bound to limit its authority.
Thus, the report's stunning list of things the board didn't dare ask the chief as plans for the G20 rapidly took shape. Morden's point is that determined focus and consultation might have headed off the disaster to come, though (and this is me speaking) it's not clear they would have stopped rogue cop behaviour, ID removals, assaults and other nasties.
The board never questioned the chief with any persistence, for example, about protocols for the prisoner processing centre (a detention facility, actually). If it had, members might have noticed failures in the "prisoner management process" and the way, in the end, they meant that one single pre-booking officer was doing the intake, "resulting in a crippling bottleneck" that left prisoners in procedural limbo for over 24 hours.
Morden goes on. In this major don't ask, don't tell scenario, the board (and this is critical to the protesting population) had no knowledge of how poor officer training was for the G20, how little emphasis it placed on Charter rights, and how unbalanced it was, portraying demonstrators as likely perpetrators of violence. ("Don't officers get this kind of training at Police College?" one of the reporters at the briefing cheekily asked. Good question. Obviously not.)
Chief Blair, Morden concludes, became the "gatekeeper" of all information, and the board was left "completely in the dark." Dangerous words for business as usual.
But long-time civilian oversight campaigner and former board chair Pam McConnell isn't miffed over this description of board marginalization. Instead, she's jubilant. "We felt we had been cut out of our rightful positioning. Now we have been verified," she said after the meeting. "Police boards have a lot more power thanks to Morden. I'm a very happy person."
It has to be said, though, on behalf of the thousands of protesters who suffered police attacks and indignities on June 26 and 27 of 2010, the cost of this civilian control victory has been very high indeed. But that's only to say that boards to come are now legally - and morally - bound to commit to boldness.