Op-ed: Toronto Police board’s blueprint for reform looks suspect

On two issues that loom large – the selection of a new chief and police discipline – the Board's report for change is mostly non-committal

It’s hard not to be cynical about the Toronto Police Services Board’s latest stab at reform.

The Board released a 94-page document from chair Jim Hart earlier this week entitled Police Reform In Toronto. It includes 80 recommendations promising renewed efforts to combat systemic racism, and the establishment of alternatives to current policing delivery models. In essence, everything that reformers and many police critics have been calling for.

The report will be tabled at the Board’s next meeting on Monday, August 18. It represents the culmination of four virtual town hall meetings held last month by the Board in the wake of protests following the police custody death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Calls to defund the police followed. But council resoundingly rejected that idea.

What the chances are that changes now being proposed by the Board will end up more than just words on paper will depend on a lot of factors. Chief among them, who will replace Mark Saunders as chief. And that process is already looking suspect.

Hart talks in the report about the need to “build new confidence in public safety.” And combat police racism towards Toronto’s Black, Indigenous and marginalized communities.

“We acknowledge that we must do better… that the status quo is not adequate. We recognize that much work remains to be done and that it must be done in partnership with others, including our city’s diverse communities.”

It goes on. “We also must recognize that law enforcement – whether reactive or proactive – is not the only solution to many of the challenges our city faces.”

Hart’s report admits the Board’s shortcomings in dealing with issues of systemic racism in the past.

“The Board recognizes that this report is only the beginning of a dialogue that the Board has to maintain in order to achieve change.

“The onus is on the Board to regain the trust of Torontonians… with a real and visible commitment to equity.”

Those are hard words to walk back should the you-know-what hit the fan. What’s changed? A few things.

Saunders is no longer around. Neither is police union president Mike McCormack, who has been a thorn in the side of policing reformers for more than a decade. Who his replacement will be will have a lot to do with the course that will be steered in policing. The movement to defund police is also not going away either.

Still, the Board’s latest blueprint for reform offers more platitudes than a roadmap for change.

In many respects, the Board’s latest blueprint for reform offers little in the way of real change.

As the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition points out in its assessment, none of the recommendations will change police culture.

“There is no reason to think that fewer Black or Indigenous persons or person of colour will face discrimination from the police,” says TPAC.

On two issues that loom large – namely, the selection of a new chief and police discipline – Hart’s report is mostly non-committal.

The Board’s selection of a new chief is an issue that came up often during town hall meetings. The Board is promising “a rigorous community consultation process.” But it’s unclear what the “community consultation” part will look like.

The Board has rejected an earlier call from TPAC to set up a citizen-led committee to develop criteria for a new chief. Instead, the Board will be hiring a search firm to find and shortlist candidates.

It says it will be looking for a new chief with “a demonstrated ability to create deep and successful reform of policing.”

The Board’s report says nothing, however, on whether the search will look outside 40 College Street.

Saunders was Toronto’s first Black chief. But that did little to move the reform agenda forward. Some policing observers argue that what Toronto needs is an outsider to change the culture of policing.

But the wheels may already be in motion to recruit from inside the force for Saunders’s replacement. Two of Saunders’s deputies – Peter Yuen, who oversees frontline operations, and Shawna Coxon, whose resumé boasts that she is a published academic on technology and crime issues – are reportedly already jockeying for position.

Similarly, on the issue of police discipline, Hart’s report is mostly washing the Board’s hands.

The Board is promising to open up discipline proceedings to public scrutiny. And explore ways the force can investigate all instances of racial profiling. But the report also points out that the Board “has no jurisdiction to direct accountability for misconduct” under the Police Services Act.

That’s not entirely true. Police officers are technically employees of the Board. It’s just that it historically hasn’t chosen to exercise the authority it has to hold officers to account.

Other items on Monday’s Board agenda highlight how far there’s still to go on reforming the police. Those include the police shooting death of Andrew Loku and the purchase of body-worn cameras for Toronto police.

The Board is still dealing with the implementation of recommendations from the 2017 coroner’s inquest into Loku’s death.

It will also be approving the expenditure of some $30 million to outfit Toronto police with body-worn cameras. The idea has been sold by the force as a way to ensure police accountability.

But TPAC calls the expenditure a “technological fix.” A 2016 report to the Board has already found as much. It determined that cameras would do little to change police behaviour. So, too, seemingly will the Board’s latest blueprint for change.


Comments (1)

  • eric August 17, 2020 10:00 PM

    How can a story about the Police Services Board blocking serious reform not mention the spider at the centre of its web: John Tory?

    BTW, August 18 won’t fall on a Monday until 2025.

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