As a review into the Toronto Police Service (TPS)’s turbulent relationship with the city’s marginalized communities and how the force handles missing persons cases wraps up, one recommendation keeps emerging: An alternative to policing must be established.
The review was commissioned two years ago after a string of murders between 2010 and 2017 committed by serial killer Bruce McArthur. McArthur killed eight men in Toronto’s Gay Village—many of whom were of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent and members of the LGBTQ2 community. As disappearances mounted, and two separate special projects were established to investigate, the police refused to concede that a serial killer was on the loose in the Village, as many community members were warning. Despite several interviews with McArthur during their investigations, the Toronto Police failed to arrest him until 2018. That failure has been cited by critics of the investigations an example of both TPS’s systemic bias against queer and Black and Indigenous folks and people of colour, and its overall incompetency.
On Oct. 14, those leading the independent review held a virtual town hall to update communities on their progress so far. Here’s what we know about the review and what community stakeholders are hoping for.
A chance for community members to be heard
The town hall was the final opportunity for the public to vocalize their concerns and perspectives directly to the review team, who have been meeting with community groups since they began their work in 2018. Since then, the review team has conducted more than 235 interviews and has heard from more than 1,200 people. Following remarks from Justice Gloria Epstein, the judge heading the review, and a presentation from Mark Sandler, the review’s lead counsel, participants were given a chance to offer their input on what they felt the review should know.
Anthony Mohamed, who attended Wednesday’s town hall, expressed concern that the review might only recommend increased sensitivity training instead of taking a more radical approach. “While I recognize that training is important, and all the recommendations in the report are important, I’m wondering if those are more Band-Aid-type solutions,” Mohamed said. “Sort of fixing a broken system instead of changing a broken system.” He went on to suggest the review explore alternatives to policing.
Mohamed was the first of many to express a similar sentiment over the course of the town hall. Richard Elliott, who is the executive director of the HIV Legal Network and one of Canada’s most outspoken advocates against the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure, argued that the relationship between police and marginalized communities cannot be mended until the criminalization of those communities ends. “The specter of criminalization hangs over a good number of communities—whether it’s LGBTQ2 people, people who use drugs or people who are selling sex,” Elliott said. Sex work, the use of many controlled substances and failure to disclose one’s HIV status prior to sexual encounters continue to be criminalized in Canada. “Police are on the frontline for the enforcement of criminalization. Until we actually get rid of that specter of criminalization there is going to be a barrier to trust.”
Increased calls for new policing models
Pleas for substantial structural change over incremental reform have been among the most common sentiments Sandler has heard from community members over the course of the review. In an interview with Xtra, Sandler explained that the review has looked into alternatives to policing from the start, but that it’s achieved “heightened prominence” recently as a result of the growing movement to defund the police.
Sandler is not at liberty to say what the final report will recommend until it is published in January 2021, but said the review team has examined alternative models to Toronto’s current police infrastructure. He says community members have repeatedly expressed a lack of trust that the police will provide adequate service, and that distrust is generally linked to whether or not they identify as a member of one or several marginalized groups.
“People said to us that we should be reimagining and addressing in a different way the role that police play in missing persons investigations,” Sandler said. “Should police be doing all the things that are currently in their portfolio?”
What the review will outline
During the town hall, Sandler announced that alternative policing and many other issues would be covered in Justice Epstein’s final report and recommendations. This includes assessments of whether or not the police effectively used technology to catch McArthur and what accountability measures must be put in place to prevent them from fumbling similar investigations in the future.
Sandler also promised the report will “explain what happened in the McArthur investigations” in detail, and said the review had access to 86,000 police documents, many of which were otherwise confidential. “I expect that there’ll be quite a bit that will be new to the public, especially given our access to the complete operational details around these investigations,” said Sandler.
Community survey shows little confidence in police
He also said the report would focus on the frayed relationship between Toronto’s marginalized communities—particularly the LGBTQ2 community—and the city’s police service.
The results of a survey conducted by the review seemed to reveal just how hostile that relationship is: Nearly half of its 985 respondents expressed little to no confidence in the police. Notably, that number was much higher for transgender and non-binary respondents at 71 percent, and much lower for heterosexual or straight respondents at just 19 percent. Although Sandler stressed that the survey was not representative of the entirety of Toronto, the way identity plays into one’s relationship with the police is evident in its results.
The importance of an intersectional focus
For Shakir Rahim, that focus on intersectionality is essential. Rahim is a Toronto-area lawyer who co-led an advocacy effort by the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention to have a review established. He also contributed to the terms of reference that guide the review’s work. He says Toronto police must be held accountable for the mistakes they made in the McArthur investigation and the systemic issues that allowed those mistakes to happen.
“The Toronto Police Service continues to deflect any sense of responsibility or acknowledgement that there were failings,” Rahim told Xtra. “But here we are, years later, and we still really haven’t seen much in the way of contrition. That is a serious problem because it shows a lack of introspection about what might have gone wrong.”
Rahim, like many others who have criticized the McArthur investigation, firmly believes the race and sexual orientation of the victims were factors in the police’s delay in locating their killer. He says he’s hopeful the review can affect some change but worries that the body ultimately responsible for implementing its recommendations will be the police itself.
“I think it’s an opportunity to make things a little bit better and I would cast it there at its highest,” Rahim said, adding that he is skeptical that the product of this review will be radical change. “The institution of policing itself is just not compatible with dealing with some of the concerns that underserved groups have. If this review does make good recommendations and those recommendations get ignored, then I think it’s a real opportunity for the city to screw up.”
Sandler, meanwhile, said the final report will include every measure possible to ensure that doesn’t happen. In addition to a report on what happened and what went wrong, the document will include concrete recommendations and, importantly, a strategy for how to implement them that includes accountability mechanisms should those recommendations not be followed. “I think we do have an opportunity to be transformative in our approach,” Sandler said. “We can build something where people feel that if police have to conduct an investigation, they’re doing so in an efficient, effective and bias-free way.”