Op-ed: Time for police chief to put money where his mouth is on the need for “major change”

If Toronto wants to avoid scenes like the ones happening in protests in the U.S., then more than promises will be needed to deal with anti-Black racism

A clown showed up in Blackface at the anti-racism demonstration at Nathan Phillips Square on Saturday. Not a literal clown, mind you, but someone acting like one.

Clearly, he was there to draw attention to himself, if not incite violence. Protestors didn’t take the bait. The clown was escorted away by the police. And that’s a good thing because the last thing we need right now are distractions from the real issues at hand. That is, the need for police reform in the aftermath of the police custody death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet and for us as a city (and country) to confront anti-Black racism and the need for police accountability in a meaningful way.

There was some suggestion by Mayor John Tory and police chief Mark Saunders that outsiders were planning to crash the protest. Some store owners downtown boarded up their shops, adding fuel to the speculation. Other members of the media anticipating trouble didn’t help matters by evoking scenes of looting and the burning of police cars that took place during protests over the G20 all those years ago ahead of Saturday’s demonstration.

But the march went off without a hitch. And the conjecture proved a disservice to the memory of Korchinski-Paquet and to her family, who have been clear about not wanting to turn her death into a spectacle, despite the anger surrounding the circumstances leading to her fall from a 24th-storey balcony of a High Park apartment building on May 27.

Just who were these folks who were planning to mess with the peaceful protest? Some suggested anarchists from Montreal familiar with so-called “Black Bloc” tactics were planning to flood our town. Was it Antifa the cops were talking about?

Without naming names, speculation was allowed to simmer.

What we do know is that some white nationalist types attended the march organized by Not Another Black Life on May 30. It’s a familiar tactic for those on the far right to infiltrate demonstrations and try to detract from the message by destroying property. Cops, too. 

Before Saturday’s action, a man who identified himself as a city employee captured two Toronto police officers moving rocks onto the sidewalk just outside Nathan Phillips Square. He posted a video on Instagram. What were the police doing moving rocks by the side of the road? (The chief never did respond to my tweet at him).

There has been similar online chatter and footage of police in the U.S. – in the UK and Hong Kong, too – leaving bricks on the street along protest routes to encourage violence. Most of it has been debunked as rumour. But there’s no denying the level of police violence that protests in the U.S. and around the world have been met with. The litany of abuse is hard to watch. Thankfully, those scenes have not happened here.

But eventually, the protests will fade, and more than just words will be needed to rebuild what chief Saunders described during a press conference on Thursday as the “fractured trust” between police and Black communities after the death of Korchinski-Paquet. 

That will require a fundamental rethinking of how we do policing, including turning over certain functions to civilians. It’s working in pockets in the United States, where entire departments have been reorganized or disbanded.

But right now, neither the chief nor the mayor nor the Toronto police union are inclined to do what those marching on the streets are calling for: police accountability and to put the $1 billion-plus being spent on police into social services that can better address the social determinants of gun violence. Historically, there has only been pushback from police, bordering on outright hostility. In 2016,  the head of the Toronto police union, Mike McCormack, described calls by Councillor Mike Layton for a review of “systemic racism” in cases probed by the Special Investigation Unit as “political masturbation.” 

More recently, mayor Tory has done more to skirt calls for cuts to the police budget or acknowledge the need for fundamental reform, even while Toronto Board of Health has passed a motion declaring anti-Black racism a public health emergency. 

It’s not rocket science. We know from experience that putting more money into community youth and recreation programs and investing in employment opportunities and transit builds safer communities. There are councillors calling for a closer look at the police budget

The chief talked on Thursday about the time being over for incremental change in policing. He also talked about not sweeping certain realities “under the rug” when it comes to the number of calls for services related to mental health facing frontline officers.

But the costs of those realities can’t be allowed to supersede changes needed now in the way we do policing. Those need to be confronted, too, if we don’t want to see scenes like the ones that are happening in the U.S. the next time someone dies in police custody. Words, no matter how well-meaning, will only take us so far.


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