With the Toronto Police Service Board’s recent decision not to renew or extend Police Chief Bill Blair’s contract beyond the end of April next year, we must be concerned over how his replacement will impact the lives of Black people and other minorities of colour in this city.
One of the major issues over the years has been the over-policing of Black men, especially the youth.
Blair came in as a refreshingly different leader, whose understanding of the relationship between the police and the Black community, and his vision for policing in general, were in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, Julian Fantino. For example, Fantino refused to publicly acknowledge that racial profiling of Black people exists within the force.
Blair did acknowledge it and embarked on a program of diversification and community engagement which saw minority officers moved up the ranks and more emphasis placed on police officers interacting with residents in their neighbourhoods. Blair promoted three Black deputy chiefs and elevated many other Blacks and minorities in the service to senior positions. No other police chief before him even came close.
Although Blair’s tenure was not without controversy, we must remember these things, take note and give credit.
It is ironic, though, that under Blair’s watch, the controversial practice which came to be known as carding where individuals were randomly stopped by police, questioned and had information collected from them stored in a police database, was ramped up to alarming levels. A statistical majority of these individuals were Black and other minorities of colour, especially young men. Black men in the police data bank represent almost 30 per cent of people questioned which, relative to Toronto’s total Black population of just over eight per cent, is troubling. In the process, an increasingly antagonistic relationship between the police and large sectors of the Black community has developed, despite attempts to reform the program.
A recent Toronto Star report shows that although the practice of carding has dropped off significantly, police stops of Blacks and other minorities of colour have actually increased, percentage-wise.
Deputy Police Chief Peter Sloly, who has been at the forefront of tackling this thorny issue, has presented a tidy rationale for it. However, it comes back to the same issue, which is that police officers continue to racially profile persons of colour.
The police claim that they are taking steps, including racial awareness training and conducting studies of why racial bias is still so embedded in the system, to begin to correct this anti-Black attitude on the part of officers in the field. Whatever changes are coming cannot happen soon enough.
Rather than Sloly commenting that police are not involved in “social engineering” but “go where the community calls us to go”, we would like to think that there really is, as he said when he met with Share’s editorial staff last summer, a vision within the police force of the most diverse city in the country, and in North America, to do something so forward thinking on the matter of police and community race relations as to clear a path for others to follow.
As it stands now in the minds of too many officers, every Black person appears to be a suspect or potential criminal.
We need to know that whoever becomes the next police chief can take the baton and carry it forward to advance the work in bridging relations between the Black community and the police. We would hate to see a return to the kind of policing philosophy Blair worked so hard to overcome.