Departing police board chair says ‘change is necessary’
Jul 31 2015
TORONTO - Ten years ago, when soft-spoken Alok Mukherjee agreed to take a seat at the head of the Toronto police board table, he was warned that he was "either raving mad, hopelessly naive or too idealistic."
"I answered that perhaps it was a combination of all three," Mukherjee jokes.
Few would dispute that the civilian oversight board Mukherjee inherited in 2005 was a mess. Described in the months before Mukherjee was named chair as a "viper's pit," a "war zone" and "a graveyard for politicians," the police board seemed perpetually at a stalemate or embroiled in controversy.
Board members threatened each other and stormed out of rooms. A former chair, Alan Heisey, stepped down after calling the board "dysfunctional."
Mukherjee's decade at the helm was no less challenging. "These 10 years probably have seen some of the worst moments in the board's history," Mukherjee says, referencing Toronto G20 summit and several fatal shootings by police.
Jul 31 2015
TORONTO – Ten years ago, when soft-spoken Alok Mukherjee agreed to take a seat at the head of the Toronto police board table, he was warned that he was “either raving mad, hopelessly naive or too idealistic.”
“I answered that perhaps it was a combination of all three,” Mukherjee jokes.
Few would dispute that the civilian oversight board Mukherjee inherited in 2005 was a mess. Described in the months before Mukherjee was named chair as a “viper’s pit,” a “war zone” and “a graveyard for politicians,” the police board seemed perpetually at a stalemate or embroiled in controversy.
Board members threatened each other and stormed out of rooms. A former chair, Alan Heisey, stepped down after calling the board “dysfunctional.”
Mukherjee’s decade at the helm was no less challenging. “These 10 years probably have seen some of the worst moments in the board’s history,” Mukherjee says, referencing Toronto G20 summit and several fatal shootings by police.
Mukherjee, who is heading to Ryerson University in the fall, said the fallout from the G20 was “a critical point of departure” with then police chief Bill Blair, who was called out for failing to address the conduct of his officers during the summit, Mukherjee says.
After being blasted in an independent review of police action during the 2010 G20 Summit, Mukherjee stood up at a police board meeting in 2012 to apologize for the civil rights abuses that took place, including the largest mass arrest in Canada’s peacetime history.
“(The G20) has had a profound impact on me about policing in peacetime civil society, people’s right to express their dissent peacefully,” Mukherjee says.
Though Mukherjee initially had a “great and fabulous” relationship with Blair, the latter half of both men’s tenures was marked by strain and tension, in part because of “fundamental differences.”
Those differences became apparent as the board faced pressure to deflate the force’s perpetually ballooning budget, Mukherjee said. There was resistance from the police service about developing a new model that “did not rely on the most expensive unit of delivering service, i.e. the uniformed police officer.”
Last July, the board denied Blair the two-year contract extension he sought, with Mukherjee saying it was time for “transformational change.”
“I think Chief Blair, being very much a product of this organization all his life, had a different attachment to it and a different understanding of how far change would go,” Mukherjee said this week.
He claims Blair’s successor, Chief Mark Saunders – himself a product of the Toronto Police Service – “has shown that he understands that change is necessary and inevitable.”
The primary challenge the police board has going forward, Mukherjee says, is “really seriously looking at doing things differently.”
That involves a massive organizational shift that the outgoing chair has previously described as involving hiring youth workers, domestic violence workers and social workers in place of officers and could even include taking guns away from some officers.
A yet-to-be-public operational review by consulting firm KPMG sets out recommendations on how the force can make changes, save money and better serve the public. Chief Saunders is expected to sit down with the consultants in the coming weeks.
“Implementation of those recommendations is probably the most important thing the board needs to do,” Mukherjee says. “This is a legacy piece, on the part of the board and the city, to now put in place a new model.”
The stalemate between the police board and former Chief Blair over the divisive issue of carding should serve as a learning experience for the board, Mukherjee says.
Much of the final year of Mukherjee’s tenure was spent mired in controversy surrounding the board’s policy on carding, the police practice of stopping and documenting people not suspected of a crime.
In April 2014, the board passed a policy many saw as progressive for including citizen safeguards, including requiring police to have a valid public safety reason for stopping individuals. But the board and Blair ended up at loggerheads over a year-long delay in implementing the new carding rules.
“I think we lost a lot of public credibility by allowing the implementation of the policy to drag on that long,” Mukherjee says.
Part of the problem, he says, was a lack of clarity about what power the board could actually wield in the circumstances. One suggestion he makes is clarifying the description of the board’s role in the Police Services Act, legislation that governs the board’s powers.
“The board needs to examine its authority, ask itself some hard questions. What does the (Police Services Act) mean when it says that the board has the responsibility to manage the police service? What does it mean when it says the board cannot interfere with operational decisions?”