Seven years ago, the Toronto police union fervently denied racial bias existed within its ranks and was prepared to sue those who claimed otherwise. Fast-forward to today and Chief Bill Blair acknowledges that racial profiling is a problem.
That’s why a panel of community leaders and legal experts is gathered at the new police college for a diversity conference Wednesday hosted by the Toronto Police Service to discuss issues of diversity and racism among police officers.
“Racism is a human failing. Racial profiling can occur. We’ve acknowledged that right upfront and that has really enabled us to work with our community partners to do something about it,” said Blair, who will speak at the conference’s opening ceremonies.
In 2002, when the Star ran a series of award-winning articles exposing racial bias on the force, then-chief Julian Fantino flatly denied it existed. The police union launched a $2.7 billion class-action libel lawsuit against the Star. It eventually was dismissed by the Supreme Court of Canada, which upheld a previous decision by the Ontario Superior Court.
But over the past five years, the Toronto police force has experienced a renaissance in the diversity department.
And it began at the top with Blair.
In 2005, when the police board began its search for the next chief, it made it a priority to hire someone with a commitment to diversity issues, said chair Alok Mukherjee.
Efforts had been made in the past to address the subject, but progress was minimal. In the early 1990s, the board passed its first race relations policy. An outside consultant was brought in to develop and design diversity training for officers. It was also around this time that chief William McCormack created an aboriginal peacekeeping unit.
“Some steps were taken at that time, said Mukherjee, but “my sense is that what didn’t happen is a very coordinated and systematic effort to deal with the issues that we’re now trying to face.”
It’s a two-front undertaking.
On one side, the board has overhauled its human resources practices, particularly relating to recruitment and promotions. Officers are now going door to door in various ethnic enclaves, promoting careers in policing and educating anyone who is interested in how to get started. The force also holds women-only recruitment sessions. The results, says André Goh, who heads the Diversity Management Unit, are in the numbers.
Before Blair’s time, white males made up between 85 and 90 per cent of the average recruitment class. Today, women and visible minorities account for anywhere between 40 and 60 per cent of new officers.
But recruitment is only part of the puzzle, said Mukherjee.
Three years ago, the Toronto Police Service invited the Ontario Human Rights Commission to review all of the organization’s policies and procedures. That review is still ongoing.
In the meantime, the force has fully embraced a community-based policing model, which is putting front-line officers in a prevention role, rather than solely focusing on enforcement.
“Our responsibility as police officers is not just safe communities. We have a role in social justice as well,” said Blair.
And the diversity conversations aren’t just happening in Toronto.
The majority of police forces across the country operate some form of race relations unit. In addition, many are finding innovative ways to train officers.
In York Region, the service has created a Places of Worship Tour, a program that takes its officers to various religious centres across the region, said Insp. Ricky Veerappan, who heads the Diversity and Cultural Resources Bureau.
Doug Corrigan, president of the Toronto Police Association, said while he does not believe racial bias is a systemic problem, the union remains a strong anti-racism advocate.
Wednesday’s conference will host speakers from various groups, such as the African Canadian Legal Clinic, South Asian Legal Clinic and both Toronto school boards.
Gervan Fearon, a dean of continuing education at Ryerson University and a leader in the black community, will speak at the conference. His lecture, Beyond Racial Profiling, will look at the benefits of community policing.
“We need to both applaud things that have had a positive outcome and be frank about areas where there are opportunities for improvement,” he said.
“From my own experiences and from what I’ve seen in society and what’s been reported in the media, I think substantial amounts of progress have been made since (the Star series). Now does that mean there’s no racial profiling or improvements to be made? Not necessarily so.”