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A police union's threat Add to ...

The civilian oversight board of Toronto's police force has done what it should have done long ago. On Thursday, the Toronto Police Services Board adopted a policy stipulating that the police union, the Toronto Police Association, must obey the law. If that sounds self-evident, it remains far from evident to the union's new president, Dave Wilson, who this week said he would disregard the policy. "For me, nothing changes. I'll ignore it."

Ontario's Police Services Act prohibits police officers from supporting or opposing a candidate, party or platform in an election campaign. They may do so when off duty and out of uniform, but may not represent their views as those of an officer.

This is no frivolous bar. The police are given extraordinary powers to enforce the law. It is a crucial point of separation in a democratic society that they not also have the power to create the law. They must be politically neutral. The principle of civilian control demands that they not publicly campaign, as police officers, against the civilian authority they have sworn to serve -- or, in the infamous and chilling words of former Toronto police union president Craig Bromell, "target our enemies."

Mr. Wilson argues that because members of the union executive are on leave from the force, they aren't police officers and aren't bound by the restriction on officers. This would mean that, while officers couldn't oppose candidates, the people speaking on behalf of officers could do so with impunity -- an untenable position. The argument was rejected by City of Toronto solicitor Albert Cohen in 2000, and was rejected by the oversight board in Thursday's policy. Members of the union executive are on leave, but "they remain subject to the Code of Conduct under the Police Services Act and are subject to the lawful direction of the Chief of Police. It would be contrary to the purpose and spirit of the legislation to allow police associations greater latitude to participate in political activities than that provided to individuals, the Chief or the Board."

Mr. Wilson is following in dangerous footsteps. Mr. Bromell was so contemptuous of civilian authority that his executive tried to raise money to defeat city councillors by selling windshield decals to the public in 1999 and 2000, disregarding the law against officers "soliciting or receiving funds" for political activity. The general outcry forced the union to stop, but the rot had set in. Mr. Bromell went on to endorse Ernie Eves for Ontario premier, and his successor Rick McIntosh endorsed John Tory for Toronto mayor. Both men misguidedly accepted the endorsements -- both lost -- and Police Chief Julian Fantino did nothing to stop the endorsements.

Toronto's next police chief will have clearer instructions from the board. He or she will be obliged to discipline any police officer, including one on leave to the union, who endorses a political platform or candidate. The discipline includes charges under the Police Services Act.

Mr. Wilson says he will fight the rule all the way to court. It is alarming to hear a representative of a major Canadian city's police force speak this way. But if his colleagues can't temper his disrespect for civilian authority, it will indeed be for the courts to impress upon him respect for the law he has, as an officer, sworn to uphold.

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