An Interview with John Sewell

May 19, 2015

John SewellJohn Sewell is a Canadian political activist and writer. He served as Toronto’s mayor from 1978 to 1980 and frequently comments on municipal affairs.He is currently a member of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition (TPAC), an organization which has focused on issues such as strip searching, the independent review of complaints, racial profiling, video surveillance and police budgeting.

This article is part of a series of interviews with advocates, legal thinkers, community organizers and academics on issues related to Canadian civil liberties produced by CCLA volunteers. All responses are the interview subject’s own, and do not necessarily represent the viewpoint or positions of the CCLA.

CCLA: As someone who has been involved in municipal politics in the past and as an activist who has been engaged in matters regarding police policy for quite some time, how do you feel that police-public relations have changed over the years, if at all?

JS: It is surprising how little seems to change in policing, and how long it takes to actually see a change made. In the 1970s City Councillors complained that the police Board and service refused to provide full budget information and the complaint continues: the Police Board refused to make public the complete budget for 2014, and the budget for 2105 was not made public and not reviewed by the Board prior to the Board approving a total spending amount for 2015. When the 2015 budget was finally made public some four weeks after the Board had made it decisions, it was shown to contain fundamentally different information about how money would be spent than was in the chief’s report on that budget.

A decade ago it took four years to actually see a change in police procedure to abstain from active involvement in local politics, even though a regulation preventing political actions by police had been in place for fifteen years. Attempts have been made since 2006 to reduce the number of individuals strip-searched by Toronto police (currently almost half of those arrested are strip-searched), all to no effect.

My conclusion is that it is extremely difficult to make change in the way policing is delivered: the Police Services Board seems to have little interest in change; the police leaders seems opposed to change; and elected politicians take a hands-off attitude and are entirely disengaged.

CCLA: You are heavily involved in the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition and you played an active part in establishing the group. Can you (a) Describe the group’s role, and (b) explain the importance of, or need for, the group, what sort of impact it has made and the extent to which it can make an impact in the future?

JS: The role of TPAC is to monitor the activities of the Toronto Police Services Board and the police service, and to propose constructive change which will improve the way in which the residents of Toronto are policed.

One would think there would be many people who would do these things, but that is not the case. Police associations which represent officers go after those who criticize the police, and elected politicians realize it is better to say nothing so they are not accused of being `in favour of the criminals’. Even members of the Police Board have been harassed to such an extent by police officers that they either resign – of which there are several recent examples in Toronto – or maintain silence.

Most public discussion of policing occurs in the context of police wrong-doing – killing someone on the street or someone who is mentally ill, assaulting people during the G20 meetings in Toronto in 2011; discriminating against those with dark skin; and so forth. Of course there should be public discussion when police do something wrong, but unfortunately that discussion usually assumes that an individual officer did something wrong, when in fact most of those acts are the result of faulty systems involved in policing, and systemic change is required, even though it is not talked about.

TPAC is one of the very few groups in Canada that has consistently tried to play a monitoring role and has provided a wide range of constructive proposals including systemic change. We have published an on-line electronic Bulletin for the past twelve years (see http://www.tpac.ca ) which gives a good history of the major policing issues in Toronto during that time. We are the only group around which can actually enumerate the major systemic changes necessary to provide cost-effective and secure policing in the city. It is important that some group such as TPAC shows that there are important choices that can be made, and that talking about wrong-doing is not the only way in which discussion about policing can or should occur.

Groups which are critical of the police arise every once in a while, but they usually do not last beyond a meeting or two: they get enmeshed in internal conflict or are subject to such powerful pressures by police that members decide it is not worth the effort. TPAC has managed to avoid these pitfalls.

CCLA: In your view, how accountable are police forces to the public and is there a need for increased accountability? If so, what steps should be taken to enhance accountability going forward?

There is little sense that police forces are accountable to the public. Accountability in a political sense includes the following: the wide dissemination of important information; public discussion of that information; serious debate about alternatives; response to criticisms; appropriate change. This kind of accountability is certainly the order of the day for most municipal councils about a broad range of its activities, but not in policing.

The key body responsible for policing is the Toronto Police Services Board, a seven member body appointed by Toronto City Council and the provincial government. The Board meets monthly, but it does not engage in the accountability activities described above. At its monthly meetings it is willing to listen to members of the public who address it on matters that are on the agenda, but it does not encourage debate, or ensure the wide dissemination of information, or ensure criticism are dealt with.

