Reining in the unaccountable chief

TheStar.com – opinion/editoriaslopinion
Published On Sun Dec 19 2010.   Charles Pascal

I imagine that all Chief Bill Blair wants for Christmas is Don Cherry as the new chair of the Toronto Police Services Board, notwithstanding the chief’s seemingly cozy relationship with the current chair. There was no Cherry-picking for Mayor Rob Ford when His Worship chose three council members, but he still has a civilian pick left if he wants to appoint his new best friend to the board. The chief can only hope. It’s not likely that the province, with a few spots to fill coming up, will appoint someone on Blair’s short list.

But it’s not actually the chief I worry about. He has done some good things. Tons of experience. But it seems like too many military and paramilitary types just don’t do well taking orders, let alone guidance, from anyone not wearing a uniform. Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, for example, loved giving himself directions in public, damn the minister of defence.

So what’s up with the Toronto Police Services Board? It would be nice if it was arms-length effective in its oversight, but let’s review the “short-arm” impression of the recent post-G20 period. Three things stick out for me.

First, the day after the G20, when anecdotal evidence was sky high, more than enough to draw inferences that the police might have made a few big booboos — no identification on too many cops, the strategically abandoned police car, the lack of focus on the rogue group of protesters — board chair Alok Mukherjee’s immediate remarks were to the effect that “our men and women of the force did a great job in difficult circumstances.”

His first instinct was to unconditionally protect the police. No nuances, in sight, not even a “we’ll obviously take a closer look to see what we can learn” add-on after the appropriate public praise of our finest.

Second example. A few weeks ago, when the chief was his more media-savvy self, he publicly lobbied for purchasing and retaining key surveillance equipment left over from the G20. In an interview, he noted as a sidebar comment: “I plan to take this request to the Police Services Board’s next meeting.”

How does he get away with doing a public dance on this before he makes a presentation to his board? It reveals a total lack of respect for governance. More important, it was likely a public act of lobbying the incoming mayor because the chief knew the next meeting of the board would take place after the “tougher” Ford had made his assignments to the board.

And later, after the chief had dug the hole of his own making even deeper, Mukherjee was asked if Blair had his full support. “Absolutely,” he replied. Again, no nuances in sight.

The board’s governing statute notes that the board may give orders and directions to the chief of police. There is no inkling that anyone provided the chief with effective orders or directions regarding the need to thoroughly investigate the conduct of his charges. Who gave him directions to go on the offensive with inflammatory remarks he made regarding the innocent who now is a Mr. Somebody or the SIU? If directions weren’t given, why? And if orders were given to the chief, were they too politely offered and ineffective or were they just ignored? Either way, we have a failure to govern.

The board’s next meeting is in the third week of January. For the sake of a safer city and in service of protecting the reputation of the remarkable performance of most of our police officers, it is time for a much more effective and tougher civilian oversight. Blair needs it and should be given the chance to see how he works with an effective board to either regain the people’s confidence or be given an opportunity to do some gardening or run for political office.

My hope is that the mayor’s new appointees along with the provincial choices will move away from the current feckless and cozy short-arm approach to more independent governance. While this longer-arm approach would mean a shorter leash for the chief, one that would not likely suit the unaccountable circumstances that suits his style of leadership, it’s what he needs.

And it’s what the citizens of Toronto deserve.

Charles Pascal is a professor at OISE/University of Toronto and a former Ontario deputy minister.

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