Back just a year and a half ago, when many people were terrified -- and many activists were hopeful -- that protests were going to tear apart the social fabric, it seemed you couldn't sneeze through your black bandana without catching the attention of a TV camera and riot police. But for three people who braved a snake march with the Ontario Common Front October 16, 2001, the drama is still ongoing.
The three were arrested for "breach of the peace" just prior to that demo, their crime being the collective ownership of "goggles, bandanas, scarves and a carpenter's mask." They have since decried their treatment, including incarceration for six hours in a police van with no ventilation (which might have come in handy since many arrestees that day were forced to urinate on the metal floors of the wheeled prisons), illegal strip-searches and no hint of food or legal counsel for 15 hours.
In April of last year, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association officially filed a letter of complaint with the Toronto police services on behalf of the three. And just last month the police declared the matter closed in a memo that included a review of police protest policies. Naturally, then, everything was settled, and everyone walked away with renewed confidence in law enforcement.
Except for one catch: the policy review was not the focus of the complaint, and the CCLA knew nothing of the supposed closure. When I called the CCLA to see if their general counsel, Alan Borovoy, had any comment on the terse memo Chief Fantino sent to the police services board as closure on the matter last week, they asked me to fax it to them so they could get a look. Next day, I spoke with Borovoy.
"The chief should notify us if he's not going to take further action," Borovoy says. "I guess they've been relying on telepathy." Maybe Borovoy didn't pick up on the signal because it amounted to little more than a blip. The contents of the memo are mostly cut-and-pasted from correspondence between the CCLA and the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services (OCCPS) and from the police manual.
OCCPS came into the picture when the police appeared reticent to make the links between the arrestees' treatment and police protest policy, going the old "a few bad apples" route of treating it as a conduct issue. The CCLA appealed to OCCPS, which ruled that in light of the nature of the complaint, the police were also obligated to review their policies, and a "portion of the complaint was remitted" back to them for that purpose.
They apparently did that review, somewhat grudgingly, just a few weeks ago. The CCLA's copy must have been lost in the mail. "We had no idea," says Borovoy.
"Review" is the operative word here. Judging from the memo, the chief plucked some names, and codes denoting police protocols, put them in a nice neat list, faxed them to the Toronto police services board and concluded that "no further action will be taken." The complainants -- and the rest of us -- are no doubt relieved to discover that, yes, the Toronto police do, in fact, have policies.
Except that there's widespread doubt about whether or not the police are making themselves follow the law the same way they make everyone else. And the chief's glib reply, which he didn't even copy to those he was replying to, doesn't inspire trust.
Most strikingly, though, there is no mention of officers' conduct, which, according to both OCCPS and the police, was to be the focus of the complaint. "We wrote to them in early December about the state of the conduct complaints," Borovoy informs me. "We were told the investigation was completed. As far as we're concerned, the policy complaint is still very much a live issue."
A call to the Public Complaints Investigation Bureau only raises more questions. "I can't tell you that information, on the basis of privacy," says a detective sergeant. What privacy issues could there be with an investigation that in theory no longer exists? And why do the police seem more concerned with proving themselves to sundry bureaucrats than to the people they police?
The PCIB says its mandate is "to promote the smooth operation of the public complaints system." Well, it's so smooth that the complainants don't even have to be involved.
Borovoy, however, isn't amused. "I think this is just further indication of what an impossible system the government bequeathed us when they gutted the office of the Public Complaints Commission (in 1997)."