March 22 was a day of coincidences in Toronto: a tumultuous chapter in the history of city politics ended with the death of former mayor Rob Ford; in Ottawa, the Trudeau government introduced its first “growth” budget; and by chance, or choice, Ontario’s minister of community safety and correctional services, Yasir Naqvi, picked the date to release his much-anticipated – and delayed – rules to regulate the police practice of carding.
It is widely believed that the province stepped in to rewrite the regulations to extricate Mayor John Tory from a mess of his own making.
The big catch is that the regulations will not come into effect until January 2017, presumably so that all the preparatory work – training of officers, development of local policies and procedures, establishment of data gathering, review and monitoring mechanisms – can be completed. It makes sense, even though the timetable leaves the community in limbo in the meantime.
The response to the new rules of engagement on street checks has been decidedly mixed. The explicit direction that factors like race, skin colour or physical appearance will not be the basis for collection of personal information has been recognized as a positive feature. As have provisions related to the training of police officers and the fact that the collection and reporting of statistics on street checks will be reviewed by an independent committee after two years.
At the same time, there are concerns that the exceptions allowing the continued collection of personal information are so broad that prohibitions will be circumvented, and the practice will simply go underground.
On the police side, police chiefs have muttered about how they will now need to come up with a “plan B” to gather the intelligence they so need. And police union leaders have warned that officers will hesitate to do their job because their hands have been tied.
These reactions are very much embedded in police culture. And as one academic said to me recently, since the regulation does not tackle this culture, it will not end profiling.
But Naqvi’s skill in finding a fine balance is about to be tested in an even bigger way in proposed changes to the Police Services Act.
Since February, the ministry has been holding province-wide consultations on changes to the act. These include improving police accountability and governance of police services boards, ensuring police oversight bodies like the Special Investigations Unit and Office of the Independent Police Review Director have clearer mandates, improving interactions between the police and people with mental health or addiction issues, clarifying the duties of police officers and modernizing police recruitment and training programs.
The consultations ended April 2, though online feedback will be accepted until April 29.
This is an ambitious undertaking with a tight timeline. Naqvi has said he intends to table proposed changes to the act by the end of this year.
It marks a sea change in the province’s position.
The inadequacies in the law governing policing in Ontario have been noted by police boards and municipalities for a long time. I recall well that whenever we raised these issues with the minister of the day, the answer was always, “We are not opening the act.”
The 1990 Police Services Act was itself the result of compromises and was very clearly weighted in favour of the police. Communities and boards complained about a division of responsibilities that tied the hands of police oversight. They were frustrated by a weak disciplinary and accountability system. Municipalities were very concerned about their inability to check the seemingly runaway cost of policing.
Everyone agreed. “The crisis in policing” became a common subject of conversations among representatives of police boards and commissions.
After years of knocking at the governments’ doors and being rebuffed, the federal government finally took note in 2013 with a national summit on the economics of police. Ontario joined the effort a few months later with a conference on the future of policing. Thus, Naqvi’s initiative marks the culmination of efforts that began a long time ago. He’s been saying all the right things.
The question is, will the latest review produce the results that communities have been seeking?
Two things cause concern. One is the notion that communities, municipalities, police boards, police chiefs and police associations are all equally “stakeholders.” And two, the preoccupation in the ministry with consensus, or balance, at all costs. The regulation to deal with carding reflects the impact of these two considerations on government’s decision-making.
For one thing, public consultations were insufficiently advertised and, as a result, not well attended by the general public.
Second, the process did not permit the public to say what was on its mind. Members of the public who did show up say they felt intimidated. Those participating were asked to respond to a detailed set of questions that presupposed a level or depth of knowledge that was not possessed by everyone. Many were left with the feeling that, once again, the police dominated the conversation. The underlying broader question is about the influence of the police organizations in government circles in general.
There is a perception that their voice is decisive, and changes do not happen without their consent or agreement. Those who hold this view maintain that governments at all levels are responsible for politicizing these police organizations and giving them too much sway in policy-making. It has not escaped notice that the membership of these organizations runs into the thousands and that they are generous political contributors.
As a result, many feel cynical when the government talks about a balanced solution. The widespread belief is that the Police Services Act is already skewed in favour of the police. Therefore, any changes must rectify the imbalance that currently exists.
This is the test of a lifetime that Naqvi faces.
Alok Mukherjee is former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board.