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Toronto Police Services Chief Bill Blair speaks at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. (Matt Llewellyn for The Globe and Mail/Matt Llewellyn for The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Police Services Chief Bill Blair speaks at the Empress Hotel in Victoria. (Matt Llewellyn for The Globe and Mail/Matt Llewellyn for The Globe and Mail)

Blair's conduct during G20 not sinister, just inept Add to ...

In letting his police force run wild during last summer's G20 summit, Bill Blair wasn't being sinister. He was just in over his head.

That, at least, is the distinct impression being formed by the Toronto Police Chief's recent attempts at damage control, which have been so clumsy that they're erasing the fleeting sense there's anything Machiavellian about him.

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Consider the uncomfortable scene that unfolded on Wednesday, when Chief Blair was unable to get through a nationally broadcast interview without the federal police force interrupting it to inform viewers he didn't know what he was talking about.

In the interview, on CBC News Network, Chief Blair insisted that a temporary provincial security regulation under the antiquated Public Works Protection Act - which was kept secret from the public and then wrongly enforced - had been requested on behalf of the Integrated Security Unit, the multi-level command structure for the G20. That would mean it had the support of the RCMP and the Ontario Provincial Police, which worked alongside the Toronto Police Service in the ISU.

Within minutes, the Mounties sent a statement that host Evan Solomon read on air. The regulation "was not raised in any operational meetings, and the RCMP did not approve of the use of the Public Works Protection Act," it said. "It was a Toronto Police Service decision."

That squares up with the findings of Ontario Ombudsman André Marin, whose G20 report states there is "no record of there having been any formal consultation process engaging the ISU or other parties." But considering the look of surprise on Chief Blair's face, it seemed to come as news to him.

So, too, did most other things about the temporary law. Taken at his own word, he was essentially told by lawyers (he's not been very clear which ones) that he should ask the provincial government for broader powers, so he put his signature to a request without really understanding what he was asking for. His force then operated under the false belief that it was entitled to conduct searches and demand identification up to five metres outside the G20's security perimeter, which led to wrongful arrests and helped create a general sense that civil liberties had been suspended.

The Public Works Protection Act was, despite some wild rhetoric from Mr. Marin this week, only a part of what went wrong with policing last June. But the extent to which he botched it, and the way he keeps talking himself into trouble trying to explain it, suggests Chief Blair was not up to the task of providing the cool-headed, focused leadership that the G20 required.

His inability to keep some of his officers under control - leading to violent treatment of peaceful protesters, along with people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time - thus begins to look a little more like incompetence than anything calculated. So, too, do many of his public missteps, from claiming that arrows belonging to a role-playing fantasy gamer were actually the weapons of a violent protester to his recent (and since retracted) contention that a video showing police brutality was doctored.

For all that, it's an open question how much better a performance could reasonably have been expected.

Until a few months ago, Chief Blair had received rave reviews for community policing that struck a welcome contrast to the antics of Julian Fantino, his headline-seeking predecessor. His legacy will forever be tainted by the G20 fiasco. But it's not as though he ever claimed to be an expert in how to protect all of the world's top leaders when they simultaneously descend upon the downtown core of the country's largest city.

If he wasn't up to the job, the federal government that chose the location surely bears some responsibility. So, too, does the province, which under Dalton McGuinty's watch has been dangerously lax when it comes to overseeing the police file - a failing that was obvious in the way it deferred to Chief Blair on the Public Works Protection Act, even when he apparently didn't know what he was doing.

It's little wonder that the other police forces have tried to distance themselves from the TPS, as evidenced by internal e-mails excerpted in Mr. Marin's report. But as Chief Blair now faces daily calls for his head, it bears asking: What municipal police chief wouldn't have been in over his head in Toronto last June?

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