The 5 real reasons Bill Blair was canned

From open warfare with his political masters to a rank and file deeply divided over his leadership, the factors behind the chief's dismissal are more complicated – and personal – than a ballooning cop budget


1) The biggest reason the Police Services Board decided not to renew the police chief’s contract: it was personal.

Officially, the decision was about timing. Blair has been at the helm for 10 years, and it’s time for a change at the top. In that vein, the statement issued by the board on Wednesday, July 30, offered that there had been “considerable discussion related to the Toronto Police Service’s continuing need for organizational renewal.”

Subsequent news media reports gave different spins. The most popular was that the chief was reluctant to rein in the police budget. The truth is there’s no one reason, but there is a common denominator in all the narratives: board chair Alok Mukherjee. Clearly the chief’s frayed relationship with Mukherjee shifted the precarious hold Blair had on the board’s support. Without Mukherjee in his corner, Blair no longer had the fourth vote he needed.

Tension between the two began over the G20. The board-commissioned report into that fiasco painted an unflattering portrait of Blair as a bystander. There was a rumoured confrontation between them when Mukherjee showed up unannounced at the command centre after the shit hit the fan on the streets. But what happened on the ground that weekend in June 2010 was part of Blair’s larger problem: he had little, if any, control over rank-and-file officers.

The G20 was just the beginning of Blair’s problems with Mukherjee. The practice of “carding” young black men was the other flashpoint, and not just because it opened the force to accusations of racial profiling. The larger issue was that Blair had been hired to change police culture and implement community policing. But the minority hiring for which he’s rightly lauded didn’t have the desired effect overall. Racialized communities are still being targeted and over-policed.

2) Rob Ford had more to do with Blair’s demise than people think.

It would be naive to believe that the mayor’s very public differences with the chief over the police budget, not to mention the force’s investigation into Ford’s crack video escapades, had nothing to do with Blair’s termination. It was practically open warfare between Blair and Ford’s frontman on the board, vice-chair Michael Thompson.

Animosity was thick from the get-go Ford set Blair up for failure, first by stating publicly that he would reinstate Blair’s predecessor, Julian Fantino, if he could. Talk about a slap in the face. Blair was hired precisely because he was the antithesis of the media-spotlight-hogging, politically driven Fantino. He would be a calming, mature influence on the force.

Then he was handcuffed by Ford when the mayor made his first order of business signing off on a lucrative pay increase in the contract with the rank and file that he knew would box the chief in financially and make it impossible for him to stickhandle the 10 per cent cut in the bottom line mandated by council.

The hiring freezes that resulted had two other consequences for Blair that aren’t much talked about. They put a stop to the diversity hiring that Blair had been encouraged to pursue under David Miller. But more importantly, they pitted Blair against the Toronto Police Association, which wasn’t so keen on Blair’s minority-hiring binge anyway. “Too much too fast” was the TPA’s view the argument was that recruitment was pushing out more experienced officers.

3) The police investigation into Ford’s crack video hastened Blair’s departure.

Long before Blair’s handling (some say mishandling) of the police probe sparked by the crack video came under scrutiny, the chief was aware of the mayor’s activities. Ford’s rep preceded him. So why have there been no charges?

Maybe Blair believed he had more political leverage if he didn’t bring him down. Whatever the reason, it appeared at times that the investigation was being sabotaged from within. It seems there were vying allegiances, a few among the rank and file more loyal to Ford than to Blair. That’s never good news for a chief.

The day after the board announced it would not extend Blair’s contract, news leaked that the mayor would be subpoenaed to testify at the trial of his alleged drug dealer, Alexander “Sandro” Lisi. He’s the piece of work charged with extortion in his effort to retrieve the crack tape.

Doug Ford blamed the chief for the leak. He called it “payback” for the board’s decision to let him go, but he backtracked when Blair threatened to sue. But now that Blair has been let go, there’s nothing stopping him from sticking it to Ford once and for all, is there?

4) Blair’s is a tainted legacy.

Bill Blair presided over the longest sustained decline in major crime the city has ever seen. He deserves credit for that. But the G20 has cast a dark shadow. Even worse were his denials and excuses for police brutality on the street, which would end up costing the force millions in legal costs.

Also on Blair’s watch were two very public mass shootings, first at the Eaton Centre, then on Danzig Street in Scarborough. The blame for those can’t be laid entirely at Blair’s feet. But some police-watchers ventured that the force’s inability – some say unwillingness – to tackle open gang warfare festering in Alexandra Park, the Scarborough housing projects and northern parts of the city is what led to the violence spilling out into the public.

Arguably, the public’s loss of confidence in Blair had as much to do with the Danzig and Eaton Centre shootings as it did with the G20.

The Sammy Yatim shooting on a Dundas streetcar last year was the last straw. The chief responded quickly to the public outrage, commissioning an independent review of police encounters with people in crisis – except it looked like a set-up. The person he first chose to undertake the review worked for a law firm that had defended Toronto police in past shootings. Blair eventually settled on Frank Iacobucci, a retired Supreme Court justice, who delivered his recommendations the Thursday before the board’s decision to let Blair go.

At that press conference, the chief made a show of pledging that this report wouldn’t go the way of all the others. But it felt like a PR exercise. James Forcillo, the officer charged with shooting Yatim, may now have been put in position for a plea deal. On the day Iacobucci’s document was released, came reports the Crown had decided to add a charge of attempted murder to the second-degree murder charge already facing him.

5) Progressives turned on Blair.

If not Blair, then who? That question scares the crap out of police reformers. Blair has his shortcomings. But it’s unlikely that whoever succeeds him will be concerned with anything but the bottom line. The die has been cast by the board.

“Modernize” is the new buzzword – except it’s the old buzzword. When Blair was the next best thing, modernizing meant diversifying the force’s makeup.

But now “modernize” means cost-cutting, for police-watchers both left and right. Mukherjee says it’s time for outside-the-box thinking on deployment and other issues. It’s déjà vu all over again – we seem to have the same conversation every time a new chief is hired.

There’s talk again of bringing in someone from outside, but don’t hold your breath. If the TPA has anything to say about it – and it usually does – the new chief will be someone from inside the force.

Deputy Chief Peter Sloly, the highest-ranking black officer, has been talked about among progressives as a possible replacement. He’s risen quickly through the ranks but has looked not ready for prime time. More importantly, the TPA is not keen on him, given some of Sloly’s comments in the past about racial profiling by officers.

Blair’s term doesn’t end until next spring. A new council and mayor will be in place by then. Could a new contract be offered to Blair at that point? Stranger things have happened.

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

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