Quick note on Mark Saunders’ appointment as TPS chief

It wasn’t my intention to make this a blog about police issues, but looking back at my first few posts, it seems that’s pretty much all I’ve been talking about. Whoops!

I hope you’ll bear with me while I do one more. Shortly after last night’s post about carding, news leaked that the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) has  selected a new chief, 32-year force veteran Mark Saunders, who will be the first black Chief of Police in Toronto’s history

The CBC had a pretty representative write-up of the story. The fact that Saunders is the first black chief came early in the story, as did the issue of carding:

The chief designate spoke about the importance of good relations with the city’s many cultural communities.

“[They] deserve … a police force that is bias-free and whose members treat everybody with respect and dignity,” Saunders told reporters.

“You have my promise that I’ll do everything in my power to provide that. Community relationships determine the success or failures of our service. I do not take this lightly.”

Both Saunders and the CBC are lightly and deftly dancing around mentioning the very specific and concrete accusations of systemic bias against African-Canadian communities by the Toronto Police Services. The CBC takes extreme measures in this regard:

The carding policy was originally part of a community outreach program intended to improve ties between the police service and marginalized communities. The effect has largely been the opposite, spurring greater distrust and forcing police to re-evaluate the policy altogether.

By “marginalized communities” they mean people of colour.

Just in case you weren’t sure about the coded language.

Now, the fact that Saunders himself is black has provoked a lot of comment, most of it negative. I dare you to wade into the comments on the CBC article; they’re mostly conservatives concern-trolling and I-don’t-see-colour-ing and only-“Fiberals”-would-dare-mention-race-ing, and then also feeding of the trolls by folks who don’t know better.

Obviously it’s historic for Toronto to appoint a black chief of police. Equally obvious is that Saunders’ race has no bearing on how he will fare as chief or what policies he will pursue. However, the issue of race as been central to conversation on Saunders’ appointment.

I have two points to make about this.

1) The fact that a person in a position of power represents a certain community means diddly-squat for that community. For a perfect cases in point, I’d mention Barack Obama.

Under Obama, incarceration rates for African-Americans have gone up, as has black poverty. The age of Obama is also the age of Ferguson and countless other police murders of unarmed blacks. Sure, Obama said that Trayvon Martin could have been his son – but Obama’s Justice Department also declined to indict Darren Wilson.

Obama also neglected to prosecute the major banks for mortgage fraud, including proven systemic bias against black loan applicants – a policy goal which was entirely within his power, as it didn’t depend on approval from any other branch of government.

To hope that Saunders will advocate the interests of the black Torontonian community just because he’s black is naive. He’s in the position he’s in because of thirty-two years of loyalty to TPS, which is an institutionally racist police force.

2) To hope for any specific progress on carding is also a fool’s hope. Royson James received the following extremely revealing email from an anonymous TPSB source:

“They [the TPSB] caved,” said another source of the board. “They caved to the police association; they caved to the chief; they caved to the senior officers. This is just incredible.”

Saunders was picked over Peter Sloly, also a senior black officer and an advocate of reforming (but not abolishing) carding. Sloly’s reforms were overrruled at a recent TPSB meeting, in favour of outgoing chief Bill Blair’s plan for more of the same.

Saunders, on the other hand, has been reliable in his support for carding. His comments on the subject were the epitome of equivocal:

“At the end of the day, community safety is the most important thing – but we also have to be able to do it while minimizing collateral damage.”

Which, when you parse it all out, adds up to pretty much not taking a position.

The way I see it, the selection of Saunders – with the full support of Mayor John Tory, who carved out space for himself on the TPSB following his election last fall – is a full-throated endorsement by the city power structure of the carding program, and a signal that Business as Usual will be the agenda for the next five years.

As always when I have a pessimistic prognosis, I hope to be proved wrong by events. But I’m not holding my breath.

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