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Toronto Attack on Toronto Police Chief Blair is just plain politicking

Is the chief of police guilty of insubordination? That is the extraordinary, and ultimately baseless, charge levelled against Bill Blair by city Councillor Michael Thompson.

"The chief has, in many instances, not followed the direction, not followed policy," Mr. Thompson, a former member of the Police Services Board, told Globe reporter Ann Hui. "And in fact, the board has not been able to muster the energy to say, 'You know what? You're being insubordinate.' I believe that's what it is. He's being insubordinate to the board."

It is quite a thing to say about a man who is just finishing up a distinguished 10-year stretch as chief, and he is not taking it lying down. "I don't normally respond to personal attacks, but I will make an exception in this case," he said in a statement. "I believe integrity and public safety are more important than cynical political expediency."

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In an interview on Monday, he went further, defending himself in detail and responding sharply to Mr. Thompson. "I've got four and half weeks left in this," he told me. "I think it's kind of unfortunate that some people for whatever reason – and again I won't ascribe motive, but for whatever reason, I think sometimes people just seeking attention – start slinging mud."

There are two prongs to the attack on Mr. Blair levelled by Mr. Thompson and his echoes in the local media. The first is that the chief has thwarted the board's attempt to reform carding – the practice of recording personal information of individuals in contacts with police.

"Well, it's not true," the chief says. Once carding became an issue, he says, he worked hard on analyzing and improving procedures for police contacts with the public, trying to respond to critics who said that because a disproportionate number of black men were being carded, police must be racially profiling. He says that from the start of his time as chief, he has made it clear he will not tolerate racial profiling.

When he and the board clashed on what kind of reforms to bring in – the chief did not want his officers hamstrung when they tried to gather information that might help solve or prevent crime – "a discussion then ensued." He was not being insubordinate. He was trying to come up with a solution that allowed officers to make contacts with the public (a cornerstone of community policing) without making anyone feel picked on. The goal, he says, is to "treat public the way they should be treated: with dignity and respect."

He suspended carding as of Jan. 1 pending an agreement on how to move forward. Now, a mediator is working with the police board and the chief on a resolution, which the chief and others say is coming soon. The new policy, the chief says, will be "very much in the public interest and consistent with the rule of law."

The chief can have sharp elbows when he is under attack – as the Ford brothers learned – and he does not hesitate to use them on Mr. Thompson. He notes that the councillor who now seems so concerned about police checks and racial profiling got himself in hot water way back in 2005 when, during a summer of violence, he suggested that police should have more powers to stop and question black youths. Mr. Thompson later apologized for the comment.

The second prong of attack against the chief is that he has failed to rein in police costs. Mr. Thompson locked horns with the chief over budget cuts in the Ford years.

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Here again, the chief has a comeback. He points out that 90 per cent of the police budget goes to salaries and benefits. These are negotiated with the police union by the police board, not the police chief. "Come on, let's be honest," he says. "They signed the contract, and having written the cheque, they seemed shocked that they actually have to cover it."

The round of criticisms directed at the chief is tied up with the political jockeying over who should replace him. Detractors say he has stood in the way of deputy chief Peter Sloly, who would become the first black chief if the board gave him the job. One former deputy chief, Keith Forde, has come out openly for Mr. Sloly, part of what appears a concerted campaign to shame city leaders into appointing him to head the force.

Mr. Blair flatly denies opposing, or backing, anyone. He says he is not taking any part in choosing his successor. "I have no intention whatsoever of interfering with that in any way."

The whole strange business is unfortunate and unseemly. There is a natural tension between the head of the police force and its civilian overseers, and the two will sometimes differ, but the chief should be able to say what he thinks is right without being accused of insubordination. He is not the root of all evil. In fact, he has worked harder than any chief to increase the diversity of the police force and to reach out to the city's communities.

Mayor John Tory did not reappoint Mr. Thompson to the board, which he complained was showing signs of dysfunction. Mr. Thompson was publicly unhappy about that.

Now a new board is in place, with Mr. Tory himself as a member. With no history on city council and no grudges, he should be a stabilizing force. If the chief is right, we will soon have a mediated solution to the carding dispute, and soon after that, a new chief. It's a chance for a new start.

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Toronto has some challenges over policing, from controlling rising costs to making sure police do not alienate residents in troubled neighbourhoods. But many big cities face the same problems. With good leadership and oversight of the force, they can be overcome. Giving an admirable chief of police a kick on his way out does not help.

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