Toronto Police Accountability Bulletin No. 40, March 6, 2008

March 5th 2008

1. Taser news  a delay or a victory?
2. Death in a park
3. Police checks and providing information for employers
4. Not getting data on what police do
5. Police and kids in the park

Toronto Police Accountability Bulletin No. 40, March 5, 2008.

This Bulletin is published almost monthly by the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, a group of individuals and organizations in Toronto interested in police policies and procedures, and in making police more accountable to the community they are committed to serving. Our website is http://www.tpac.ca
In this issue:
1. Taser news  a delay or a victory?
2. Death in a park
3. Police checks and providing information for employers
4. Not getting data on what police do
5. Police and kids in the park
6. Subscribe to the Bulletin
1. Taser news  a delay or a victory?

Toronto Police Accountability Coalition had a successful public meeting on tasers on February 6. The speakers Andy Buxton, chair, Amnesty International Toronto organization; Naomi Klein, author of `The Shock Doctrine, The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and David Reville, advocate and builder of the psychiatric survivor movement.

In spite of a major snow storm sweeping into the city three or four hours before the meeting, about 70 people attended, and the discussion was lively. We agreed that when the next opportunity next came at City Hall, many of us would attend to stress the need to not allow more general police use of tasers. A video of the forum can be found at http://video.yahoo.com/people/3386690 .

The next occasion arose very quickly: the chief put the matter of buying tasers for all front line officers on the agenda of the Toronto Police Services Board meeting for February 21. His report listed the tasers advantages  fewer officer shootings; fewer and less severe injuries all round; fewer public complaints; less police liability; and improved officer morale. It also claimed the taser causes no permanent harm or serious side-effects, although after the October death of Robert Dzerkanski in the Vancouver airport  he was repeatedly tasered  theres serious doubt about that.

Eight individuals quickly notified the Board they wished to speak in opposition to the matter. Then the chief quietly removed the report from the agenda. Mark Pugash, director of communications for the police, says it was a simple matter of the chief being out of the city at the time of the meeting, but apparently there is no date for which the matter has been rescheduled.

Will the matter resurface? The Board may be badly split on the issue - Board chair Alok Mukherjee has openly expressed his concerns about tasers. The Minister of Community Safety may have privately said he is not eager to approve the regulation needed to expand taser use in Ontario. Perhaps finding the necessary $8.6 million is a problem. We know there is strong and vocal public opposition.

For now, it means the Board is not going ahead with supplying tasers to all front line officers. Perhaps there should be a moratorium on taser use in Ontario; perhaps tasers should be restricted to the specially trained officers on the Emergency Task  those seem to be two strong options.

2. Death in a park

Byron Debassige was shot and killed by Toronto police officers in Oriole Park on the evening of February 16.

All reports made public to date indicate that Mr. Debassige was acting as though intoxicated, but even though he had a knife, he did not appear a danger to anyone. He allegedly stole two lemons, apparently asked passersby for change, and was singing.

Why did the polices shoot and kill him? Did both officers fire their guns, or were the shots all fired by one of the two officers present? Did the officers call for more support, such as the Emergency Task Force? (This is not a division where the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team is available.)

The Special Investigations Unit is investigating the matter, but given past reports which say little and usually conclude that the officers acted appropriately, the Unit may or may not provided helpful insight into what occurred that evening. But in any case, it is up to the Chief to explain the actions of his officers, and to provide the public with either assurances that the officers had no other alternative but to shoot and kill Mr. Debassige, or ensure that disciplinary action appropriate to causing unlawful death is taken against these officers.

TPAC has written to the Board, asking to appear at the next meeting on March 27 requesting the Board to direct the Chief to provide a full information of the facts of this matter so there is a sense of accountability about such a serious police action.

The Toronto Star has reported that the Debassige family is planning a protest at 53 Division on March 14th, although no time or contact information is available. Another protest - about the police shooting in October of student Alwy al-Nadhir is planned for March 15, The International Day Against Police Brutality. It will take place at 3:00pm, Toronto Police Headquarters 40 College St. The e-mail contact is justiceforalwy@gmail.com .

3. Police checks and providing information for employers.

Many concerns have been expressed in the last five years about the information released by police about individuals the police come into contact with. Some employers ask job applicants to provide a police report, and on some cases this could include incidents where, for example, the police intervene in a situation where the applicant was in emotional crisis. No crime was committed, no charges laid, but the police report could be very damaging in any case.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has released a draft report about the changes it thinks should be made. The report can be found at http://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/resources/Policies/mhdraft/pdf .

The Commission concludes that requirements, policies and practices relating to police records checks can have a discriminatory impact on persons with mental health-related disabilities, and possibly other individuals identified by Human Rights Code grounds. It then proposed that police forces take a more discretionary approach to the information released.

TPAC has responded to the new draft policy with the following comments:

We are very disappointed with the proposed policy. It does little to clarify the issue or the role of police in providing information through the person affected to third parties. As well, it sets up a decision-making process by police that is so subtle, nuanced, and discretionary that either it will cost the police a great deal of money to implement or, more likely, it will not restrict the release of certain kinds of information because it is too difficult to use in day-to-day operation. We submit that the Commissions proposal, as currently framed, would seem to invite police complicity in violating the provisions and principles of the Ontario Human Rights Code and its supporting documents.