What would improve accountability would be a much larger Police Services Board, one of say 15 members. That would ensure a much wider range of opinions, and a better discussion of alternatives. Perhaps others changes are needed, but this would be the beginning of change.

CCLA: A persistent issue in the realm of policing is racial profiling and, in Toronto specifically, the practice of carding. Last year, the Toronto Police Services Board voted to adopt a new carding policy which is seemingly aimed at limiting the practice and eradicating unnecessary or unwarranted police stops. What is TPAC’s position on the practice of carding and on the proposed policy?

JS: After a four year struggle, the Board agreed in May 2014 that police would not be able to stop and questions individuals unless there was a strong public policy reason for doing so, and that officers would be required to give those stopped a receipt stating the officer’s name and badge number, as well as the reason why the stops happened. The new policy was made in response to evidence that police discriminate against Blacks in Toronto, stopping Black youth three times more often than White youth.

TPAC thought that police should only stop and question those who were suspected, on reasonable grounds, of being involved in some criminal act. TPAC had helped provoke a larger debate on carding by arguing in March 2012 that police should be required to provide a receipt to those stopped, a practise carried out by police forces in Britain. As the debate progressed, over the next two years we modified out position to state that thee random stops by police where there was no indication of criminal activity should not be permitted whether or not a receipt was provided.

The police chief never operationalized the May 2014 decision of the Board. When challenged on this matter in January 2015, the chief said all carding had stopped. It remains unclear whether officers continue to stop and question young Blacks in the same manner as has occurred in recent years, omitting only the activity of recording the information collected in a computer program.

If police officers want to get better information about communities, they will have to earn the trust of individuals in that community, which means they will have to spend time in the community and be known as individuals who can be trusted to help make the community safer rather than threatening that community.

CCLA: Another issue that has been the subject of much debate is that of police interactions with those suffering from mental illness. In fact, a number of deaths of individuals suffering from mental health issues have occurred in the recent past at the hands of police. With this in mind, what suggestions do you and/or TPAC have for changing policing as it relates to this specific population?

JS: Every year Toronto police are directly involved in the deaths of two or three persons in mental crisis, and in almost every case different actions by the police could have meant that someone did not die. Further, almost one half of those who are tasered by police each year are subject to some kind of mental crisis. Clearly, since police are dealing with more mentally ill people than in the past, policies and practices need to change. TPAC has proposed the following policies for the past three years:

a) The primary goals of policies and procedures should be to de-escalate and defuse situations in preference to exercising the traditional policies of control. Use of Force protocols should be suspended when dealing with an individual in mental crisis.

b) Mobile Crisis Intervention (MCI) Units should be the primary response in cases where it appears a person is in mental crisis. These units – a plain clothes officer and a mental health nurse – are highly trained in mentally health issues and are better able to respond positively than officers with a lot less training and a desire to tell the mentally ill person what to do, which is exactly wrong. Currently in Toronto the MCI Unit is never the primary response unit – it is only called in once other officers have the situation `under control.’ Sometimes this is too late, and officers have brought the situation under control by tasering the individual or taking action which results in the person’s death. The COAST system, used in Halton, Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula (involving a team of a plain clothes officer and a mental health nurse), is often the first responder, and has been successful. There’s no reason why the MCI Units can’t be first responders when it seems the person is in mental crisis.

c) MCI Units should operate in all divisions, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At the present time, MCI Units operate in about two thirds of the divisions, from 1 – 11 pm, five days a week. That’s not good enough.

Often police (and coroner juries) say that more training should be done, but this is a course of action that the police force has pursued for almost a decade, and the number of persons in crisis who are killed at the hands of police does not seem to have changed. Systemic change is required – not just layering on a few more hours of training for each officer.

CCLA: In your opinion, what are three key challenges that police forces must overcome in order to foster public trust in police and ensure that individuals’ civil liberties are respected?

JS: Change must begin at the top to ensure public trust and the protection of civil liberties.

a) The Police Board must become larger so that it is the focus for public discussion about policing in the city and so it can begin to agree to the principles of accountability involving open and available information, debate and discussion, followed by appropriate change.

b) The police service needs to appoint senior managers who have proven to be good managers, whether or not they know anything about policing. The current practise of only appointing from within the policing establishment means nothing changes. Good managers will quickly recognize that current police practises do not serve the public well.

c) The police service must place officers in communities for two or more years so they become well known by residents, and so there is no longer `anonymous’ policing where the officers and the community do not know each other. Residents will be much better served when officers know them by name. Officers will know a lot more about the community when residents know their names.