“I am very, very afraid of the actions I’ve taken against the police.”

Bas Balkissoon voiced the fear and distrust of police that many Canadians seem to be feeling. He was addressing a May 16 public meeting sponsored by the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition (TPAC). The City Councillor told sixty meeting participants that police boards are not providing effective civilian oversight of police: “I resigned my position on the Police Services Board because I believe the system of accountability is not working.”

Another speaker was a woman known publicly as “Jane Doe,” who successfully sued the Toronto Police for failing to warn her about a serial rapist. She said that there is no public accountability — that the Police Services Board serves only as a rubber stamp for the chief. Doe cited an audit City Council ordered to review how police handle sexual assault complaints: “Chief Fantino reported that the social audit recommendations were all acted upon and though this was patently false, the board just accepted it as the truth.”

Vancouver Rape Relief recently expressed similar concerns about how police treat women who have experienced male violence. “It is critical to address why it took so long for police to get to this point in their response to the missing women,” the group said after Robert Picton was charged with killing several of the fifty women missing from Vancouver’s east side. “We will continue to press the police to take any woman’s report of violence seriously.”

“Police are supposed to be under effective civilian control, accountable to and taking direction from the police services boards. And the boards should, in turn, encourage public debate on policing issues,” Jane Doe stated. “Instead, police — not only in Toronto but all over this country — seem accountable to no one but themselves.”

Many participants at the meeting spoke emotionally about their treatment by police, especially in the black community. Several said they have been unable to get the Police Services Board to respond to their complaints. One woman, who requested anonymity, commented tearfully: “[Board Chair] Norm Gardner refused my request to make a presentation to the board … He just said No’.”

The Toronto Police Accountability Coalition was formed nine months ago to help craft a vision for better policing in Toronto. John Sewell is a former Toronto mayor who sits on TPAC’s steering committee. He said the group is exploring “a number of issues, including strip-searching, video surveillance, hiring practices and police behaviour at demonstrations.”

Reached before the meeting, Bas Balkissoon was reluctant to speak privately about why he abruptly left the Police Services Board in March after less than one year. “I don’t want to say anything against police because they are so quick to sue. They [the Toronto Police Association] have a war chest and I don’t.”

But Balkissoon opened up during the TPAC meeting, shocking the group with some of his revelations: “After I resigned from the Board, I heard from an internal police investigator who wanted to meet with me. I was forced to document my concerns.”

At G-20 meetings in Ottawa last November, many citizens complained about how police treated protesters. But that city’s Police Services Board ignored requests for an inquiry. In response, former Ottawa Mayor Marion Dewar agreed to chair a volunteer panel to hear citizens’ concerns. The ensuing report of the Citizens Panel on Policing and the Community, released May 9, offered recommendations to “rebuild trust between citizens and police, which is essential in a free and democratic society.”

“It will take time to restore the trust in the community for the police,” Dewar told the Ottawa Citizen recently. “It will be difficult to implement the recommendations in time for the G-8 summit in Alberta this June,” she warned.

The TPAC meeting heard that concerns about police accountability in Ontario intensified in 1995, when the Conservatives dismantled the Ontario Civilian Complaints Commission. “The police now investigate police,” Balkissoon explained. “And that only serves to discourage people, especially new immigrants, from reporting incidents.”

Sewell believes that public “worries grew much broader after September 11, when many fearful Canadians were more than willing to strengthen police powers.” He said TPAC is also considering holding a public inquiry to hear citizens’ complaints about police. “It may be the only way we can begin a public debate on the issue of police accountability.”

Jane Doe concluded with this suggestion for the audience: “Next time you go to a protest, wear a Leafs jersey and carry a can of beer. The police will see you as a hero instead of a criminal.”