Crime in Toronto is down, but after five years as police chief, Bill Blair knows he can’t take the city’s safety for granted
On most days, the cavernous marble-clad lobby of Toronto police headquarters at 40 College Street is congested with desk cops, detectives in stiff suits and people waiting for background checks. But one grey day in January, the usual suspects made way for cameras, reporters and dignitaries, there to watch Chief Bill Blair kick off Crime Stoppers month and a new anti-gun ad campaign.
Someone had put the podium on a staircase landing a few metres above the lobby floor, so when the six-foot-five police commander stood behind it to deliver the opening address, he loomed over the crowd even more than usual. At 55, Blair is a heavy-set man with short, grey hair and a disarmingly lopsided grin that emerges periodically from a watchful scowl. Out of habit, he swept his pale blue eyes across the crowd, appraising the whole scene in the way only a career cop can.
The year 2009, Blair began, marked a record number of tips to Crime Stoppers. “We saw a significant decline in crime last year,” he said, adding that there’s a “direct correlation” between the decline and the 10,000-plus leads submitted last year by Torontonians who had some shard of information about a crime and were willing to phone, text or upload it anonymously to police investigators.
As other speakers prattled on, the reporters drifted over to a grieving African-Canadian man holding a photo of his dead brother, gunned down in a rough housing project on New Year’s Eve – Toronto’s 62nd homicide. The victim, Ken Mark, was known as “the gentle giant,” a young man who worked hard to keep gangs and guns out of his community. The killing had made headlines and the police released security videos to encourage witnesses to come forward. With weeping family members at his side, the man with the photo also appealed to the public to help police catch the shooters.
After the Crime Stoppers launch ended, it was Blair’s turn to be in the middle of the media scrum. “By all accounts,” the chief said gravely, “[Mark] was a very fine man.” He waved aside further questions and headed back up to his seventh-floor office.
Such is the life of a big city police chief, bouncing between administrative or ceremonial duties and the gritty work of enforcing the law in a media hothouse. It’s a balancing act Blair has mastered in his five years in the job. Chosen in 2005 to replace Julian Fantino and now wrapping up his first term, Blair presides over a 7,200-person operation that soaks up almost a tenth of the city’s $9.2-billion budget. As Toronto’s most visible civil servant, he answers to a politically appointed board whose members are committed to the sort of community policing Blair has advocated for years.
While Blair has done battle with a scourge of guns and gangs by flooding the streets with hundreds of extra beat officers, he’s also made sure that his officers don’t just arrest bad guys but also forge connections with the law-abiding residents who live in high-crime neighbourhoods. At the same time, Blair has pushed hard to change the face of Toronto’s police force, recruiting hundreds of women and visible minorities, many of them armed with university degrees and an ability to speak multiple languages. He has this skill, too, in a sense. Blair can talk just as readily about social justice and Jane Jacobs as he can about surveillance techniques. He is a thinking person’s cop.
Like so many cops, Bill Blair grew up in a police family, his father having served for 39 years. Yet Blair fils wanted to pursue a career in law or finance when he enrolled at the University of Toronto Scarborough in the mid-1970s. But he needed to earn some money, so he joined the Toronto Police Service and took courses part time.
At the time, most cops joined the service out of high school and Blair took some flak from his colleagues for his determination to get a university degree, including the staff sergeants who had to schedule night shifts around Blair’s evening classes.
On the job, Blair progressed quickly and soon found himself working undercover in the drug squad. When the shady characters with whom he had to associate would ask the towering young man if he was a cop, he’d joke that one could always spot the narcs because they were “short men with beards.” He knew the trick to holding cover lay in how you talked, not how you looked.
Blair’s academic interests had shifted from criminal law to criminology at the time when a growing number of academics and social activists were touting community policing as an alternative to the more traditional, militaristic approach. In class, he didn’t let on what he did for a paycheque. “I found it prudent not to offer myself as an expert.” One day, the professor was lecturing about police enforcement of drug laws. Blair bit his lip and listened. Some of the discussion, he recalls, “was grossly misinformed.” But he found the experience of hearing other perspectives useful nonetheless: “It was valuable to see how people perceive us.”
To this day, Blair places a high premium on post-secondary education for those who aspire to enforce the law. Critical thinking and the ability to look at problems from various perspectives “are skills that are very valuable in policing,” he says, citing studies showing that cops with liberal arts degrees are 70 per cent less likely to become the subject of a civilian complaint.
In the late 1980s, with his criminology degree from U of T in hand, Blair saw his career accelerate. He participated in several high-profile drug busts, including the seizure of tens of millions of dollars of cocaine. But Blair knew that such enforcement efforts could do little to staunch the flow of contraband: “It’s like a salamander − you cut off an arm and it grows back. It’s going to continue,” Blair said to a reporter in 1989. The drugs were a symptom of something else.
