Bill Blair retires this weekend after 10 years as Toronto's chief of police. How should we judge him?
His critics say there were two Blairs: the good chief and the bad chief. The good chief was the man we saw earlier in his tenure, the one who deftly defused a Tamil protest, reached out to troubled neighbourhoods and encouraged greater diversity in the police force. The bad chief was the one who came along later to stomp on civil liberties during the G20 summit and defend the despicable practice of carding.
This is a caricature of his record. The real Bill Blair remained very much himself throughout his time in office. He saw it as his first duty to keep the city safe and do it within the bounds of the law. He worked hard to maintain the bond of trust between the people of Toronto and those empowered to defend them. He expected the highest standard of conduct from his officers. He had flaws. He made mistakes, some of them serious. But his record, taken as a whole, was admirable. Here was one of Toronto's finest public servants.
It was clear almost from the day he took office in April, 2005, that Chief Blair was an extraordinary leader. He had come up the ranks from Regent Park beat cop and made a name for himself by straightening out the troubled 51 Division, sometimes nicknamed Fort Apache, in the east side of downtown.
Parting ways from his chippy predecessor, Julian Fantino, he conceded that racial profiling existed, worked to improve police relations with minority groups and held countless dialogues with community leaders.
After a spate of gun violence in 2005 known as the Summer of the Gun, he led a pacification effort that had police crack down hard on gangs and guns while putting more cops on the street to gather information and form relationships with the communities they covered.
He appointed the first black deputy chief, Keith Forde, within months of starting the job. He became the first chief to march in the Pride parade.
When Tamil protesters blocked traffic on the Gardiner Expressway in 2009, he resisted calls to clear them away by force and parlayed with them instead. The protest came to a peaceful end.
When the Rob Ford scandal broke out in 2013, he calmly sent his investigators to search for the truth, fending off the Ford brothers' ridiculous claim that he was on a political crusade against them. When police found the crack video, he told the city about it and spoke for many when he remarked that he was disappointed.
When a policeman shot teenager Sammy Yatim on a streetcar that same year, the chief met with Yatim's family and appointed a judge to study how police could do a better job of dealing with emotionally disturbed people.
Some critics seem ready to disregard all of this. In their eyes, the actions of the bad chief eclipse the accomplishments of the good. The G20 and carding are their exhibits A and B.
The G20 was not the chief's finest hour. Police under-reacted on the first day of the 2010 summit and masked protesters stormed through downtown streets, smashing windows and burning police cars. Then they overreacted, rounding up hundreds of innocent people and holding them under dismal conditions in a barn-like detention centre.
Police commanders made a mistake when they boxed in a crowd at Queen and Spadina and left them to stand in a downpour – the notorious "kettling" incident. The chief made a mistake when he left the public with the impression that a special regulation established a five-metre no-go zone at the fence protecting the summit area (he later apologized for that).
In the aftermath of the G20, he was too slow to acknowledge police excesses, too defensive as criticism of his officers grew. In one of his worst moments, he suggested that a video showing police setting upon a protester, Adam Nobody, was doctored (he apologized for that, too).
But the chief should not carry all the blame. The G20 security effort was a combined operation of several forces. The difficulty of distinguishing peaceful protesters from violent protesters determined to wreak havoc would have challenged any commander. His patient handling of a later event, the Occupy camp at a downtown park, showed that he was sincere about respecting the right to protest.
What of the carding issue? Community groups complain it can amount to racial profiling when police stop, question and record the details of people they encounter. The police say that carding helps them to learn about the communities they patrol and to prevent or solve crimes.
Chief Blair has resisted attempts to end carding altogether or to impose rules that would render it impractical. His detractors say that, in doing so, he has put the torch to his legacy of cultivating better relations with minority communities. That is absurd.
He has said over and over, going back to before he was chief, that he knows that police run the risk of souring relations with the public if they don't treat everyone they encounter with respect. He has said over and over that he won't tolerate any form of biased policing. He has been driving home that message for years. Now, he has enshrined it in a mediated settlement with the police board that, among other things, explicitly prohibits police from using "race, place of origin, age, colour, ethnic origin, gender identity or gender expression in deciding whether to initiate a community engagement." The incoming chief, Mark Saunders, can be expected to carry forward that commitment to bias-free policing wherever he lands on the carding debate.
The police budget is another exhibit in the case against the chief. His critics say he didn't do enough to rein in soaring police or reform policing practices. It was one reason the police board didn't renew his contract when it came up last summer.
The criticism is half right. The Toronto force has been slow to embrace change in the light of lower crime rates. But nine dollars out of every 10 the force spends go to salaries and benefits and it is the board, not the chief, that negotiates contracts.
In the end, there really is only one Bill Blair. Toronto was lucky to have him. He helped make the city a safer place. He ran the police force with integrity and intelligence. He always faced criticism squarely and never shied away from scrutiny of his conduct. He is a decent man who did a hard job exceptionally well. Let's remember that on his final day in blue.