The chair of the Toronto Police Services Board says Mayor John Tory acted appropriately in passing on a prominent family's complaints to the police chief, despite criticism from the former chair who believes the mayor crossed a line.
Board chair Andy Pringle said he sees nothing unusual or improper in Mr. Tory's decision to relay concerns from family members of Barry and Honey Sherman, who were found dead in their home three weeks ago, about police communication to Police Chief Mark Saunders. The family members were upset about leaks to the media, including a suggestion investigators believed the deaths may have been a murder-suicide.
"If I had been to see the family, as the mayor apparently had, and there were concerns, I would pass them along. I think any sensible person would do the same thing. And I think that's quite different than either asking a question or giving an order," Mr. Pringle said.
Ontario legislation prohibits civilian police oversight boards from giving direction to police chiefs on specific operational decisions or the day-to-day operation of a force. Mr. Tory is a member of the Toronto Police Services Board.
Alok Mukherjee, past chair of the city's police services board, said Mr. Tory's conduct could be seen as a potential violation, noting that the mayor wields enormous influence and that the board is responsible for hiring police chiefs and renewing their contracts.
"When he picks up the phone to the chief … and says here is what I've heard, the chief may well say, well the mayor is asking me to do something about it, which obviously would be the intent why the matter is being conveyed. It will not be seen as simply conveying a message. It may well be seen as a direction," said Mr. Mukherjee, who is a visiting professor at Ryerson University.
Mr. Mukherjee added, "Mr. Pringle is wrong" in his assessment and needs a refresher course on the Police Services Act.
In addition, Mr. Mukherjee also said the mayor's actions create a public perception that a prominent family can get special access to the police. He noted that many victims' relatives share similar complaints about the quality of police communication but feel they have nowhere to turn.
"That leads to perception in the community of differential treatment," he said. "By choosing to take this one and make it a personal message reinforces, intentionally or not, the impression that if you have access to the mayor, you can have direct access to the police chief."
Mike McCormack, president of the Toronto Police Association, said he would like to see "some clarification of what exactly" the mayor said to Chief Saunders. "I would hope that the mayor understands his role not to interfere or have any influence on operational or investigation process."
A spokeswoman for the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, the civilian oversight agency responsible for investigating the conduct of police services board members, said it had not received any complaints relating to Mr. Tory's actions.
Mr. Tory spoke at a memorial service for the Shermans, saying they were his friends. The mayor, who was seated between the couple at an event just a few weeks before their deaths, said he had often approached Mr. Sherman, the billionaire founder of drug company Apotex Inc., for charitable donations before becoming mayor.
After the deaths, members of the Sherman family told Mr. Tory they were seeing information in the media before hearing from police, according to Don Peat, the mayor's spokesman.
"The mayor firmly believes it is part of his job as mayor to speak to grieving families and to comfort them. He speaks to many families following traumatic events in the city and conveys their concerns, if any, to the relevant city divisions or agencies," Mr. Peat said on Friday. "In this case, he conveyed the concerns raised by the Sherman family dispassionately to the chief like he would for any family and did not make any requests of police."
The investigation into the couple's deaths is continuing. Mr. and Ms. Sherman, who were 75 and 70 respectively, were found dead near the indoor pool of their north Toronto mansion on Dec. 15. They died of "ligature neck compression," or strangulation with a rope or cord.
Several media outlets, including The Globe, reported that police sources said an early theory of investigators was that the case was a murder-suicide. However, the couple's four children dismissed outright the suggestion and have since hired private experts to conduct an independent investigation.