TORONTO — Big city policing has come something of a full circle, Toronto’s interim chief of police says of what he’s seen in his 40 years with the service.
An example of back to the future, James Ramer says in an interview in his office, is the push for officers to get out and about in communities instead of just driving through or only swooping in to deal with emergencies.
“When I started the job, that’s all we did was walk the beat and talk in your communities,” Ramer tells The Canadian Press. “Having officers that are part of the community fabric are so important. That is where you’re creating those relationships.”
Ramer, then a deputy chief, was handed the force’s top job in August after the early retirement of his predecessor, Mark Saunders.
The city pledged to take the time to find a suitable permanent replacement — it won’t be Ramer — but it’s unclear where the search is at.
Ramer stepped into the big chair at a tumultuous time. Outside headquarters, Black Lives Matter and anti-racism activists were demanding systemic changes after the police killing of a Black man, George Floyd, in the U.S. and incidents in Canada.
The brutal beating of a Black teen, Dafonte Miller, by an off-duty Toronto officer east of the city in 2016 didn’t help. Nor did it help that the service failed to notify outside investigators.
One of Ramer’s first public acts was to apologize for that lapse.
“We should have done things quite differently and we’ve made those changes to make sure that in future, they’ll be investigated properly,” he says. “That will help with trust and public confidence.”
Floyd’s death, he says, had an effect on police services across the continent. One positive impact was enforced self-reflection.
“It has given us an opportunity to examine our role in perpetuating systemic racism, whether passively or deliberately,” he says.
Part of that reflection, he adds, is listening to criticism, even harsh criticism, then acting on it. The service is currently implementing 81 recommendations, including dozens from council, which the police board approved in August.
The pervasive themes, Ramer says, turn on transparency and accountability. The aim is to have all the recommendations implemented by the end of 2021, he says, noting the force is already posting its budget details publicly as recommended.
Rolling out body-worn cameras for all front-line officers by next August is another measure the acting chief says will go some distance to enhancing public confidence in policing. Cameras, he says, will help with investigations and in court, but they also make for better policing.
“Anecdotally, officers are saying that everybody’s behaving better,” he says with a chuckle.
Another ongoing flashpoint has been police interaction with the mentally distressed, sometimes with fatal results. The service is increasing the number of its mobile crisis-intervention teams and doing what it can to divert calls to better equipped agencies, Ramer says.
The government must increase funding for those other agencies and services, rather than simply accede to calls to “defund” police, Ramer says. The budget, now north of $1 billion, has been flat for three of the last five years and is staying that way for 2021.
A 10 per cent budget cut, as some have called for, would mean axing up to 900 more officers on top of an implemented cut of 650, but police still have to ensure public safety, Ramer says.
A recent spate of gun violence included the tragic death of a 12-year-old Dante Andreatta, killed by a stray bullet in the city’s north end. Touring the scene after, Ramer says he heard first-hand from the community about the need for neighbourhood officers.
“That’s what I like about the changes: that we’ve gone back and seen the importance of that neighbour officer program,” he says. “I really do feel that’s the future and that’s where we have to go.”
Source: Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press