The tongue lashing city councillors gave police last week over controversial paid duty was the latest sign of the Toronto Police Association’s waning influence at city hall.
Members of the executive committee took turns ripping into the fact thousands of highly trained — and paid — Toronto cops have an iron grip on lucrative off-duty assignments.
“I think many councillors are fed up with this,” Councillor James Pasternak told reporters. “The paid-duty officers are costing in the $30 million range, they’re using taxpayer-funded motorcycles and squad cars and horses and uniforms which we incur the cost of replacing while they’re moonlighting and it’s just not right.”
For TPA president Mike McCormack, such talk is the new normal.
He recently sent a don’t-stick-your-neck-out letter to union members that said political leaders care more about “special interests” than backing frontline officers.
There’s the province’s new “ambiguous” street-check regulation, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s “systemic racism” comment on the lawn at Queen’s Park and city council’s unanimous support of a police anti-racism motion.
Also looming is Mayor John Tory’s transformational policing task force. It is supposed to produce a blueprint for modernizing the delivery of police services while reining in costs, which could lead to closed police divisions, a hiring freeze, layoffs, or all of the above.
The TPA has little choice but to push back.
“We will strongly and aggressively oppose any recommendation that we feel has a negative impact on the safety of our members and the community,” McCormack stated in email.
But just how far is the TPA willing to go? Back to an era of intimidation and the politics of fear that cowed politicians into meeting their demands? It wasn’t all that long ago that a councillor who openly questioned or criticized the police was in for a bruising ride from the TPA.
Members of the union executive would make a beeline to city hall to warn the naysayer that “we’re going after you,” says Craig Bromell, TPA president from 1997 to 2003.
“When we showed up, believe me, the whole building knew we were there.” His nicknames ran the gamut from Bro to Bully in Black and other names not fit to print.
“We weren’t the most powerful police union, we were the most powerful union in the country. We were it.”
Bromell infamously led a wildcat strike at 51 Division, the “True Blue” campaign — the union sold stickers to identify motorists as police supporters. Bromell had no qualms about threatening an outbreak of “Blue Flu,” where officers would call in sick to protest an issue.
Former city councillor Brian Ashton, who sat on the civilian oversight police board from 1992 to 1996, remembers well when the police “were so powerful, the public would just side with them immediately.”
And so did the politicians.
On his website, Bromell boasts he negotiated “three contracts totaling 24 per cent in raises with dramatic improvements to pension and medical packages.”
Ashton recalls Bromell’s predecessor, Art Lymer, showing up at one of his campaign meetings and telling the crowd “how much the councillor doesn’t support policing.”
“That was the pressure they were prepared to put on board members and making the connection back to the politicians — the motherlode, the money, the real control, the real power,” says Ashton, now president of the Canadian National Exhibition Association.
While Bromell’s hardball tactics worked 20 years ago, he doubts they’d play well in 2016, Ashton says.
Today’s officers are better educated and come from different disciplines. “They will understand the changing role and culture of policing in Toronto so it’s going to be difficult for the police union to pressure politicians into compliance.”
McCormack is also, generally, more thoughtful and measured in his responses, and cares about his image, unlike Bromell. “The presidents of police unions tend to reflect the rank-and-file of the day,” Ashton says.
A city councillor, who asked not to be named, said the TPA “brand is damaged from the Bromell days.”
Bromell not only disagrees that his combative approach is passé, he’s urging Canadian police unions to become more aggressive, applauding the Montreal Police Union’s new billboard campaign to combat “negativity” about officers.
“The police union’s only job is to protect those who protect others, not the community, not the politicians. Their only function in life is to protect those coppers and their civilian members.”
He is currently putting the final touches on his soon to be released autobiography, Copfather, and penning a blog filled with incendiary, pro-police commentary.
But today’s kinder, gentler Toronto Police Association believes public opinion matters.
“Our fight against crime is not only played out in the court of law, but can also be won in the court of public opinion,” reads a TPA bulletin to its members filled with public opinion polling numbers.
“We’ve found the best way to shape public opinion is by improving our public and government relations initiatives and changing the narrative on policing.”