Toronto's finest, it appears, will finally score their own much-longed-for helicopters -- but how they intend to manage this is sure to prove a shocker for advocates of police reform. In a scary bid for fresh cash, T.O. police are seeking a cozy new liaison with corporations and service organizations eager to influence and shape law enforcement priorities.
At the September 26 police services board meeting, Chief Julian Fantino sought and obtained approval for the establishment of a "charitable foundation" whose first order of business will be bankrolling a patrol whirly-bird. For years the chief has sought city funding for his pet project but has only been able to wrest a pilot copter project, which has now been grounded.
Few details were offered at the board meeting about the functioning of Fantino's foundation -- who will sit on it, and how the so-called "donations" will be vetted. But this mix of private subsidies and public responsibility is sending shivers down the backs of police critics. Who, they ask, will guarantee the public that "donors' won't exploit their affiliation with police for their own purposes?
And they want to know how this arrangement will benefit the taxpaying public, who themselves should be the shapers of police policy and priorities rather than private benefactors.
The honchos at police headquarters need only look down the street a ways at the fine mess brewing around corporate favours at City Hall to see that he who pays the piper usually calls the tune.
Fantino addressed few of these worries in his pitch to the police services board. While he stressed that the foundation will be at "arm's length" from police and the board, it appears the lobbying for the funding body was anything but.
"I have been lobbied by very significant people in our community who are the icons and who are people who pay tremendous amounts of taxes, the corporate sector, who care deeply about the quality of life in this community,' Fantino explained with great deference. "They want to enable us to achieve the kinds of services for the community that these very significant leaders feel is critical and necessary, and it's about time.
"And I don't think that it's right that people come here and discount the honest generosity of people who have good hearts with good intentions and who care deeply about the quality of life in this community.'
"As to possibly corrupting us into some kind of two-tiered policing, or that we are now embarking on a police-state kind of scenario, I think this is objectionable.'
But already one of those good corporate citizens willing to shell out for the chopper, the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), is looking to make its support conditional on a permanent helicopter serving the donor's very specific agenda.
Michael Beauchesne, the CAA's manager of public and government affairs and traffic safety, says quite plainly, "We're interested in a helicopter for the Toronto police because it provides an additional measure of traffic safety for CAA members and the motoring public.
"We're looking at it as a traffic safety initiative, and there has to be a marked degree of traffic safety involvement in this project for us to make a substantial commitment to it."
The slope is a very slippery one. In some jurisdictions in the U.S., insurance companies return a percentage of liability insurance premiums earmarked for auto theft reduction to police forces.
In Los Angeles, Allstate sponsors the recruitment and training of reserve officers for the LAPD. In some places, foundations fund special policing in particular neighbourhoods through "security vouchers.'
In South Africa, private sponsorship has taken a more ominous turn with the funding of closed-circuit television cameras monitored 24 hours a day in Cape Town. Then there's the possibility that an increase in corporate donations might encourage a proportional reduction of police budget funding by council.
Anthony Doob, a criminology professor at the University of Toronto, says private fundraising by police creates the public perception that donor corporations are buying special treatment. "The reason we have the police as a public sector service and not private is because of that potential favouritism."
Adds defence lawyer Paul Copeland, "That some corporations or people have better connections with the police than others is not the way you run a democratic society."
But police services board member Alan Heisey doesn't accept the idea that monied interests would drive the police agenda if wealthy donors are allowed to fund items like a chopper. "The Service has anticipated the perception issues involved in private funding," he says. "You won't have a service member going and bending the arm of a local business and saying, "We would like some money.'
But is it likely that this particularly pliant police services board will ever have the gumption to step in at the first sign of trouble? Ironically, the one time they did stomp all over a police initiative was in the case of the union's True Blue campaign. Here, board members screamed bloody murder that personal donations to the police union might be perceived as special police protection for donors -- the very same charge critics are throwing at Fantino's current cash-scrounging scheme.
While Fantino awaits private backing of his helicopter, it bears repeating that city auditor Geoff Griffiths concluded in his March 2001 report that the copter neither reduced crime nor helped with high-speed car chases -- the whole raison d'être behind the pilot copter project in the first place.
And while private funding might cover an initial purchase, taxpayers could still be on the hook for an estimated $3 million annually in training, maintenance and fuel costs. Says city councillor and former police services board member Olivia Chow, "The public wants officers on the ground, interacting face-to-face to solve safety issues, not in the air."
Indeed, several U.S. jurisdictions have abandoned their own chopper programs because of prohibitive costs and bad PR. It's partly because of the negative public reaction that the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, one of five banks to fund the original chopper pilot project back in 99, says it won't be involved this time around.
"We're much more focused on youth and youth-related programs," says Robert Waite, a member of CIBC's donations committee.
Helen Armstrong is a founder of Stop the Choppers.