The gallery at police board meetings tends to have two natural states: empty and standing room only. Friday, October 14, its packed, the centre occupied by numerous solemn supporters of Palestinian rights and the balance by a small but rowdy group, presumably supporters of Israeli government policy.
The issue at stake is an official visit to Israel by then chief Julian Fantino last March - with then deputy chief Bill Blair in tow - to learn about police "best practices."
There are photocopied packages being handed out, signed by "concerned Canadian citizens," one of whom writes, "Palestinian police are also trained by Israeli security forces." A picture shows a Palestinian police officer shaking hands with an Israeli lieutenant colonel. "Support the tactical advantage of your Toronto police."
On the other side, copies of Susan Howard-Azzeh's deputation include a montage of photos from the Occupied Territories, with the recurring theme of blood and soldiers. A young woman in the gallery giggles at the sight of them. Though deputants and gawkers champ at the bit, they have to sit through the strangely relevant revision of the force's policy on strip searches.
John Sewell, speaking for the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, lauds the apparent move away from mandatory strip searches (still performed at an officer's discretion, but they must now be reported and tracked). He thinks the entirety of the search policy should be made public. Chief Blair objects on the grounds that it could compromise the force.
Board member Hamlin Grange questions this. "Assuming people who are being strip-searched," he asks, "are in custody, in a controlled environment, why would [releasing the full policy] create problems?"
"It could pose a risk to the officers involved," says the chief. "Full disclosure of all our procedures could render them inoperable."
The mandatory nature of invasive searches has certainly been a source of consternation among political activists. Is the policy simply one of safety for officers and detainees, or does social control become easier as the prospect of arrest becomes more humiliating? This question sticks as deputant Rafeef Siadeh, speaking on the subsequent matter of the controversial trip, tells of Palestinian child prisoners being routinely strip-searched by Israeli soldiers.
Newly anointed chair Alok Mukherjee points out that international relations are well outside the board's mandate. "Telling us anything we cannot act upon," he says, "is just a waste of your time."
Nonetheless, deputants assert that by not stopping the trip the board tacitly took a position vis à vis global affairs.
"Israel is not a neutral state," says Abigail Bakan, a professor at Queen's University and one of many Jewish critics of Israeli policy on the speakers list. "To seek training in Israel is to seek the professional assistance of a state that is grounded in racial profiling and violation of international law."
We might also concern ourselves with the coming influx of Toronto police officers trained by the Toronto police. Or the FBI conference we'll be hosting in 2006, according to an undiscussed agenda item.
It's unlikely that the Toronto force will opt for sniper fire as general deterrence. But one wonders if a civilian police force can follow through on its growing rhetoric of community policing while also comparing notes with an occupying military force.
"The board did not take into account the fears and concerns of Muslim people, especially after September 11," says deputant Ali Mallah, eliciting bewildering laughter from the gaggle of hecklers. "Do we want our police force to learn from a government that occupies people's land?" Meanwhile, the hecklers amuse themselves mocking Mallah's accent.
York professor David Noble takes a pragmatic approach. "This is lobbying on behalf of a foreign government," he says, referring to the heckling contingent, "and the city should be very concerned about this being done by an unregistered group." By way of a counter-argument, one of the hyena pack expresses surprise that Noble is not better looking. Touché, sir. Touché.
Elias Hazineh, speaking on behalf of MP Carolyn Parrish, tells how the feds had to revise one Israel tour. In 1995, Parrish was one of 10 MPs invited on an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel. "There were no Palestinian camps on the itinerary," reads Hazineh from a written statement. "Bill Graham had to insist that meetings with Palestinian authorities be arranged." It is now also illegal for an MP to accept such a trip without first reporting to the Ethics Commissioner.
Ahmed Motiar, from South Africa, compares the occupation to his country's former apartheid regime. "Would the board have found it morally justifiable to send its officers to learn best practices from such a racist state?" he asks.
The jibes of the pro-Israeli government folks, who have clearly skipped nap time, descend into guttural noises and shouts. Blair walks over and says with a point of his finger, "Everyone has the right to be here." They soon depart with a defiant slam of the door.
As board chair Mukherjee thanks speakers and states tepidly that the board will report back with a policy on any similar future proposals, police brass and Muslim deputants share a few eye rolls and head shakes over the departing debate team.