Hopes high that Toronto police task force will bring real reform
Community consultations leave some observers feeling more positive about a cultural shift in Toronto policing.
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D!onne Renée, an activist and longshot Toronto mayoral candidate in 2014, had been skeptical that the Toronto Police Service was capable of making a major cultural shift.
But her pessimism took a turn last week after attending the final summer consultation session on proposed police reforms.
“I can say tonight sounded different than the other meeting that I attended, and basically that’s because of Supt. (Frank) Bergen,” she told Torstar News Service.
In May, the 35-year veteran left his post as the unit commander at 14 Division to “look at how to operationalize” the recommendations made by the so-called Transformational Task Force, Bergen told the gathering.
After leading a small group of kids through a mock police march, Bergen answered audience questions in a forthright manner. He didn’t get defensive when the questions got tough, and acknowledged past mistakes such as the corrosive effect of carding, which left some communities feeling stigmatized.
“We’re going to assure you we are going to change our culture . . . we will be where the community wants us to be,” he said at one point. “Give us an opportunity to show you we can do this better.”
This spring, the task force, made up of police employees and citizens, released an interim report, The Way Forward, with 24 recommendations to modernize policing in Toronto — and contain the spiraling $1.05-billion budget.
The report contains some contentious ideas, such as amalgamating some of Toronto’s 17 police divisions and imposing a three-year freeze on hiring and promotions for officers and civilians, reducing the current complement of 5,200 uniformed officers to 4,750. It’s estimated the measures will reduce the budget by $100 million.
So it wasn’t unexpected that closing some divisions would be the “number one concern” of people who attended the community meetings, including the one held Sept. 13 in Scarborough, said Staff Sgt. Justin Vander Heyden, one of 15 members of the task force.
Nevertheless, the 21-year veteran says he’s confident Torontonians will ultimately embrace the plan — if it means getting officers, equipped with new handheld technology, into neighbourhoods and out of their cruisers.
Police cars are “like big steel bubbles that allow us to get to places fast, but it’s a steel barrier between us and the community,” said Vander Heyden, a former homicide detective.
A participant at the meeting at the McGregor Community Centre expressed support for more officer face-time and less windshield time, via a yellow sticky note placed on one of the comment boards spread throughout the room.
“Officers in this division sit in their parked cruisers and stare @ youth. They should get out of their cars and engage the youth,” read the unsigned note.
Supt. Barbara McLean, who is also on the task force, said the policing model that is being recommended is actually a throwback to the time when cops walked the beat — before mobile technology was introduced inside police cruisers.
“That, along with expansion of the city, so we had to get further faster, took us out of neighbourhoods. Now we’re going to use technology to figure out how to keep officers in neighbourhoods,” she said.
Toronto Police Services Board chair Andy Pringle, who co-chaired the task force with Chief Mark Saunders, said the aim is for residents to know police officers and officers to know the residents.
“We need the officer to be much more a part of the community as opposed to being a police presence,” which will help rebuild trust in communities where there is little, Pringle told the gathering.
“We’re going to have to work with the communities, and work differently than we have in the past.”
Chanel Claybourn, a front-line Toronto Community Housing worker, said building that trust can happen only if there is wide-ranging officer retraining.
“If you’re not going to retrain them properly for modern society and not 30 years ago, you’re still going to have the same problems — because a lot of officers still have their way of thinking,” she said.
Vander Heyden, who followed his father into law enforcement, said task force members are optimistic their recommendations contained in a final report — expected to be made public in January — will be acted upon.
But getting there won’t be easy.
“We are one of those institutions that doesn’t change quickly or happily,” he said.
“The reason police services and agencies involved in public safety are slow to change is because society relies on them to be stable. It’s a fine line between accepting that stability that society wants and moving with the times.”
One more public consultation is planned at city hall on Nov. 5. A final report is expected before the end of the year.
Humans of Toronto
Humans of Toronto