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The Globe and Mail

Hiring freeze puts diversity efforts at risk, police chief says

Toronto Police chief Bill Blair photographed during an interview with The Globe and Mail at the Toronto Police Headquarter on College St., Toronto December 17 2012.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto Police Service's successful campaign to hire more diverse, multilingual officers is another of the gains that could be eroded by a plan to freeze the force's budget next year, according to Toronto's police chief.

Bill Blair has made it a priority to tap more recruits who grew up in and speak the languages of Toronto's ethnic communities, an effort that has been put on hold because of a near-freeze on hiring that is expected to continue in 2013.

"Certainly we're not making any progress. For the first six years of my tenure we, I think, were very effective in creating a very diverse work force. In our hiring, we set very specific targets for ourselves to bring in language skills, to bring in cultural competency, [to] bring people who came from our diverse communities. I think it makes us a smarter organization," he said.

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"Right now, we're certainly not able to do that."

Grappling with the prospect of a flatlined budget consumed much of Chief Blair's time in 2012, a year that also saw him whipsaw from the emotional low of two high-profile mass shootings in the summer to the satisfaction of presiding over another overall drop in crime.

In a wide-ranging interview Monday, the chief spoke about everything from solving the Danzig Street shootout – he is not expecting any more arrests in connection with the gun battle that killed two and wounded 23 – to the recent massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut to the demise of Canada's long-gun registry.

"We've seen a fairly significant decline in the number of firearms seized by my firearms unit this year because the information that they once relied on isn't available to them," he said. "If someone was prohibited from possessing firearms and they had firearms registered to them, we would go and get them. Now we have no idea."

Toronto seized 1,933 guns as of Nov. 30, 2012, nearly 40 per cent fewer than the 3,190 the force seized in the same period in 2011. This year's total is also down from 2010, when Toronto police seized 3,416 guns.

Still, Chief Blair said Canada retains a strong gun-control regime. Last week's slaughter of 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., is a reminder that this country's system needs to be guarded, he added.

"I think there's a good lesson in the experience of the Americans that we should be protective of our gun-control environment here in Canada. I think the American environment is not something to be emulated," he said.

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In Toronto's case, the drop in gun seizures does not appear to have affected gun violence in Canada's largest city, a metropolis that saw a continued decrease in major crimes in 2012, despite fatal shootings at the Eaton Centre in June and at a community barbecue at a public-housing complex on Danzig Street in July.

In the Danzig case, police have charged three people with murder in what investigators say was a gunfight between rival gangs.

"I think my people have obtained a pretty good idea of what transpired there," Chief Blair said. "I don't think more arrests are likely in this case. Never say never; sometimes additional information comes up, and we'll deal with that when it comes. But I think we've pretty well solved that one."

One case the chief has yet to crack is how to find an extra $8.7-million in unallocated cuts requested by the Toronto Police Services Board, which last week voted to flatline the force's budget.

He has been accused of fear-mongering for mentioning the ramifications of fewer officers. "I don't want people to be afraid. I want people to feel safe … [but] there is an impact," he said.

The chief steered clear of any comments on Mayor Rob Ford. Chief Blair has not met with the mayor in person for "months." They have spoken by phone, he said.

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However, Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor's brother, paid the chief a visit last week. "He brought me a Christmas card," Chief Blair said. "We talked about things up in his community, where he's the ward councillor and he wished me well for Christmas."

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