Police board’s choice for interim chief sends wrong message, reformers say

At a time when members on council are pushing for a dramatic overhaul in the way the city does policing, is a stand pat guy the best choice moving forward?



The Toronto Police Services Board has announced the appointment of an interim chief of police to replace outgoing Mark Saunders.

Deputy Chief James Ramer, a 40-year veteran of the force who is the current head of Specialized Operations Command, which includes the Emergency Task Force and Public Order unit, takes over effective August 1.

Under normal circumstances, Ramer would seem a good fit to play the role of caretaker. Those who know him describe him as pleasant, low-key and someone who’s easy to get along with.

But a replacement for Saunders will take months to find. And at a time when the force is facing a push from council to cut the police budget by 10 per cent and overhaul the way the city does policing in a dramatic way, is a stand pat guy the best choice moving forward?

It’s a question policing observers are asking.

“Some of us had predicted this a while ago,” says one police insider. “Subtext: we tried a Black Chief and it didn’t work out. So, we have to go to someone experienced. Only, it shows questionable judgment at this point in time.”

Ramer says in a statement released by the Board  on Monday that he will “continue the vital work of modernizing and transforming our organization, in meaningful partnership with our members and the communities we serve.” In the short term, that means implementing the body-worn cameras pilot project undertaken under Saunders and scheduled to be implemented force-wide at the end of July.

As well, Ramer says that he will “make it my singular priority to build public trust and confidence in the Toronto Police Service, and the dedicated men and women who serve us bravely.” On that front, his credentials include a five-year stint as co-chair of Saunders’ Black Community Consultative Committee.

But that was before the Black Lives Matter movement, according to one source. The dynamic on police/Black community relations has changed markedly since Saunders has been at the helm – and again only in the last few weeks amid the fallout over the police killing of George Floyd in the U.S. and a rash of police-custody deaths and shootings in the GTA, including of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto.

According to the Board’s statement, Ramer will not be applying for the chief’s job – he’s reportedly scheduled to retire next year – although his closeness to Saunders had led some to believe that he would land in the chief’s chair permanently. Toronto police union president Mike McCormack is unwilling to go there when contacted by NOW for comment, although he did tell the Toronto Sun that he’s “looking forward” to working with Ramer. The Board, judging by its statement, is also prepared to give Ramer, who’s known as a hands-on manager, the right to exercise his full authority until a replacement can be found.

So if not Ramer in the short term, then whom?

Former board chair Alok Mukherjee suggests the force could have recruited someone from the outside on an interim basis to start the process of culture change. “I’m not sure how much thought the Board gave to the implications of holding on to the status quo.”

That wouldn’t be an unprecedented move. Former deputy chief Mike Boyd was plucked out of retirement to act as interim chief after Julian Fantino was pushed out the job in 2005. Boyd, who was widely viewed as a reformer, also pledged at the time not to run for the chief’s job, but changed his mind and later campaigned openly for the position. The job eventually went to his second in command, Bill Blair. And Boyd would go on on to serve as chief in Edmonton.

Pam McConnell was chair at the time of a Board that was seen as more activist. The current Board chaired by Jim Hart seems inclined to follow a more traditional path.

John Sewell, who heads the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, says the Board is doing what’s it has always done: “Appoint someone from within who has been there forever. It’s very discouraging. At this point what we need is someone who can take the department in a different direction.”

TPAC had called on the Board to appoint a community-led committee to map out a selection process for chief. Instead, Sewell says, the board decided in-camera to hire an outside firm to conduct the search, a move he says contravenes Section 35 of the Police Services Act, which sets out criteria for in-camera meetings.

The Board’s statement says that the outside firm chosen will also “undertake a comprehensive public consultation process that will effectively engage the diverse voices of Toronto in identifying the qualities and priorities for the next Chief of Police.”

But so far, there is no timeline for that. Board spokesperson Sandy Murray says in an email to NOW that “the Board recognizes this is a priority for the City and wants to move expeditiously, recognizing the importance of attracting the best candidates and being informed by a robust and comprehensive public consultation process. Once the timing becomes clearer, we will be providing further updates as we go.”

In his statement endorsing the choice of Ramer, Mayor John Tory signalled that the Board expects the interim chief to be in the position for “the coming months.” The mayor adds that he’s “confident that Deputy Ramer will provide the leadership our police service needs.”

That will come as welcome news to some, but perhaps not so much to those looking for the police department to move more quickly on reform.

Sewell is not convinced the Board should be in a hurry to appoint a chief, despite the pressure for change. He says he’s “not too optimistic” that motions to cut the police budget and implement policy changes in how police deal with people experiencing mental health issues, for one, won’t be too watered down by the time they reach the Board.  

@nowtoronto

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