A few years later, Chief David Boothby turned to Blair to solve a local problem that had been festering. For several years, relations between the officers of 51 Division, who patrol the downtown’s east end, and the residents of Regent Park, a low-income housing project, had deteriorated. Crime was up, and many residents saw the cops as aggressors who routinely sped through the complex in their cruisers with little regard for the safety of children. The division came to be known as “Fort Apache,” and was the site of a wildcat strike by a handful of rogue cops.
Blair knew Regent Park because he walked a beat there in his early days on the force. He and his partner regularly strolled into the playground of the local elementary school during recess. The kids would flock around them, curious and full of questions. “Over time, we got to know people in that community and they got to know us.” When he returned as superintendent in 1995, Blair one day decided to walk through that same schoolyard. “An extraordinary thing happened,” he recalls. “The kids all ran away.”
Scarcely a month after he took over, a brawl broke out between some teens and a clutch of 51 Division cops. Blair knew he had his work cut out for him. “I want to restore peace and reduce the level of fear right away,” he told a reporter. “In the long term, we need to improve community relations.”
The rebel cops at 51 went on to pursue their grievances through the Toronto police union. Blair, however, set to work normalizing community relations with a hearts-and-minds campaign. He assigned a couple of young beat cops to drop by that elementary school every day, not just when trouble was brewing. Initially, they got a prickly reception. But they persisted. “Within five weeks,” he recalls, “those officers were in the classrooms, reading to the kids.” He took the same tactic with local merchants and churches. At one, the pastor told him his congregants were offering up prayers for the officers of 51 Division. Blair made sure to relay that surprising piece of information back to his squad; soon, some officers were attending services. As he says, “You can’t police from the 50,000-foot perspective.”
Two days after the Crime Stoppers launch, Blair flew to Ottawa on business. He’s president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, which inserts its views into national debates about issues such as the Harper government’s sentencing reforms and the fate of the long-gun registry. (Blair and other chiefs have balked at the Tories’ attempt to disband something he says “encourages responsible gun ownership.”) Mostly, he was making the trip to participate in a funeral for an Ottawa police officer stabbed outside a local hospital.
Blair could have been performing such official duties five years earlier, as he’d been spotted as a potential successor to Boothby. But in 1999, then mayor Mel Lastman and his supporters in the Mike Harris government engineered the hiring of Julian Fantino, who was York Region’s chief, to the top spot. Blair survived a shakeup of the upper ranks and emerged as head of detective operations. Fantino (now head of the Ontario Provincial Police) pursued a militaristic approach to policing high-crime neighbourhoods until David Miller, elected mayor in 2003, chose not to renew his contract.
The next year, Miller began pushing a community safety drive in Toronto’s neediest neighourhoods. He knew of Blair by reputation as a cop who could solve problems and didn’t take a black-and-white view of the world. “The first thing I saw in Chief Blair is that he had a correct and very modern approach to policing,” says Miller.
Hired to succeed Fantino, Blair set to work reorienting the force so it paid as much attention to community safety and reducing the influence of gangs as to locking up criminals. He redeployed 200 desk officers to street patrol, and then hired another 250 and put them out on bikes and foot as well. In the pre-Blair period, the force would establish budgets according to the number of 911 calls generated in each division. Blair takes a more nuanced approach. He’s established more links to the city and to community groups; he’s also recruited experts to do “hot spot” analysis that uses computer models and crime data to predict where criminal activity is likely to occur. “It enables us to be more intelligent in how we deploy our resources,” he says.
During Fantino’s term, many critics accused the force of engaging in racial profiling in the wake of a controversial series of articles in the Toronto Star. (Following a lengthy court battle to obtain police “contact” records, the Star in February updated its 2002 analysis. The data showed that African-Canadians continue to be stopped disproportionately for suspected drug, bail or driving offenses, although the arrest rates dropped slightly in some categories.)
After Blair took over, he embarked on a drive to recruit more broadly. He wanted to ensure that the next generation of police officers reflected a city where almost half the population was born outside Canada. When Blair joined the force in 1976, the vast majority of new recruits were, like him, white men in their early 20s. Over the past five years, half of the police college grads have been women or visible minorities; one-third speak three languages. The average age is 28 and many have undergrad degrees. “We place a huge emphasis on language and cultural competencies. It creates a diversity of perspective,” says Blair. During graduation ceremonies, he presses the rookies on the importance of avoiding racial biases.
On boxing day, 2005, a shooting match broke out on a crowded sidewalk near the Eaton Centre, leaving a teenage girl dead, the innocent victim of a stray bullet. Jane Creba’s killing marked the bloody coda to Toronto’s “year of the gun.” While the overall crime rate has been falling in most North American cities, there’s been a surge of gun violence in public spaces. “That was a low point for the city and for me personally,” Blair says. “Those events galvanized the city and the province’s resolve.”
The Creba killing prompted the province and Toronto-area police forces to ramp up the guns and gangs task force. It also led to the establishment of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy, which is a marriage of hard-nosed law enforcement and community policing in troubled neighbourhoods. “We’ll do the big gang investigations,” Blair says. But after making mass arrests, those neighbourhoods are flooded with uniformed officers in an effort to reassure frightened residents. As Blair points out, the police have to be alive to the reality that in high crime neighbourhoods, a handful of thugs victimize law-abiding people who struggle with poverty and the lack of jobs. “When we go in to those communities and simply vigorously enforce the law, we do little to change those communities.” Homicides have dropped – to 62 last year from a high of 85 in 2007.
