Chief Bill Blair took the podium and, after announcing that Toronto police had recovered a video that allegedly shows Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine, faced a barrage of questions. “Are you shocked?” one reporter shouted. Chief Blair’s response: “I’m disappointed.”
It was a day Torontonians will long remember. The chief’s statement had come just hours after a 474-page police document was released, revealing that the mayor had become the focus of an investigation and was often in contact with an alleged drug dealer.
But it was the next day that a war of words broke out, fresh questions emerged and the spotlight was cast more squarely on Chief Blair – a veteran of more than 35 years who took on racism within the force, defended community-based policing and fought public budget battles. His tenure, though, has also included the uproar over G20 policing, doubt about the force’s approach to the mentally ill and controversy over police use of force in this summer’s shooting of Toronto teen Sammy Yatim.
Over the years, Chief Blair has both defended the mayor and taken him to task. When Mr. Ford lost his temper with a 911 dispatcher in 2011, for example, the chief issued a statement backing the mayor’s version of what happened. But the chief also asked the mayor to get out from behind the wheel and accept a security detail, just a day after Mr. Ford was photographed reading while driving on a busy thoroughfare in 2012.
And in a sit-down interview with The Globe and Mail in September, Chief Blair characterized his relationship with the mayor this way: “My relationship to city hall is through the police services board.” He said he hadn’t spoken with the mayor in “a while.”
On Friday, that relationship was thrust to the fore. The day began with Mr. Ford’s lawyer, Dennis Morris, demanding that the chief release the video and accusing police of having a “political agenda.” On talk radio, Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother, accused the chief of “politicking.” Chief Blair’s spokesman, Mark Pugash, fired back: “What I think we’re seeing here is the beginning of what will be a concerted attack on the investigation, the investigators and the chief.”
To a Toronto city councillor, who is also vice-chair of the Toronto Police Services Board that oversees the chief, that level of tension is not sustainable – and could possibly have been avoided.
“I would’ve preferred, perhaps, that the matter was delegated to another agency outside of the frame of Toronto, given the fact that it involves the mayor, because we probably wouldn’t have been in this predicament as we are now,” Michael Thompson said, noting that he wasn’t speaking in his board capacity and doesn’t doubt the chief’s integrity. “This is very fresh. It just happened yesterday, and people are responding as they see fit. … But no, I don’t think it can go on. How can it?”
Mr. Thompson, a member of Mr. Ford’s executive committee who has sparred publicly with the chief on budget matters, said he was at the International Economic Forum of the Americas in Toronto when Chief Blair held his news conference. He said delegates, both local and foreign, came up to him after the news broke asking, “What’s going on?” so he called the chief to find out.
“From what I gathered, it was a very difficult situation for him,” Mr. Thompson said. “I got the sense that he wasn’t relishing the moment.”
As with most police chiefs at one time or another, speculation has swirled about Chief Blair’s own political ambitions. But those rumours, so far at least, appear baseless: He told The Globe he has no plans for elected office, and a police source who has worked closely with the chief said, “I’ve never heard anything on the political ambition front.”
Still, the chief’s decision to investigate the mayor drew his force into the political realm. While Mr. Blair is comfortable with the thrust and parry of the political ring, this shouldn’t be interpreted as his coming out, according to those who work alongside him.
“He has a responsibility to this city and he takes it very seriously,” said police union president Mike McCormack, when asked why the chief approved an investigation of the alleged crack video. “He was in one of those positions where he was damned if he went through with it and damned if he didn’t.”
Chief Blair represents a break from previous chiefs on many levels. Compared to former chief Julian Fantino, he is seen by some as promoting a workplace where officers are encouraged to take on leadership roles.
“I remember his first real speech to all the troops at police headquarters,” said Hamlin Grange, a former CBC journalist who first came across Chief Blair in the mid-1990s, and who later served on the police services board. “He talked about leadership and said ‘I expect you all to be leaders.’ That was astounding coming out of the Julian Fantino era. Fantino was very top down, even dictatorial, you might say. Here was a leader coming in telling you the opposite.”
A former provincial government official who worked closely with Chief Blair described him as a “straight shooter.” He cited the chief’s speech on Monday to the Canadian Club of Toronto, where he set the stage for the release of court documents later in the week, by saying police will conduct their investigation into Project Traveller, a drugs and gangs probe that resulted in dozens of arrests in June, “without fear and without favour.”
Chief Blair has not given any media interviews since his news conference Thursday.
With reports from Ann Hui, Jill Mahoney, Elizabeth Church and Karen HowlettReport Typo/Error