The Progressive Conservative government of Ontario has appointed as the head of the provincial police force a man who is a long-time friend of Premier Doug Ford and his family. Mr. Ford insists this is no problem, no problem at all: The new commissioner of the Ontario Provincial Police, Ron Taverner, is an admired veteran cop chosen by an independent panel.
In fact, it is a very big problem indeed.
Democratic countries put a wall between leaders of the government and leaders of the police for a reason. If the police are beholden to those in power, it opens the door to political arrests. Police become guard dogs for the rulers instead of guardians of the public. People stop believing that the police will enforce the law without favour.
Even in a fortunate country like Canada where a descent into authoritarianism is remote, it is unwise to have a top cop who is the chum of a premier. Police sometimes have to investigate government leaders accused of lining their pockets or playing loose with election rules. How is the public going to trust the police to probe potential crimes or misdemeanours of the Ford government with Mr. Taverner in charge?
Mr. Ford would have screamed bloody murder if his Liberal predecessors Kathleen Wynne or Dalton McGuinty had appointed a friend to the top job at the OPP when the Liberal gas-plant scandal was under investigation. The federal opposition would scream just as loudly if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a family friend head of the RCMP.
Mr. Ford should know better. He was at Toronto City Hall when police were investigating his brother the mayor during the infamous crack-smoking scandal. How would it have looked if – instead of the estimable Bill Blair – Mr. Taverner had been in charge of the Toronto police? That episode illustrated in Technicolor why police must stay above any suspicion that they might give special treatment to someone in power.
The Premier seems entirely deaf to the trouble that could come from the hiring of his friend. Under questioning from the media on Tuesday, he plucked a sheet of paper from his pocket and began reciting quotations from others about what a great leader the new OPP boss is. If Mr. Taverner happened to be his friend, what of it? “I’m friends with thousands of people.” And if officials appear to have lowered the prerequisites for the OPP job so that Mr. Taverner could qualify, well who cares? His appointment is the “best dream” of every front-line cop.
Mr. Ford would have us believe that he had “zero influence” over the appointment. A panel chose Mr. Taverner purely on his merits. Of all the senior police officers from all the places who might have qualified, it just happened to select a 72-year-old family friend of the Fords who for years has policed their home turf in Toronto’s Etobicoke district.
Even if all of this is true, Mr. Ford was wrong to sign off on the hiring of his friend. More than a hint of cronyism already hangs over his government, which is showing a tendency to put its friends in cushy jobs and throw perceived enemies overboard. This confirms it.
Worse than the favouritism is Mr. Ford’s Trumpian tendency to see enemies around every corner. In his testy exchange with the media, he took a shot at former OPP commissioner Chris Lewis, who has criticized the Taverner hiring. He also had a go at a favourite whipping boy, the news media, accusing them of taking over from the Liberals and the NDP as the official opposition to his government. “I look forward to working with the media party,” he said, sarcastically.
All of this is typical of the Doug Ford that Toronto got to know when he was the right-hand man to Rob Ford at city hall. Then, as now, he thinks the rules are for someone else. Then, as now, he claims to have a direct line to the hearts of ordinary folk. His is a government “for the people.” With that sort of mandate he can do anything he wants – even approve the hiring of a friend to lead the OPP.