For Bill Blair’s many critics, the temptation will be to see his exit as comeuppance for the trampling of civil liberties during the G20 summit in 2010, or the handling of the investigation into Mayor Rob Ford, or whatever else on his watch most enraged them.
No doubt that baggage entered the equation as the Toronto Police Services Board deliberated over whether to grant the Chief the contract extension he was seeking. But more than an indictment of his record, Wednesday’s announcement that he will be replaced is recognition that he is no longer the person to take on his force’s biggest policy imperatives.
There is good reason that the heads of most major police forces are lucky to last a decade on the job, as Chief Blair has, let alone beyond it. Over the years, the mandate from civilians will inevitably change, as old challenges are addressed and new ones arise. And for a variety of reasons, the loss of public trust to inevitable controversies and the difficulty of maintaining support among police rank-and-file among them, a chief who comes in driving one agenda is not often willing or able to pivot to a different one.
When he was appointed in 2004, Chief Blair was very much the person for the job – largely because he proved an antidote to his vituperative predecessor.
Whereas Julian Fantino seemed to seek out conflict at every opportunity while constantly issuing gratuitously alarmist warnings to Torontonians that their city was under siege from violent crime, his successor quickly turned down the temperature. In particular, he worked diligently to reach out to minority groups that were suffering from an outright antagonistic relationship with police. And partly in service of that outreach, he adopted a community-policing strategy that the more old-school Mr. Fantino had resisted.
The outreach efforts can hardly be considered an unqualified success – not when his officers still face persistent allegations of racial profiling. But there is no question he made considerable progress in improving the force’s image, at least until the G20 debacle. And although a significant decline in the city’s crime rate has something to do with a broader trend, his strategies no doubt played a role.
But partly because the city has on the whole become safer, the police board’s criteria for a suitable chief have changed. As governments at all levels tighten their belts, there is a growing push to rein in police costs that have mostly been given a free pass – climbing, in Toronto, to more than $1-billion annually.
As the board has pushed him to find savings, Chief Blair has aggressively resisted. Had he not done so, it is unlikely he would have been able to keep his force behind him for as long as he has. But that just adds to the impetus to bring in someone new.
So, too, does the perception that having in recent years been surrounded by a tight circle of confidantes, Chief Blair is too set in his ways to seriously consider structural changes that could improve efficiencies – merging or even eliminating certain units, for instance, or replacing officers with civilians for office tasks.
The desire for institutional reform helps explain why there is speculation that the board, which may have unusual latitude in choosing his successor given the city’s lack of a functional mayor, will bring in a fresh set of eyes from outside the force. Executive-leadership skills will probably count for more than previously, and having climbed up through the ranks for less.
To his civilian overseers, in other words, Chief Blair looks like yesterday’s man. But there’s no great shame in that, and not much of a cautionary tale either. The nature of the job is that a decade from now, or maybe not even in that long, whoever replaces him will probably appear the same way.