It has been a rare rough patch for Bill Blair, Toronto's smart, dedicated police chief.
Named to the post in 2005, and reappointed last year to serve till 2015, Mr. Blair has been one of the most effective and popular chiefs of Canada's largest city. He has presided over a sharp drop in crime rates. He has put in place a double-pronged crime strategy that sends police flying squads to search out guns and gangs, but that also reaches out to crime-ridden communities to try to dissolve the mistrust of police. When angry Tamil protesters clogged downtown streets last year, he won praise for managing the protests without calling in the riot squad.
But the G20 and its aftermath have not been his finest hour. Before the June summit began, he summoned the press to talk about an obscure provincial regulation that he said banned people from coming within five metres of the summit security fence. It turned out the regulation said no such thing, but no one told the public till the summit was over. The whole confusing mess is now under investigation.
Policing behaviour during the summit itself was a coordinated effort and so not under his command alone, but about 1,100 people were arrested during the summit weekend, many of them unnecessarily, and he must surely wear some of the responsibility for that. He himself has conceded that when authorities held a crowd of 250 in a ring of riot police at Queen and Spadina streets for several hours in torrential rain on the night of Sunday, June 27, police waited too long to let them free (though he defends the original decision to box them in, a tactic known as "kettling.")
His latest misstep is the strangest. It began when the Special Investigations Unit, which probes claims of police misbehaviour, said that police probably used excessive force when they swarmed a G20 protester, Adam Nobody. The man says he was left with a broken nose and cheekbone after being kicked in the face.
Mr. Blair objected, claiming in a radio interview that a video of the incident had been doctored and referring to Mr. Nobody as "a violent, armed offender." On Friday, he withdrew those claims. He said that a five-second gap in the video led him to think it had been tampered with. In fact, "there is no evidence to suggest this was done with any intent to mislead. I regret the impression my comments may have created.
"In an effort to demonstrate the potential significance of the missing audio and video, I said police were attempting to arrest an armed criminal and that the missing video images might have shed light on the reasons force was used. This statement created a false impression that I wish to clarify. I have no evidence that he was armed or violent and all charges against the injured man have been withdrawn. I regret the false impression that my comments may have created and apologize to Mr. Nobody."
Credit to the chief for admitting his error, a typical move from an honourable man. Not every official in his position would be so quick to apologize. But Mr. Blair still objects to the SIU's original decision to say that police "probably" used too much force and to back up the claim by citing a video - even an undoctored video. He would like a more rigorous review of the evidence before such an allegation is made.
Instead of lashing out at the SIU, shouldn't the chief be worrying about whether some of his officers did, in fact, mistreat a G20 protester? He could, for example, issue an appeal to any officer who saw or took part in the incident to come forward with information about what happened to Mr. Nobody and whether a fellow officer roughed him up. With so many police around, and several involved in the protester's arrest, someone must know.
Mr. Blair said Friday that his force is co-operating fully with the various inquiries into police conduct and that it is "committed to accountability for our actions." He could show it by dropping the defensive reflex and showing that he cares as much about the rights of protesters as for the rights of his own officers.