The trip was supposed to have been their chance at reconciliation. An opportunity for the two of them, chief and chair, to get away from the city, the political pressures, the independent reviews and budget squabbles, and have tough conversations about the future of the Toronto Police Service.
Alok Mukherjee, chair of the civilian oversight board, and Bill Blair, chief of Canada’s largest municipal police service, were part of a 12-person delegation heading to Britain.
In October, 2010, the British government announced plans to slash police funding across England and Wales by 20 per cent. The government didn’t tell the chiefs how to do it. Just to get it done. Financially, the initiative has been a huge success. Since 2011, police services in Britain have reduced their budgets by $4.6-billion.
Mr. Mukherjee and Chief Blair were there to see how they did it.
“What I saw interested me very much,” Mr. Mukherjee said.
Police forces had completely overhauled their operations, homing in on the core duties required of a police service. Mr. Mukherjee remembers one service in particular where all non-police functions – accounting, human relations, IT, the help desk, etc. – had been farmed out to a private company. The head of that company worked in partnership with the service’s chief. A sort of mirrored chain of command between the business and the service was setup all the way down the through the ranks.
This was exactly the sort of thing Mr. Mukherjee been advocating for in Toronto. In 2011, while grappling with how to deal with a budget that had ballooned to nearly $1-billion, Mr. Mukherjee wrote a lengthy discussion paper entitled “Avoiding Crisis; An opportunity: Transforming the Toronto Police Service.” It called for contracting out administrative functions, scaling back the number of officers in management positions and rethinking some of the tasks currently being performed by police officers. Mr. Mukherjee was inspired by what he saw happening – and working – in Britain. Chief Bill Blair was horrified.
“Quite frankly, the senior police officers from Canada had huge problems with [what we saw]. Huge problems with it,” Mr. Mukherjee said. “I wouldn’t want to single out Chief Blair.”
Mr. Mukherjee insists there was no particular moment when the board decided not to extend the chief’s contract. The chair praised what Chief Blair had done with community-based policing and the anti-gangs TAVIS unit. “Overall, he was an outstanding leader.”
This week, the Police Services Board announced it was not renewing Chief Blair’s contract. Chief Blair, who will have served the city for 10 years when his term is up in April, 2015, had asked for an extension at the helm. Days after the chief made his intentions known, the Board voted not to accept his offer and gave few reasons publicly, except to say it had nothing to do with the massive arrests during G20 or how the chief had dealt with the investigation of Mayor Rob Ford. The tension between the chief and the mayor and his brother have been high since Chief Blair revealed the existence of the purported crack video. On Friday, Chief Blair threatened Doug Ford with legal action.
The board’s unexpectedly quick decision has led many to believe Mr. Mukherjee will try to put a new chief in place before the next city council is sworn in this December. It’s a scenario that would cast Mr. Mukherjee – who has been chair for about nine years – in the role of kingmaker, free to choose a leader who shares his values about civilian oversight, equity and the need for new ideas.
Chief Blair’s spokesperson Mark Pugash said the chief was unavailable to comment.
In a lengthy interview with the soft-spoken 68-year-old chair a day after the board made its shocking announcement, it became clear that the British trip was a turning point in Mr. Mukherjee’s mind.
It crystallized the differences between Toronto’s two police leaders. Chief Blair, an old school cop who had spent decades working his way through the Toronto police ranks, believed that the Toronto service was essentially, a lean and well-run operation that needed minimal tweaking. Mr. Mukherjee saw it a different way. Yes, the organization, as it was, ran well. But the model – where nearly 90 per cent of budget costs are salary and benefits related – was not sustainable. (Chief Blair has always contended that he has limited ability to trim costs in the situation where salary and benefits are decided by a collective agreement.)