Following a surge in gunplay, much has been said about violence, race and policing. Police have had their say. Politicians, too. Activists, community members, pundits. But notable for their absence have been university students in robes pretending to be members of Parliament.
Their silence was finally broken last Wednesday, November 30, when U of T's Hart House Debates Committee mulled the resolution "Police-community relations are part of the problem" before a speech by Chief Bill Blair.
The exercise of formal debates is noble: participants attempt to understand and defend positions they may not hold. But the sight of U of T law students - three out of four them white - sparring abstractly over the policing of inequality while members of racialized communities look on from the gallery is unsettling.
After the ayes and the nays have a go at each other, public pronouncements from the gallery follow.
"Most people in the black community do not trust the police and fear they will not be protected," states Michelle Manley. "If we had 50 white boys killed, we'd see people wringing their hands saying, 'What's happening to our youth?' like [former U.S. president Bill] Clinton did after the Columbine school shootings."
During it all, Blair sits to one side of the panelled room in full uniform while his two handlers remain intently focused.
"You [debaters] used the term 'law and order,'" says Malvern resident Sonette Magnus. "Well, that's an American concept. Canadian police are supposed to serve and protect. And there is no service in Malvern."
With that, the chief is introduced. Smiling warmly, he approaches the dais, and all eyes are on him, wondering how he'll respond.
"These [gun homicides] have been happening in communities that are marginalized," Blair responds, "where housing is substandard, where prosperity is not achieved. They are not confined to one racial community, but to our communities that are the poorest."
He decries what he believes to be a two-dimensional view taken by the media. "For 500 young men [out of a certain demographic] who are violent, there are 200,000 who aren't. And if we allow this violence to be racialized, then what are we doing to those 200,000?"
He acknowledges the existence of racial tensions. "Racism can exist in the police force, too," he says. "We employ human beings. And it's important that we not let bias influence those decisions, that people in my profession have a higher sense of self-reflection."
The crowd listens raptly, perhaps partially in surprise at hearing real insight from a police chief waxing progressive about socio-economics.
But there's a reason that the back of the room isn't packed with members of the Polish community.
Following the speech, I ask the chief how he reacts to the assertion that Malvern is not feeling served.
"I used to live there," he says. "I go there. I know the work that's being done there. When young people lose pride in their community, in their school, they're alienated. It's a socialization thing. I've changed our messaging. It allows people to take pride."
And the accusations of neglect? "If young people feel excluded, there's a nihilism to that. But if there is hope to join in the prosperity, then people will find ways."
Right. But, see, people are saying the police are neglecting them. You. You're the police. "There are competing demands: emergency response, crimes to be investigated, and the third is to actually have people in the community. I'm moving 200 people from investigative to community policing."
That's all well and good, but.... Oh. That's a concrete response. Sorry, he's caught me off guard there.
In the lucid moments toward the end of his tenure, former chief Julian Fantino also complained that officers were being used to compensate for a torn safety net. But his short-sighted solution was simply to shift that burden to the courts through tougher sentencing. Unlike his gruff predecessor, Blair is speaking for social equality right out of the gate, and is relying on community policing to get there.
Community policing, of course, doesn't address social inequality in and of itself. To flood a neighbourhood with officers opens the door for racial profiling writ large, possibly even intensified surveillance under the guise of building relationships. At the same time, without direct community engagement there will be no chance for those harbouring prejudice to see how absurd their extreme positions are. And to simply withdraw policing due to charges of racism can quickly result in callous neglect.
"I don't just come to you and ask the community to help me," Blair says during his speech. "I ask, how can I help you?"
Given the tone of his remarks and the discussions that follow, it seems possible that the brass are now truly listening. But it's also worth noting that in the course of de-racializing violence, the chief is taking the opportunity to de-emphasize the force's role in existing racial tensions.
Maybe his initial priority is establishing poverty as a factor; or maybe he's trying out for the debate team.