Civilian oversight of our police is essential. It acts as a check and balance against the legal powers society has given the police to enforce the law. That statement, in a report by retired judge John Morden, will strike most readers as self-evident. Any democracy worthy of the name gives civilians a strong leash on its law enforcement authorities. But in Toronto in 2010, the civilians holding the leash fell down on the job.
According to Mr. Morden’s sharpl y worded report, the Toronto police services board was a “voiceless entity” in the run-up to the G20 summit that June, “a mere bystander in a process it was supposed to lead.” Instead of asking tough questions, it deferred to police chief Bill Blair.
Partly as a result, the policing of the G20 went badly awry. Toronto police were detailed to protect the security fence around the G20 meeting site, so when violence broke out in the downtown core, they couldn’t break away to help other officers deal with protesters who smashed windows and burned police cars. The temporary jail they set up for detained protesters was grossly inadequate for the task of dealing with mass arrests.
Although neither the board nor the police should bear all the blame for these mistakes – Ottawa, Mr. Morden says, gave Toronto far too little time to prepare for such a complex security operation – they might have been avoided if the police board had made the effort to inform itself. In effect, the police watchdog was blind.
“The board could have asked questions about how the plans for the G20 summit were unfolding, what specific policing role the Toronto Police Service would be discharging during the G20 summit, or how decisions about critical aspects of policing the event were being made, but it did not,” says the report.
The board, says Mr. Morden, tends to underestimate its oversight powers. Because the law prohibits it from directing specific police operations – a function properly left to the chief and other commanders – it has been reluctant to question the police on operational matters. “The board’s approach in this regard has been wrong,” the report says bluntly. It can and should inform itself about police operations and make recommendations. If, for example, it had looked into preparations for the temporary detention centre, things might have turned out differently. As it happened, the centre became a black eye for the police, with many detainees held for far too long in miserable conditions.
It is easy to see how all this could happen. The police are a paramilitary organization with their own command structure and their own way of doing things. They naturally chafe at civilian meddling. This can happen even under an unusually open chief such as Bill Blair, who takes very seriously his responsibility to account to the board.
The way things work now, Mr. Morden says, the chief is a kind of gatekeeper for the flow of information to the board, which relies on him for just about everything it knows. As a result, “meetings between the chief of police and the board often take the form of a one-way address as opposed to a consultation concerning issues and matters impacting the Toronto Police Service. True consultation – that is, an open exchange of information, ideas, and, sometimes, debate – is required if the board is to meet its significant legislative duties.”
Councillor Adam Vaughan, who pushed for this inquiry, says the problem is not just diffidence on the part of the board. It is excessive cosiness between some members of the board and the police command. He says he tried to get answers about the G20, but “every time you pushed you got slapped down.”
Both Chief Blair and board chair Alok Mukherjee say they welcome the report and plan to learn from it. Good. An empowered, probing, tough-minded police board is essential to effective, accountable policing. Nothing showed that more clearly than the events of June, 2010.