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Excessive Force: Toronto’s Fight to Reform City Policing

by Alok Mukherjee; Tim Harper

Even in a city as relatively orderly and lawful as Toronto, the police service plays an outsized role in the municipality’s political and social life. In the brief period from the start of 2018 to the publication of Alok Mukherjee’s Excessive Force: Toronto’s Fight to Reform City Policing, two significant controversies related to Toronto’s police services emerged: the apparent mishandling of the investigation of missing men in the city’s Gay Village and the revelation of the police’s use (previously denied) of a device that gathers cell phone data from citizens.

Mukherjee recounts the tumultuous years (2005–2015) he spent serving on and chairing the civilian board intended to oversee the police service, touching on virtually every non-public-transit-related hot-button issue the city confronted during his tenure, from the controversy around carding to the handling of the anti-G20 protests in 2010 to the police killing of teenager Sammy Yatim.

The book, co-written with longtime Toronto Star columnist Tim Harper, dramatically captures how entrenched and influential the police service is in Toronto and how its leadership effectively manipulates public opinion and public officials to ensure that any change is slow to come – if it comes at all.

The practice of carding (stopping citizens on the street without cause and demanding identification), which has been demonstrated by repeated Toronto Star investigations and Desmond Cole’s powerful 2015 cover story for Toronto Life magazine to disproportionately target Blacks, was something that the police leadership said publicly they wanted and needed to address. But in Mukherjee’s telling, efforts to propose new policies were constantly undermined by high-ranking officers and other board members.

In the case of Yatim, a teen suffering from mental illness who was shot dead on a city streetcar in 2013, Mukherjee notes then-chief Bill Blair ordered an internal review of policies and procedures around dealing with the mentally ill. That review ultimately cleared everyone (though police officer James Forcillo was convicted of attempted murder, a conviction that is currently under appeal). “And always, the focus is on the actions of the individual police officer, not on the systems or strategies that guide him or her or the leadership that developed and implemented them,” Mukherjee writes.

The description of the process to replace Blair, in April 2015, with Mark Saunders, the city’s first Black police chief, is unsparing and illuminating in its depiction of how the powerful in Toronto protect their interests above all else. Mukherjee’s preferred candidate was deputy chief Peter Sloly, who is Black and was seen as a potential reformer. But Sloly had run afoul of Blair, in Mukherjee’s telling. In the end, Saunders, the least experienced and most conservative candidate, got the job. “It would have been extremely problematic … if the board had not selected a Black chief,” Mukherjee writes. “But this had to be balanced against the interests and comfort level of those who exercise social, economic, and political power.”

Excessive Force comes at a time when there has been a surge in interest in many of the issues that Mukherjee grappled with during his time on the police services board. But this particular volume offers a unique perspective. Notwithstanding the number of recent similar titles – like Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation and Matt Taibbi’s I Can’t Breathe – few shed light on how politicians and other public officials interact with police leadership to the extent this one does.

As depicted by Mukherjee, the imbalance of power favouring the interests of the police is stark and the pattern is consistent. The chief – whether it be Julian Fantino, Blair, or Saunders – will publicly concede that the force needs to modernize and adapt. Sometimes he will even feign taking action. But when the time comes for meaningful change, the chief complains angrily that his turf is being infringed upon, often invoking concerns about safety among the rank and file. More often than not, centre-right politicians quickly fall in line, afraid of either being challenged on their law-and-order bona fides or potentially having police officers upset with them.

Mukherjee’s behind-the-scenes accounts will be of interest to Toronto political junkies (especially in an election year); the book will also be of great interest to people focused on social-justice issues. Mukherjee’s passionate arguments are unlikely to alter the power dynamics in Toronto – or any other North American city that favours larger, more heavily weaponized and politically untouchable police forces – but his willingness to point out these problems and his suggestions about how to remedy them are laudable.