Transparency shouldn't be optional -- especially when you carry a gun

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Photo: Toronto Police Chief Mark Stewart at a Black Votes Matter event in 2015/OFL Communications Department

If ever I’ve felt two solitudes in life, it’s the apparent chasm between the Metropolitan Toronto Police and many representatives of the Black community.
 -Stephen Lewis, Report on Race Relations in Ontario, 1992.

In February, friends and relatives of Toronto police officers gathered outside of police headquarters to protest staffing shortages within the force. The shortages, they argued, not only endangered the lives of officers but also posed a public safety risk, creating slower response times to crises. The demonstration came on the heels of an escalating media campaign that culminated with a symbolic no-confidence vote held by the Toronto Police Association (TPA) one week before the protest.

By organizing the vote, the TPA showed the media and, by extension, the general public that it had lost confidence in Chief Mark Saunders’ leadership. In the days that followed the protests, Chief Saunders appeared on several television and radio programs asserting that the Union’s claims were “absolutely wrong.” In support of Saunders, Toronto Mayor John Tory reiterated to the media his complete confidence and trust in Saunders’ abilities.

As the extensive media coverage of staff shortage indicated, both the Toronto Police Service (TPS) and TPA are capable of mobilizing considerable resources when seeking to bring an issue to light. The no-confidence vote, for example, was foregrounded by extensive radio, print and television coverage and several appearances by Mark McCormack, head of the Toronto Police Association.

Against the backdrop of attention given to staff shortages, the notable silences around police brutality, police accountability, use of force, transphobia, and countless other issues become glaringly obvious. This is poor practice for an organization authorized to lay criminal charges and use force, including lethal force. Indeed, the police should be at the vanguard of transparency and accountability. Yet, in Toronto and many other cities across the country, this is far from the case. Rather than reflecting transparency to the public and acknowledging the many problems within their institution, the TPS has been disproportionately invested in defending itself.

In late February, journalist Marci Ien reported being stopped by police in her own driveway, noting that it was the third time she had been stopped in eight months. In response, two police officers and Mike McCormick took to Twitter in an effort to refute Ien’s claims. Within a matter of hours, two officers had responded to allegations of racial discrimination and Mike McCormick had managed to dig up an excerpt from one of Ien’s pieces dating back to 2005 in which she says that she likes speeding.

Contrast this with the lack of transparency when journalists and community members approach the police service with concerns, inquiries, or grievances.

In January of this year, I emailed McCormack for comment on the understaffing issue as well as rumours that the TPS was considering using special constables to fill staffing gaps. I have yet to receive a response. I then called the police union and asked for information regarding its current membership hoping to compare membership levels to the annual budget. After being transferred to several different people, I was told to send an email — which I did — with my request. I have yet to receive a response. I then called the Toronto Police Service Access and Privacy Section co-ordinator to ask for more recent data and was told that I needed to file an access-to-information request that would take, at minimum, 30 days.

At present, there are many logistical barriers to transparency within the TPS which include extensive bureaucracy, difficult-to-access data, and stonewalling. Recently, the Toronto Star published an expose on the TPS’s use of stingray technology. Their reporting was based on data acquired through an access to information request. It reveals that contrary to statements made in 2016, when the police denied using stingray, the police were in fact tapping the phones of persons of interest and, significantly, those coincidentally in the vicinity of such a person. To date, there has been no action taken against the people involved, no responsibility taken for misleading the public.

In addition to these issues, there’s the strategic silences of the Toronto police. Only months before, the TPA held its no-confidence vote, it remained silent as Chief Saunders stood before reporters and refuted allegations that there was a cover-up in the Dafonte Miller case. Weeks later as evidence of an apparent cover-up mounted, the union once again remained silent. Links here and here.

The Toronto Police Services’ relationships with the city’s LGBTQ+ communities are also noteworthy in this regard. As more information has come to light about the actions of alleged serial killer Bruce MacArthur, Saunders recently blamed Toronto’s LGBTQ community for not helping to police catch MacArthur sooner. Links here and here.

Notably, the community did supply the police with information and support. However, even if members of the community hadn’t provided the police with information (which, again, they did), they would have been fully justified in their decision given the long histories of homophobia, transphobia, sexism and racism experienced at the hands of police. Lastly, it is not appropriate under any circumstances to blame survivors of violence for their victimization. This should be part of the basic knowledge and training of the police.

Evidence of the relationship between the police and the community deteriorating further came on Tuesday, April 3, with the Toronto Police Service abandoning its application to march in uniform in this year Pride Parade after being called upon to do so by LGBTQ leaders. Saunders made a statement on the decision: "My hope is that this move will be received as a concrete example of the fact that I am listening closely to the community’s concerns..."

Last week, a video surfaced of a young man being punched and kicked by police during an arrest. As public outrage mounted, McCormack promptly appeared on some of the most prominent outlets in the country to defend the officers’ actions. At this point, there is more than enough information here to deduce the pattern: the police are quick to mobilize their resources when their image is being tarnished in public but largely silent when community demands accountability, action, and justice. As one of the most powerful institutions in the country, an institution authorized to arrest civilians and use force (including lethal force), the police should be held to the highest standard of transparency and accountability. Yet, in reality, the police evade much of their well-deserved scrutiny through elaborate bureaucracies, limitations on access to data, and selective media engagement.

If the police are understaffed, then the public should be provided with the relevant data to support this claim. And, if, the public is to take seriously the claims from police that understaffing represents a public safety concern, they must be assured that the public safety concerns that they have voiced for decades (anti-black racism, transphobia, profiling, etc.) are being taken seriously.

As provincial and municipal elections approach, citizens have the opportunity to strategically leverage this moment to demand greater accountability and transparency from police. The fact that community grievances remain unaddressed and media requests sit unanswered as officers tweet at reporters is deeply problematic. The public deserves better. If the police want to be take seriously by the people they are policing, they should begin by modelling actual transparency to the public. After all, transparency in public institutions shouldn’t be optional — especially not when you carry a gun.

Phillip Dwight Morgan is the recipient of the first Jack Layton Journalism for Change Fellowship, supported by and the Institute for Change Leaders. He is a Toronto-based journalist, poet, and researcher. 

Photo: Toronto Police Chief Mark Stewart/OFL Communications Department

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