Chief Blair on 2014

Corporate Communications sat down with Chief Bill Blair to talk about some of the news-making events over the course of last year. Read the conversation:

What are your thoughts on the two NYPD officers killed on December 20?

We are reminded that there is a certain risk in putting on a uniform and going out into communities to serve and protect them. Unfortunately we’ve seen on a number of occasions, not just in New York, that those who wear a uniform in the service of society can sometimes be targeted by individuals. I don’t think there is any greater concern for any police chief than both the safety of their citizens and the safety of their men and women who go out there every day and put themselves on the line for the city.

The tragedy in New York just reminds all of us to be aware of the circumstances we find ourselves in and recognize there is a certain risk to the job.

At the same time, I think the circumstances in the United States are different than here. We don’t have the same gun culture, for example, the same violence in our cities. I think there is a strong relationship that exists between members of the Toronto Police Service and members of the community.

Do you think we’ll be better prepared to respond to emotionally disturbed people in crisis after the work done by the Service this year?

What I think can be a real game-changer for us are the 84 recommendations by Justice Frank Iacobucci’s report on Police Encounters With People in Crisis. I asked him to look at our policies, our procedures, our training and do an international search on best practices and make recommendations on not only our response but things that can be done to make the mental health system more effective for our citizens.

I also asked him to take a look at how we support the men and women of the Toronto Police Service. We know the burdens of this work can have an impact on people’s psychological well-being. I asked Justice Iacobucci to look at how we can improve our support to the challenges our people face. And, so, we are working now to implement all 84 recommendations. I want to ensure we provide our members with the best training, the best equipment, the best direction to do this very difficult task to go out and deal with people in crisis. And I also want to ensure we provide them with the support and well-being when they go out and do this difficult work for us.

When you say game-changer, are we going to do things a lot differently?

It’s important to recognize that the Toronto Police Service and police services in general have evolved on how they respond to people in crisis. We’ve learned from our own experiences and the experiences of others. We’ve seen a very significant improvement in the quality of our training and in the equipment available to our officers.

But I think it was very important to have an independent and objective review of all of those things and to make recommendations with the confidence that we can go act upon them. We’re also in partnership with some really important community partners, people like CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health), the Canadian Mental Health Association, people who have suffered from mental illness and been involved in encounters with police.

We take a big-tent approach – we bring a lot of people into the discussion and we take into account the lived experience of many people, including the police officers who do this very important work.

I think the implementation of those recommendations can significantly improve our response but it doesn’t end there. We have to be committed to continuous improvement, so when new technologies, new techniques, new training, new opportunities present themselves. we have to seek out those that can make a difference.

And, at the same time, we need to advocate for the entire mental-health system to get better in providing support to people in crisis. It has, in large extent, been left to the police to respond to critical situations that occur at the end of a large number of systemic failures in the mental-health system. And, quite frankly, we need, as a society, to look at how we deal in totality with people suffering from mental health issues and who end up in a crisis situation and take the steps before it gets to that critical incident, before police are called to deal with a dangerous situation or a person armed with a weapon.

You’ve said having members of the public believe that race affects their interaction with police undermines our mission. What steps are being taken to ensure there is fair and equitable policing? What responsibilities do frontline officers have in this regard?

We police one of the most diverse cities in the world and, I believe, we do that exceptionally well. And I’m not the only one who believes that. People come from all over the world to see how and why the City of Toronto works the way it does. How such a large city can be as liveable as Toronto is. I believe that, overwhelmingly, our people are very effective in delivering culturally sensitive and fair and equitable policing to the people of Toronto. But, we know, we can always find ways to do it better. So, we work with our communities, we work with academics and other police professionals and we look at what everyone else is doing to see if we can find ways to continue to improve the way in which we serve the diverse people of Toronto. We are committed through a number of different initiatives to find ways to bring about that improvement. Part of that is training for all of our officers to bring them science-based skills minimizing the impact that bias can have on the important decisions that police officers make. That is our fair and impartial police training. We are also looking at our policies and procedures, our training, the way in which we respond and interact with the public. We don’t do this in isolation. We do this in consultation and partnership with the people of all of our diverse communities.

I think there is always a challenge that exists, in part because police represent authority in our society, but, as well, what we find is that the things that cause crimes, the things that result in the highest victimization are unfortunately things like poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunity, disparity, discrimination. Those things exist, unfortunately, disproportionately in racialized communities and so society has a responsibility to support those communities and support those living in those communities to ensure they are fully included in a cohesive society. I think that’s all of our responsibility.

