judging by the media frenzy thephantom gangsta threat has generated, police chief Julian Fantino hardly needs a new $100,000 spin doctor. He seems to be doing just fine on his own. On the eve of his police budget pitch, the media-savvy chief stoked a single incident that has yet to be fully investigated into an alleged gangland campaign of intimidation against him and his entire force.
This newspaper even conveniently provided the chief with an opportunity for some timely indignation. By publishing a picture of his house and Woodbridge street name on the same day Fantino went to the police services board to make his budget bid, NOW allowed the furious chief to distract the media from his request for a $36-million (6.4-per-cent) budget increase that could end up doing more damage to taxpayers than the Bloods or the Crips.
But with the vulnerable police apparently under siege by brazen street thugs, who would dare scrutinize a million dollars here or a million there?
Police union chief Craig Bromell's quick demand for heightened security and safety measures for officers also played up the seriousness of the gang threat. But Bromell didn't want to talk about his concerns when NOW approached him at police headquarters during the board meeting last week.
Bromell's shorts were in a knot over NOW's shot of Fantino's house (which is listed online in Bell's Canada 411). Apparently, the chief's house is off limits, but publishing city councillors' home phone numbers in a daily newspaper ad, as the union did in the run-up to last fall's municipal election, is fair game.
"You know (city councillors) would have been more upset if we put pictures of their home addresses (in the ad)," Bromell coolly responded.
Aside from the Toronto Sun's hysterical front-page headlines, it's still an open question whether street gangs are running amok against cops.
The Sun broke the story last Tuesday when it reported that a police detective with the community-oriented response (COR) unit in Scarborough had his personal vehicle stolen out of the station parking lot. According to police, the vehicle was later found torched in a lot nearby.
As well, the Sun reported that, according to police, the same officer's name was found spray-painted on the station wall with the number 187 beside it. (The number was so faint by the time the media arrived that Global news had to highlight it for viewers.)
In California, 187 is the penal code number for homicide and has, from time to time, been dropped into songs by popular gangsta rappers. So I apologize for coming off like Tipper Gore, but we may have Snoop Dogg to thank for importing the threatening jargon instead of some L.A.-based gang with lofty notions of expanding north.
So how did this case of auto theft and intimidating graffiti against one officer become a gang epidemic? The Sun simply reported that "police suspect organized criminal gangs are behind the threat, since the COR unit has been probing a series of gang-related shootings in the northwest tip of the city."
There were seven shooting deaths in Rexdale last year that the police have speculated were gang-related.
However, staff inspector Wes Ryan, who heads up the COR unit, tells NOW that his 32 uniformed officers, who are used to bolster police presence at demonstrations, searches, disasters and in troubled communities, work all over the city. And they usually don't stay in one community for very long.
The Sun went on to report that this was the third threat against the police "by criminal gangs" in the past couple of months.
The Sun wrote that "a Tamil gang member was caught videotaping the licence plates of officers' personal cars, and another was found tailing an officer driving home."
Despite the fact that that was basically all the Sun had, the story wasn't just a one-day wonder. Instead, local TV news picked it up, and the next day the Toronto Star played catch-up and the Sun upped the ante with another gripping front-page headline: "Gangs stalk more of our cops."
But the Sun story relied on unnamed "sources within the force" who claimed that "revenge is being threatened against officers across Toronto. Several have been stalked."
A "highly placed police source" also told the Sun "it's bad out there.... We have officers in different parts of the city being targeted." Another unnamed source claimed there's "been a real proliferation of organized crime."
But aside from the personal observations from these unnamed sources, there was no new meat to the story. The paper only specifically cited the same three incidents of threats against police officers it had reported the previous day, as well as one other threatening message police had received.
"I think the fact that the police certainly saw it as a broader threat than just the one individual made it a good second-day story," says Sun editor-in-chief Mike Strobel.
As for the Sun's reliance on anonymous sources, Strobel says these cases "tend to be undercover" and "as long as your reporters are confident in their sources, sometimes you have to go that way."
While there seemed to be no shortage of anonymous sources willing to play up the gangbangers for the Sun, officially the police don't have any hard information to back up the claim that gang activity is on the rise.
Police spokesperson Sergeant Rob Knapper says they don't keep a breakdown on gang-related crimes.
And as for this new, seemingly unprecedented threat against police officers, he says threats are actually "reasonably common."
"We don't get hundreds a day," says Knapper, "but I don't think it's that uncommon for a police officer to receive a threat one way or another."
Speaking to claims that the theft of the officer's car and the graffiti were gang-related, Knapper isn't as bold as his colleagues. "That's a possibility, and obviously that's something that's being investigated," is all he will say.
But Knapper's chief was less conservative in his analysis. By day three, Fantino was doing some macho posturing, sending the message to the phantom menace through the press that "we have a pretty well-organized gang ourselves."
By the time Fantino went into the media scrum Thursday to denounce NOW, the stage was set. It was the cops against the Jets and the Sharks, and the media were hooked.
By Friday, radio talk-show hosts, totally accepting the premise that T.O. has a gang epidemic that is threatening police safety, opened the lines for callers to denounce NOW's irresponsibility. All four dailies ran Fantino's stern charge that NOW had "crossed the line of decency."
As for questions about that $36 million the cops are hitting up the city for, they simply wafted up into the firstname.lastname@example.org