If we needed another reason to worry about the sorry state of police oversight, here it is. We take you to the Toronto police services board, that body of civilians whose job it is to make sure the public controls the cops and not the other way around. Recently, new reform-minded board members have tried to undo the symbols of the board's cozy relationship with those they are supposed to be monitoring. Step one was opting to move meetings out of police HQ and down to City Hall.
But wait. Who is this man with his own office down the hall from the chair of this supposedly civilian outfit? And why is he privy to intimate conversations and whatever delicate documents come across the fax machine? Why, he's Inspector Earl Witty, the "chief's liaison" to the board.
Perhaps there's no better symbol of the political rot in Toronto's police oversight system than the fact that the chief has his very own mole in the office sworn to maintain independent civilian control. "It feels like there's a spy in the tent," says a distressed board insider. "There's no need for it."
Having Chief Julian Fantino's rep breathing the same air as the force's watchdog seemed to be a good idea to the former chair, the gun-totin' Norm Gardner, who was deposed for accepting a free gun from a dealer and availing himself of police ammo.
"Norm was basically a chair who was running the board for the chief," says a board source. "Just to make sure that everything was kept nice and smooth, this guy (Witty) basically became his assistant."
Gardner declined an interview request on Monday, January 26. "He's not available," says the woman who answers the phone at his Thornhill home, explaining, "You people haven't been very nice to him."
But Inspector Witty must have done a good job - he's just been promoted to staff inspector. (He did not return calls from NOW).
Back in the old days, it was the custom for the chief to have his agent in the police services board office. But when Susan Eng became board chair in the early 90s, she sent the officer packing. Maureen Prinsloo, who succeeded Eng as chair, continued the practice of not having a cop in the board office. But when Gardner arrived, the liaison was reinstated.
Now that Gardner is gone, some at the board want to be rid of Witty, too.
To make matters worse, the board under Gardner created no protocol to control what the chief's liaison can and cannot see, even though the board handles documents that are for the eyes of board members only. The one fax machine in the board office is used by both the chair and the chief's liaison.
"There's no board protocol as far as I know," says board spokesperson Sandy Adelson. "The position actually reports to the police, so anything to do with direction, control, guidelines provided to the inspector (would come from) the chief's office."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the board has not discussed what to do with Inspector Witty. After all, it's been one crisis after another lately. Soon after an inquiry into the Gardner gun play began, someone from within the force tried to neuter new reformist chair Alan Heisey by leaking comments attributed to him regarding child porn.
But Councillor Pam McConnell says the board must, at some time, confront the issue of whether it's appropriate for the chief's liaison to be located within the board office.
"In my view, it's important for the citizen oversight service board to be both perceived to be and to be independent. You can't have blurry lines. If you have blurry lines, it compromises the independence of the board."
On the other hand, McConnell says she recognizes the importance of good communication, especially during moments such as this when the board is polarized between those who want a more muscular form of police oversight and those who are happy with business as usual.
McConnell even allows that the chief should have a liaison to the board - but that person should sit in the chief's office.
And on that, it appears, McConnell is not necessarily in disagreement with the chief. Fantino spokesperson Mark Pugash says having a liaison between chief and board is a win-win for both parties.
"Both sides see the advantage in having someone in that situation who can make things happen and is an easily identifiable mechanism for information to go both ways," says Pugash. But, he says, "as far as the accommodation issue is concerned, that's one for the board to talk about."
Meanwhile, Mayor David Miller, who decided to forgo his seat on the police services board in favour of sitting on the TTC, also says it's up to the board to decide what to do with the chief's liaison, and he expects they'll make the right decision.
"I have every confidence in people like Pam McConnell and John Filion. They'll understand what's important in terms of public perception and in terms of making the board function properly."
In the end, the decision may rest with Heisey himself - what one chair brings in, another can throw out. The current chief's liaison is a "person of integrity," Heisey says. "I understand the issue that Councillor McConnell has raised. If it's raised at the board, I'm interested in discussing it."