We believe police forces should not see themselves as some kind of employment clearing house whose reports determine whether certain individuals are hired by others. Further we fail to see why the report of an incident in the past will give a clear perspective on how an individual might act in the future.

The best course of action is for the police to provide just one kind of report, namely a report indicating whether or not an individual has been convicted of a criminal offence, and if so, what that offence was and the date of conviction. Obviously, if a pardon has been granted, then the offence may not be reported by police. The police should not provide any other kinds of reports about individuals who are known to them. Any other information an employer or agency may need should come through the individual in question or references provided by the individual.

This approach is clean and straightforward, and removes both an inappropriate obligation from police, and a false safety net from the organization hoping the police will do their homework for them.

We believe our position is consistent with the provisions and the spirit of the Human Rights Code which prohibit discrimination in employment based on record of offences. As well, we believe our position is consistent with the principles enunciated in the Commission's publication entitled Hiring, A Human Rights Guide.

The Guide states that employers are prohibited from asking interviewees questions about arrests, criminal convictions in general (as opposed to those for which a pardon has not been granted) or convictions for provincial offences.

We do not believe that the draft proposal by the Commission is consistent with the Code or the Guide.

Accordingly, we would request that you simplify your draft policy to ensure that police provide information only about criminal convictions that have not been pardoned. 

4. Not getting data on what police do

Six years ago the Toronto Star published a spectacular report on racial profiling by Toronto police. Star reporters, with the help of experts, analyzed 480,000 instances of police/citizen interaction from 1996  2002 in Toronto where persons were charged with crime or traffic violations. On the basis of that data, the Star concluded that African Canadians were far more likely to be charged with traffic and other violations than Whites, more likely to be arrested at the scene, twice as likely to be held in jail pending trial as Whites, and on and on. The data showed the African Canadians were treated much more harshly by police than others. The Toronto Police Association sued the Star for $3 billion because of the Stars claims about racial profiling, but the court dismissed that suit in its preliminary stages. Then chief Julian Fantino made all sorts of statements about how shoddy the Stars research was, saying (unlike what we know about every other police force in North America), there was no racial profiling in Toronto.

The Star decided to update on the story, and in 2003 asked for the latest data under the Freedom of Information Act from the police force. The Star wanted the data for arrests and charges, as well as police stops (where information about all those stopped, even if not charged, is recorded) but it wanted it with the names and other identifying characteristics removed. To supply the data in that form, the police would have to run a simple computer algorithm to replace personal information with a unique identifier. The force refused the request.

The matter went to an arbitrator, who ordered the police to provide the information requested and run the algorithm. The Toronto Police Services Board went to the Divisional Court. The Star, of course, had argued that it would pay the cost of this minor computer operation, but to no avail. The Court quashed the adjudicators order, claiming that the police force was being asked to do something it did not have to do, namely run this simple algorithm.

The Star has been given permission to appeal the Divisional Court decision, and the Court of Appeal will hear this matter this coming fall  more than five years after the Star requested this information.

Which makes one think: why are the police refusing to release this information? It wont cost any money, nor will it take time. What it will do is give the Toronto Star a handle on what has been going on regarding racial profiling since the 2002 articles. That is information the public should know. Given the extent of racial profiling uncovered in the earlier review of this data, the public should be able to see the data to determine if there has been any change in the way police behave to people with different coloured skin.

One fears that the only reason the Police Board refuses to release this data is to ensure that the public does not get updated information on racial profiling. If so, that is not in the public interest.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is angry enough at the stance of the Police Board that it is seeking intervenor status at the Court of Appeal. TPAC has decided to take this matter to the Police Board, and ask them to abandon its oppositional stance and release the information. TPAC will ask that the matter be scheduled at the March 27 meeting of the Board.

Apart from the Board passing motions about racial profiling not being allowed, not much has changed in respect to Toronto police practice in the last six years. If thats the case, thats not good enough for Toronto. But having the data will give us a clearer picture, and it is the data which should be made available, stripped, of course, of personal information.

5. Police and kids in the park

So what do kids do in parks? They play games and they hang around.
Jutta Mason, who helps organize activities in the Dufferin Grove Park (near Dufferin and Bloor in west Toronto) was concerned that police seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time questioning black youth in Dufferin Grove Park, as though they were fishing for information. The manager at Fourteen Division police station insisted that wasnt the case, that the police don't `go fishing, so Ms Mason asked for reports on what police were doing in the park.

She received a pile of information from the years 2002  2005, in which the police broke down the kinds of incidents that they had investigated. Number one on the list  loitering, which represented 43 per cent of the incidents that police concerned themselves with. Drinking in the park occupied another 23 per cent of incidents, and the rest was a hodge-podge of lesser events, including dogs off leash.

But imagine that: police investigating people who are loitering in parks. Is this something we should be spending money on? Dont we want people to loiter in parks? Or is this something kids shouldnt do, particularly if they have a particular skin colour?

6. Subscribe to the Bulletin

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Toronto Police Accountability Coalition
E-mail: info@tpac.ca