Since Creba’s murder, the force has also sought to become savvier about the use of social networking as a crime-fighting tool. For years, television stations would run Crime Stopper re-enactments of unsolved cases on the evening news. As Blair notes, it took a while for the force to twig to the fact that many young people weren’t watching the news. In recent years, a Toronto police detective named Scott Mills has taken on the job of using the Internet, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to put out Crime Stopper appeals. The feedback jumped sevenfold with the switch, Blair says.
With Blair’s blessing, Mills has also leveraged his thousands of Twitter and Facebook followers to promote positive activities for Toronto youth, such as legal graffiti art projects and BMX bike tournaments.
But the most noteworthy shift in the relationship between Toronto police and the city’s young people has occurred in a far more traditional venue. In the wake of another high profile murder – the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners inside C.W. Jeffreys Collegiate, in Toronto’s north end – Blair proposed to the city’s boards of education that a police officer be stationed permanently in designated high schools. With this program, he was returning to those early experiences in the elementary schoolyard in Regent Park. “We wanted to build a respectful relationship with young people,” he says.
The cops in schools are carefully selected, and their job is not to patrol the halls. Rather, Blair wants teens to know these officers as individuals with names. On the job, they offer advice, help with coaching and involve themselves with the life of the school. While some critics questioned the presence of gun-wielding officers in schools, the program has come off almost without a hitch. Blair says he’s “gratified” by the results.
As Blair heads into his second term, all of these moves raise a key question: has he changed policing in Toronto?
Toronto’s crime rate – which is low by comparison to many North American cities − has been dropping, but Rosemary Gartner, a U of T criminologist, notes that this is a continental phenomenon visible in many urban regions. “Police in general can only have a marginal impact on crime trends,” she says.
Blair himself acknowledges the point and has said that if police forces want to take credit for falling crime rates, they also have to accept the blame when they rise. In his view, police forces can make a difference by paying more attention to the root causes of crime.
U of T professor emeritus Peter Rosenthal, a criminal lawyer who has represented individuals who have had run-ins with the local police, feels that Blair “talks a much better game” than Fantino. Yet he argues the city could do more to ameliorate the sort of poverty that breeds crime by spending less on the police and more on services for vulnerable young people.
Rosenthal also says there’s been less change on the force than Blair would care to admit. In Toronto, he notes, there are still too many incidents where police officers use firearms inappropriately, and where homeless people are arrested or harassed. “As far as I can tell, he hasn’t operated very differently than his predecessors,” says Rosenthal.
Other observers have even harsher words. Former mayor John Sewell (BA 1961 Victoria, LLB 1964), a member of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, says he’s “disappointed” in Blair for failing to tackle racial profiling. “I would have been really interested in him moving ahead on [this],” says Sewell.
When interviewed by the Toronto Star as part of its recent racial profiling series, Blair acknowledged that problems remain. “We’re not trying to make any excuses for this,” he said. “We recognize that bias in police decision-making is a big, big issue for us, and so we’re working really hard on it.” Such candour earned him points from the newspaper’s editorial writers.
Miller, for his part, rejects Sewell’s verdict, and characterizes the chief’s determination to broaden the force as “a sea change.” “Blair,” says the mayor, “has systematically changed the culture and recruited from diverse communities.”
At the end of a week that took Blair to Ottawa for one of the largest police funerals ever seen in Canada, he turned up on a Sunday morning to deliver a speech at the Lawrence Park Community Church, in North Toronto. Blair and a driver arrived in a large black SUV, the chief in his formal blue uniform.
Up at the podium, he told the mostly middle-aged crowd that he gets thousands of speaking invitations every year, but felt “compelled” to accept this one because it was part of the church’s effort to launch a dialogue about urban living. Unlike many police officers, Blair is a natural public speaker, and he delivered his sermon-like talk without notes, weaving in religious words such as “blessed” and “comforted.”
Toronto’s safety, he remarked, “is not something we should take for granted.” He stressed the dual focus of his approach to policing, and talked about the recruiting efforts, the program to place cops in high schools and the importance of promoting “social justice” in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
Afterward, Blair greeted the congregants, then headed out to the waiting SUV. As he was about to get in, an older woman approached him with an admiring remark about his footwear.
He beamed: “A police chief has to have shiny shoes.”
Thus engaged, the lady tried to get him to talk about the 2010 mayoral race and the city’s precarious finances.
“I normally go quiet for the six weeks of the election,” Blair replied.
Not taking the hint, she told him she hopes the next mayor will do something to rein in spending.
“I’m going to challenge you on that,” Blair said with an indulgent smile. “I don’t think we’re broke. But I think we can do better.”
John Lorinc (BSc 1987 UC) is a Toronto journalist who writes about urban affairs for Spacing and the Globe and Mail.