On Monday evening, police chief Julian Fantino held a forum on police racism at the York Civic Centre in spite of himself. The community had demanded a meeting in the fallout over racial profiling, but police were so clever that they said it was their own idea.It's the chief's first public foray, after a series of closed-door meetings with community types, since charges that his officers engage in racial profiling exploded onto the front pages some weeks back.
But the chief, superintendent Bill Blair and 12 and 13 Division commanders in attendance gave little indication that the power dynamic between the cops and the community is going to change any time soon. This would seem like the perfect place to start.
The racial divide here between working-class homeowners and visible-minority residents, especially in nearby Little Jamaica, is more pronounced than in most other areas of the city. Memebers of those communities, too, have long complained about the cops' heavy-handed ways, particularly at local hangouts. And just a stone's throw away is the memorial to Todd Bayliss, the much-liked T.O. cop killed by Jamaican immigrant Clinton Gayle. Here, too, is where the accidental shooting death of a local mother caught in the crossfire between drug rivals spawned a near riot.
Councillor Frances Nunziata, who made her political career shutting down booze cans amid charges she was targeting legitimate black businesses, is also present.
So, at first it seemed like simple ignorance that racial profiling was a mere footnote in the chief's address. But soon a pattern came in to focus.
The chief uttered the word "race" twice in his speech. He said "gangs" six times. "Guns" eight times. "Violence" five times. (And I only started counting halfway through).
"Drugs" got a lot of play, too. The implicit message aimed above the heads of the community to the press gallery beyond grew clearer: sure, we're racially profiling, but... gunsgangsviolencedrugs... these people are thugs!
The tone of the chief's remarks continued in that vein. Fantino was looking for sympathy. "I've been home three times this week and had dinner with my wife once. I don't know if that helps you."
And then there was my personal favourite. "Instead of asking me what I'm doing about it," Fantino pontificated, "we have to ask ourselves what we're doing about it. Because when the oxygen runs out, whether you're black, white or green, the problem's the same, so we'd better get our act together, people!"
It's always interesting to watch a person leave a room, or in this case the stratosphere, while staying in it at the same time. I don't know what "act' he was referring to. Maybe the police will try to be a little less violent and in return the people he's addressing should endeavour to be a little less black?
Aside from blaming "bad apples' for the problem that didn't exist, the chief opined that the inexperience of "a very junior police force" might lead to unfortunate beatings. (Read: boys and girls will be boys and girls.) He also continually "acknowledged" the issue by referring to the "perception" of racial profiling.
One community member eloquently caught the chief before he could wriggle out of that one entirely. "If 20 or 30 people came here to complain about a barking dog," the man observed, "we wouldn't say, "Well, there's a perception that there's a barking dog.'" And the droves of community members who lined up at the mikes had plenty of stories to back him up.
One man spoke of an unprovoked beating and subsequent trip in the back of a cruiser to a vacant lot while his captor and other officers mulled over what to charge him with.
Blair, the moderator, would usually cut in at some point during these gruesome anecdotes to rule them irrelevant and shoo the questioner away to make room for the next speaker.
The chief reminded everyone, "I'm not running from the issue," or so he assured us.
But Fantino could hardly own up in front of the cameras, so he stuck with platitudes. "Not one of them (reports on police racism) has escaped our attention," he assured us. "We can show you, item by item, what we are doing." At which point the meeting was promptly ended. No one seemed surprised. The chief glad-handed a bit, then graced the pack of reporters with answers about marijuana decriminalization.
No one at the forum was impressed. One older man repeated to a camera that "the police cannot investigate themselves." And then there's the fear of retribution that I understand too well, since it's shared (not equally, of course) by black community members and white radicals, should they work up the nerve to go into the very cop shop where they were brutalized to lodge a complaint.
While the people filed out of "their" meeting shaking their heads, constables smiled. It didn't take long to strike up a conversation with Marcia, a local York University student who spoke to the widespread wariness of police.
"I've been to the courts. I've been to the police station. I've seen how they treat people," she told me.
During the forum, the chief repeatedly asked the community for help, but Marcia wasn't buying it. "We're going to help you? Do what? Hurt us some more?"