I think that the police, who represent authority in our society, have to be very sensitive to the challenges those communities face and ensure in everything we do, we treat people fairly, we uphold their rights and we provide them with the certain knowledge that they truly are respected in greater society. To the extent we are able to achieve that, we can contribute to the safety of those communities as well.

I think we hire extraordinary people. We hire people who speak the languages, know the cultures of the diverse people of Toronto. We hire people who have the same lived experiences as the people we serve. We share common values. And among those values is respect for all people and a commitment to deliver bias-free policing.

What I say to my officers is, when we’re interacting with the diverse people of this city, you have to trust your values, you have to trust your experience and your training, you have to do the right thing and you have to do it the right way. You have to do this job in a way that is mindful and aware that our interactions can have a profound impact on the person we’re speaking to. We have to ensure that, when speaking to any young person in this city, we demonstrate respect for their rights and respect for them as a citizen. You have to remember you’re going to have a big effect on how they perceive themselves and their place in greater society because we represent the authority of that society. We have a profound effect on how a young person feels about themselves.

There has been a stabbing murder in a school this year and a shooting near another school? What can be done to make sure schools are safe and young people are safe?

We’ve done great things in Toronto in building relationships with our school boards. We’ve put officers in schools. We’ve got safe school protocols. In the aftermath of the murder of Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys, some really significant things happened, advancing the working relationship between the Toronto Police Service and our school boards. The violence that occurred in one of our schools this year, and near another one of our schools, was very concerning not only because violence in and around any school is unacceptable, but because we really felt it was a setback to some really great progress that has been made.

It just reminds us that there are still, unfortunately, young people who will resolve their disputes using weapons, violence and sometimes even deadly violence. It reminds us to continue to work hard.

Schools have to be safe places and, quite frankly, if we can make schools safer for young people, it has a residual effect in their neighbourhoods. Part of that is that every young person has access to a police officer who they trust. So, if they have information about violence occurring or someone brining weapons into a school, we need them to trust that they can come forward and that information will be dealt with appropriately and we’ll work with them to keep their school and neighbourhood safe.

There has been a lot of media discussion regarding women as victims of sexual assault over the course of the year – what is your message to victims?

First of all, sexual assault is a very serious crime. We want to encourage the victim of any sexual assault to come forward. We assure them that they will be treated with respect and compassion and with care if they come forward to report their information. There is no statute of limitations for these types of criminal offences.

Members of the Toronto Police Service receive expert training in investigating these crimes. Victims will receive a compassionate response when they come forward. At the same time, if they choose not to report their victimization, we will encourage them to give us an opportunity to connect them with various services: health, psychological, legal services, whatever they require to assist them in their recovery.

We also know that these types of crimes can be very traumatic for victims and they can leave a long-term impact. There is help available to them. We only want to encourage them, if they have been the victims of those crimes, to access that help. They will be taken seriously and they will be treated with respect.

Over the last few years, as we’ve become more efficient at what we do, how do you see that requirement continuing?

Policing is an essential service for the City of Toronto but, at the same time, we have a responsibility to do everything possible to manage the increasing cost of providing services to the people of this city, so we’re constantly looking for efficiencies and the best ways to get things done for greater efficiency.

The implementation of our records management system, although I acknowledge that it was a difficult transition for the men and women of our Service, does provide us with an opportunity to improve the quality of our service and reduce the cost of delivering it.

We’ve made a number of steps to streamline our senior management, cutting it by 13%, which means we’ve asked our remaining managers to do a little bit more.

We see opportunities through civilianization. Not every job requires a police officer. We want to make sure we have people with the right skill set doing each of the important jobs we do.

And, perhaps, one of the greatest opportunities in making us more effective and efficient is through partnerships, where the CYAC (Child Youth Advocacy Centre) is a great example of that. More than half of all the child protection agencies investigations in the City of Toronto is now done through the Child Youth Advocacy Centre, where we have brought together both child protection investigators with the police service with the Children’s Aid societies, the SCAN unit, the services that provide legal, medical and social supports to the victims and the families of child-abuse investigations are all in one place and they work together. It’s made us far more efficient and has produced better service at a lower cost.

There have been some great investigations throughout the course of the year, which case stands out for you?

I was really grateful for the outcome of the investigation in Etobicoke where break-ins and sexual assaults were taking place. That terrorized the neighbourhood for a long period of time. Resolving that and restoring that neighbourhood’s sense of security – that’s a big part of what we do.

It was really good work. It was a difficult investigation but they never gave up on it. They did some really smart, brilliant stuff to solve the case. We can make a difference. It’s not only bringing an accused to court and to justice but it is restoring a neighbourhood’s security.

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