I don't know why chief fantino keeps hosting town hall meetings like the one at Bishop Marrocco-Thomas Merton Secondary School in the Junction Tuesday, February 3. I can't believe he ever suggested them, moping and growling through them as he does. He barely looks up from the page he's reading and recites the words with the drone of a grade-eight kid who doesn't want to be giving that presentation to his 8:30 geography class. Mind you, this first in a planned series of meetings is a bit of a free throw, since most in attendance seem to have been hand-picked by local MP Tony Ruprecht. As a result, the chief, along with the 11 and 14 Division commanders, have a largely sympathetic audience, apparently making them feel safe enough to exhibit their aggressive tendencies.
In this regard, the division commanders steal the show. For a force that pays a fair amount of lip service to community policing, referring to their officers as "troops" seems counterintuitive. And in addressing the "citywide problem" of graffiti (about which there were a whopping 23 complaints last year), 11 Division Commander Brody Smollet reveals that officers carried out "paint-overs" that were responsible for the encroachment of no less than 18,000 square feet of beige, white and taupe over our city last year.
To justify this targeting of youth (all those charged with graffiti were between 13 and 19), Smollet ascribes all the aggression to the artists. "Most of the places we've covered have not been re-attacked," he says proudly.
But if it's latent aggression you seek, look no further than this Freudian slip. In addressing the grave threat of prostitution, Smollet outlines his troops' strategy. "Sometimes we will send out undercover officers, female officers, to charge and arrest the johns, and at other times we will send out officers, male officers, to attack the female prostitutes themselves." Yes, he said "attack." No one bats an eyelash.
That silence becomes frightening during question period. One man stands at the microphone, removes his ball cap to reveal a clean-shaven head, identifies himself as a former 14 Division officer and relates how his partner was "killed in the line of a duty by a Jamaican.' Before sitting down, he adds that he's been following the chief's career and that Fantino is "the guy." No one speaks up, though there are one or two shocked looks between friends. Fantino smiles and thanks him.
After Fantino's failure to even appear uncomfortable, it's hard to drum up much sympathy when he complains of recurring charges of racial profiling. "We're tired of being beaten up on the issue," he says. Nonetheless, questioners get a couple of hits in.
One woman whom I recall from the chief's racial profiling love-in with the 12 and 13 Division communities tells of reporting a theft at a police station and discovering that she herself had a file though she had never committed an offence. She insists that when a sergeant punched her name into the computer, he found a note that she'd been in a "confrontation" with the chief. To be fair, though, that seems more like political than racial profiling.
Another community member's calm inquiries about the details of promised sensitivity and anti-racist training for officers are met with restrained hostility. The chief insists that racism is not tolerated and that all accusations of racism are false, implying that such training is unnecessary. But when pressed, he replies, "You can't make statements that we're not doing it. We're doing plenty. But take some responsibility - human relations is a two-way street." Cue the applause. I love my neighbours.
One of the final speakers raises the police budget - an increasingly controversial issue at of the mayor's Listening To Toronto public budget sessions - and confronts the chief on its lack of transparency. He cites the fact that council is legally barred from seeing an actual breakdown of police expenditures. "Hold it, hold it, hold it," interrupts the chief. "If you were to look at our budget and look at everyone else's budget across the city, you will see that we are no further ahead than any other department." (The police net operating budget is roughly equal to public health, public library, social services and shelter, housing and support combined.)
"I'm not gonna sit here and pretend that we're going to take this kind of criticism without defending what in fact is a reality. I'm very conscientious about every nickel we spend, and I'm very, very committed to making the best out of the situation."
The chief's response seems to have been largely churned out by a random word generator, but since most listening are apparently predisposed to agree with him even if he'd just started rhyming off the periodic table, no one complains, even when the questioner's microphone cuts out soon after she begins to reply.
As questions wind down, reporters surround the chief and oblige him with questions about the dog park poisonings ("Could this be a form of neighbourhood terrorism?" asks the Global TV recipient of the Way to Keep Us Afraid Award) and Holly Jones. (It bears mentioning that Jones was allegedly killed by a white computer programmer; one wonders why the police haven't started profiling pale guys with glasses.)
It strikes me how strategic it is to have the first - and most covered - town hall meeting with a community that's unlikely to raise hard questions and is easily placated by noble-sounding pronouncements. "We can't be the catch basin or flashpoint for all that has failed us in addressing violence in our society and the deterioration of quality of life issues," says the chief.
Would that everyone from the town hall had been invited to City Hall two days later to hear deputations before the community and neighbourhood services committee.
An OCAP member spoke of officers in the east end shutting down 24-hour coffee shops where homeless people gather. "Your city government just put up blue notices all around my downtown saying, 'Cold front, extremely dangerous.' Where the fuck are people supposed to go?"