As Toronto police grapple with budget woes that may cut its uniformed strength, or conceivably shut down one of its divisions entirely, some welcome news greeted the new police chief of neighbouring Peel Region.
Councillors overseeing the fast-growing urban sprawl last week gave Police Chief Jennifer Evans the green light to hire 22 additional front-line officers, with a price tag of roughly $3.5-million.
More boots on the ground, however, are only part of what’s needed, says Chief Evans, who took command in October. Much also depends on who wears them.
Among a population of 1.2 million, 60 per cent of whom belong to visible minorities, mainly of South Asian descent, only 14 per cent of Peel’s 1,900-plus uniformed officers are non-white, and 16 per cent female. (On the Toronto force, serving a city that’s roughly half non-white, the percentages are 21 and 18 respectively.)
Hence the stream of police-recruitment messages aimed at ethnic minorities that blanket Mississauga and Brampton, Peel’s two big cities. The newest batch of 30 new officers were about one-third female or non-white, but Chief Evans wants to see many more.
“This is one of my biggest challenges,” she said in an interview. “We need people who speak the languages. We have multilanguage interpreter systems, but it would be so much easier if the officer who shows up at the door speaks the language.
“But I also recognize that I can’t drop standards …. and within the senior ranks I don’t want to make promotions based on the colour of a person’s skin or the fact that they’re female. If they don’t have the proper skills set, that makes a mockery of the whole system.”
The extra money approved last week was part of the 2013 Peel Region budget package, which will add $22 to an average homeowner’s tax bill. In the run-up debate, one of the 24 councillors questioned whether the municipality could afford the new officers, particularly since the crime rate is falling, but in the end the budget sailed through unopposed.
After almost 30 years with Peel police, including a stint as leader of its homicide squad, its first female chief brings with her a blend of good-humoured civility and tough-minded independence.
And when the findings from B.C.’s Missing Women Commission of Inquiry are released on Monday, Chief Evans will be watching closely – she testified at the inquiry for a week in January.
She also wrote a report faulting the lack of direction in the way Vancouver police and the RCMP handled the multipronged investigation into serial killer Robert Pickton and the trail of death he left behind as he slaughtered women from the city’s impoverished Downtown Eastside.
“I interviewed all those officers 10 years later, and I could see that they were still struggling with what had happened, they were so hard on themselves,” she said.
“Because they were all investigating missing women, they were all doing it their own way, and communication probably wasn’t as good as it could have been, or they didn’t realize the problem was as big as it was, because so many police services were involved.”
Chief Evans spent almost four years with Peel’s homicide squad, famous for its average annual clearance rate of more than 90 per cent, reflective of how it front-loads an investigation by flooding the scene with dozens of officers during the first crucial 72 hours.
And one of her proudest moments took place before that, with the 1992 conviction of a Port Credit rapist who drugged and assaulted 11 women.
But in her new job, more ordinary troubles clog the in-tray: A spike in pedestrian fatalities (nine so far this year); a rash of violent robberies targeting young people for their iPods and cellphones, and some serious traffic congestion.
Another inherited headache involves five Peel officers who, according to a Superior Court judge, lied under oath in a drugs case and are now under investigation by the internal affairs unit.
One technique for keeping track of the rank and file is what Chief Evans laughingly calls “the dreaded pop-ins” – appearing unexpectedly at, for example, the 6 a.m. inspection parade, and other venues.
When not at work, skiing, snowmobiling, travelling and reading fill her time. Her husband recently retired from the Ontario Provincial Police and her two stepsons are also pursuing law-enforcement careers.
Being chief, she says, is about being inclusive and building trust, particularly in schools. But that can be a tough haul among immigrants whose perceptions of police are often shaped by negative experiences in their homelands.
Even among relatives of murder victims, Chief Evans says, suspicions about people in authority linger.
“They can be distrustful as well, and that can be a hard barrier to break.
“I would like to market Peel police better than we do. I want the younger generation to know we’re here to help, that we’re about more than just enforcing laws.”