Serial killer shame shines light on Toronto police’s history of violence against the vulnerable

For Jane Doe, who successfully sued Toronto police for negligence the last time a serial criminal terrorized the Village, hope that relations between police and marginalized communities can be rebuilt after the Bruce McArthur horror show comes with a warning

The horror show over Toronto police’s mishandling of the investigation into missing persons and alleged serial murders in the Village feels sadly familiar.

In 1987, I sued Toronto police for failing to warn women of a serial rapist, the so-called Balcony Rapist, who was also operating in the Church-Wellesley area. I was his fifth target – at least, that we know of.

During the 11 years it took my civil suit to get to trial, police insisted that they failed to issue a public warning, referred to today as a “community safety alert,” because the rapist would flee the neighbourhood if they did, which would make him harder to catch. They also argued that issuing a warning would make women in the neighbourhood hysterical. So, I decided to issue a warning of my own. 

Despite police threats that I could be charged with public mischief, I organized in the feminist community, distributing some 2,000 posters informing women of the danger in our midst, and asking everyone to attend a community meeting. Police declined our invitation. The rapist was arrested within 36 hours of our action after someone who saw one of our posters called the cops.

In her finding against Toronto police, Justice Jean MacFarland exposed the sexism, rape mythology and victim blaming that govern sexual assault investigations. MacFarland declared that police had been “grossly negligent,” putting their investigation ahead of public safety. 

Cut to 2018 and we’re witnessing similar victim-blaming – not to mention, racism, homo- and sex worker- phobia – in the current murder investigation involving Bruce McArthur.

The judge’s decision in my civil case was suppose to make a difference in how police investigations are conducted. It did not. The public seldom know what police are doing in major investigations and are given scant information to make informed decisions about personal, public and community safety.

Similarly, the “Jane Doe Audit” conducted by the city’s then auditor general and the Sexual Assault Audit Steering Committee (SAASC), which met over a 10-year period in an attempt to implement audit recommendations concerning police investigations, was summarily shut down in 2010. We were shown the door without the benefit of a mediation process that police agreed to and paid for to work out our differences.

Oh, the police may warn the public more about predators now, but there is no policy to govern that: it’s still at their discretion. Meanwhile Black, Indigenous and racialized members of the community continue to suffer gross violations of their Charter rights when stopped, dealing with or arrested by the police.

Police protocols and policies governing investigations are set out in the Police Services Act, which is legislation controlled by the provincial government – and apparently as sacred as Veronica’s Veil (the religious artifact, not the punk band). Citing the Act and its government-only purview is the ruse most used by police to avoid change and to maintain a culture of secrecy, racism, sexism, Trans and homophobia. 

Based on my experiences with police over 30 years and ongoing observations of their investigations, I’ve come to the conclusion that the inflexibility of the structures of the TPS and its civilian overseers on the Toronto Police Service Board, does not – cannot – allow for the democratic civic engagement and analysis necessary to realize constructive change.

Despite the attempts of SAASC to find realistic openings to effect change, the result was a document, prepared and released by the police in 2014, to legitimize structures already in place. Notwithstanding any meaningful implementation, they claimed victory and satisfaction all around, and that Toronto cops were still tops.

Some officers and members of police management supported the transformations we recommended, especially regarding racist and sexist police training. We were also successful in developing terms of reference that mandated that an equal number of community members and police officers sit on the SAASC and that no member hold veto power. An independent mediator was hired to facilitate breakdowns in communication. And community members on the committee were paid for their time and expertise.

But despite the accountability prototypes that were agreed to and recorded in minutes of meetings and in published articles, I am not aware of any community meeting with the police since (including with women’s anti-violence groups) that has followed the model.

Instead, civilians are siloed in different police committees where the intersections of rape and race, colonialism and queerness are dismissed or relegated as secondary priorities. Such are the standards that have been established in ongoing community-police liaison committees, in which the civilian members hold no power and are far outnumbered by police, legal and academic players.

When police actions are met with inevitable acts of protest from community groups (especially as represented by Black Lives Matter), they are seen as outlaw and interfering with institutional norms and regulations.

For members of the LGBTQ communities searching for rationale in the McArthur investigation, declarations by Mayor John Tory that an external review of the case will be conducted by a citizen-led working group and governed by the Toronto Police Services Board, must be scrutinized.  

To assume that the board will be a kinder, gentler body to work with is unwise. In fact, it was the board’s decision to shut down the Jane Doe audit in 2010. It’s critical to establish a terms of reference and other conditions to ensure accountability, including the unrestricted involvement of community experts.  There are precedents that can secure a more productive seat at the table for the community.  Removing the committee’s work from police headquarters and offices into community agencies is one way. 

I am not a proponent of seeking a remedy through the legal system, if that is the direction community decides to take in the McArthur case. Personal and time demands of the civil court process are onerous and the notion that lower courts can order change – they cannot – or that that they can be used as a mechanism to implement recommendations of inquiries into police actions, has not been borne out.

But whether the police are confronted in court, at the board level or in the community, it’s critical to understand the history and perils of meeting at all. In the end, any power we hold regarding demands for police accountability is in the political process.

The McArthur case has alerted us, yet again and painfully, to police negligence and discrimination in criminal investigations. In all of those cases the victims were gay, transgender, racialized and/or sex workers in the Church-Wellesley area. Separating those identities from shoddy policing will only deflect from the need to address problems embedded in policing structures and culture. Relegating the crimes and careless investigations to one area or community separate from our own will be our collusion and disgrace.  

So, you’ve been warned, kindly and respectfully, I hope. Warned and supported with hope about a chapter in police/legal/civilian engagement that can be built on and transformed before the hearts of an entire city are broken again by failed police investigations.

Jane Doe is an author, activist and educator.

A history of violence

Toronto police’s record of discrimination against Church-Wellesley and its denizens goes back decades  

1981: Bathhouse raids

Some 150 Toronto police officers armed with crowbars, billy clubs and sledgehammers raid four gay bathhouses arresting 289 men on prostitution and indecency charges in Operation Soap. 

Mid-1980s: The Balcony Rapist

A predator prowls the Church-Wellesley neighbourhood and rapes several women at knifepoint. His fifth victim, “Jane Doe,” successfully sues police for gross negligence for failing to warn women in the neighbourhood of the danger.

2000: Pussy Palace bust up

Six male cops bust and strip-search women attending a party at the Club Toronto, a women’s and trans-women-only bathhouse. 

2016: Marie Curtis Park arrests 

A six-week undercover sting – prompted by reports of an alleged sex offender exposing himself “in the vicinity of children” – results in criminal charges ranging from indecent exposure to engaging in sexual activity against some 80 men and two women. 

2018: An alleged serial killer runs loose

Police charge Bruce McArthur in years-old and unsolved disappearances of gay men – a number of them racialized. It’s later discovered police questioned him in 2014 but let him go, and failed to interview him in 2016 after one man complained McArthur tried to kill him. McArthur was also convicted in 2003 of assaulting a gay man with a metal pipe. | @nowtoronto

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