Ten years ago this month, a towering cop from Scarborough stepped into one of the most contentious and demanding jobs in Toronto.
William Sterling Blair hadn?t even completed officer training when he began declaring he?d one day run the place. ?His first words were that he wanted to be chief of police,? retired officer Tony Warr, one of Blair?s deputy chiefs, mused this week.
By the time he was tapped to lead the largest municipal force in the country ? following stints as a long-haired undercover drug cop, the head of the now-defunct ?morality squad? and commander of a rogue division known as ?the armpit of the force? ? he?d earned an unlikely reputation: a tough cop?s cop and a community-minded, Jane Jacobs-reading progressive.
At 50, he was the youngest chief in the force?s history but viewed as a natural leader with an uncanny ability to see around corners.
Of course, he could never have predicted what was in store.
Police cruisers ablaze during the G20 summit. The Summer of the Gun. A bloodbath at a Scarborough barbecue. Gunfire in the Eaton Centre food court. A teenage girl killed by a stray bullet on Boxing Day. A teenage boy gunned down by a police officer in a streetcar. A billion-dollar budget.
A crack video apparently starring the mayor.
When Blair was named Toronto?s ninth chief of police in April 2005, the order had been tall but simple: regain Toronto?s trust.
The aggressive, lock-?em-up style of Blair?s predecessor, Julian Fantino, had bred fear and suspicion. Blair promised to get officers in uniform out into the neighbourhoods. Communities would know their officers, and officers would know them.
Most important, he acknowledged what Fantino would not: racial profiling existed in the force.
?The community is concerned about the impact of racism in our relations with them,? Blair said days after being named chief, fewer lines on his face and grey hairs on his head then. ?We have to deal with that.?
In the final stretch of his tenure ? his last official day is next Saturday ? many are now questioning if he did.
A modern police thinker, a ?master manipulator,? a missed opportunity, community builder, a disappointment ? it depends who you ask.
In some respects, Blair owes a great deal to being far too big for the standard-issue police car.
In 1976, the aspiring lawyer took a break from studies at the University of Toronto to follow in the footsteps of his father, lifelong cop John Blair. At police college, young Blair (6?5) met fellow giant Kim Derry (6?4) at the very back of the marching line; after graduation, the men were assigned to the same platoon in downtown?s 51 Division.
The pair walked the beat down Queen St. E and Parliament, in part because neither could get into the 1970s-era Ford Fairmont squad cars without their legs knocking the stick shift into neutral, Derry said.
?I said to the sergeant, ?Look. You?re looking to start a foot patrol in Regent Park,? ? said Derry, a now retired cop who was one of Blair?s deputy chiefs. ?I said Bill and I would volunteer to work in the park.?
Shifts in the high-crime housing development were formative for Blair, demonstrating an alternative to no-nonsense, aggressive law enforcement: community-based policing. Initial interactions with the Regent Park residents were acrimonious but relationships eventually formed. ?The police are in the park? became ?Bill and Kim are in the park,? Derry said.
Blair moved on to other roles, including an undercover drug gig, but in the mid-90s, he returned to 51 Division, by then notorious for its poisonous atmosphere and deep, mutual distrust between police and residents.
Just months after his arrival, a race riot raged, and police in the division staged a wildcat strike. Demonstrating leadership that made politicians and higher-ups in the force take notice, Blair took steps to regain trust and ease tensions, including listening to the community and telling officers to leave their cruisers and get out onto the street.
?He immediately was able to reach out into the community, get leaders from the most disenfranchised areas of the community and begin to build a bridge between 51 Division and particularly Regent Park,? said Councillor Pam McConnell (open Pam McConnell's policard), who has represented the area for more than 20 years.
An approval rating of 88 per cent, a drop in crime, a contract extension for a second term. The first years of Blair?s tenure were about as good as a chief can expect.
But his sterling reputation crumbled during the 2010 G20 summit. Responding to horror stories about mass detentions, hundreds ?kettled? outside during a torrential downpour, and brutality at the hands of masked officers was a chief many believed was digging in his heels when he should have been apologizing. A growing chorus called for his resignation.
It took two probes by the Special Investigations Unit, the police watchdog, witness video and a provocative front-page headline from this paper ? ?What now, Chief Blair?? alongside a photo of an officer beating a protester named Adam Nobody ? to prompt criminal charges against an officer, later identified as Const. Babak Andalib-Goortani, who was found guilty late last year. Along the way, Blair was troublingly difficult with the SIU, said former director Ian Scott.
?It made me realize that he doesn?t really accept in any kind of wholehearted way the concept of the SIU doing independent investigations,? Scott said. ?He doesn?t seem to understand or respect the importance of civilian oversight in a democratic society.?
But while Blair ? who did not speak to the Star for this story ? bore the brunt of the criticism, there were factors beyond his control, including that Toronto police were woefully unprepared after getting only six months? notice the summit would be in town.
?I don?t think any chief, where there?s been a G20, has not been criticized. It?s a no-win situation,? said former deputy chief Tony Warr, a high-ranking officer during the demonstrations who was also subject to scathing criticism for his role.
?While I?d like to blame him for so much of what went on, I tend to feel he?s more of a small cog in a machine,? said Byron Sonne, who was found not guilty of plotting to bomb the G20 summit, but lost his marriage, home and job while in jail.
?There are much bigger targets that left him flapping in the wind.?
The homicide toll climbed to 80 deaths in 2005 ? the highest since 1991 ? and the massive spike in fatal shootings meant Blair?s first year on the job had a grave moniker: the Year of the Gun.
Blair?s response was swift and included a provincially funded, anti-violence strategy targeting gun and gang activity, though it has been also highlighted in criticisms of ?carding.? The success of the crackdown on gun violence is evident today, says homicide unit Staff Insp. Greg McLane: homicides now hover around 60 annually, and last year the percentage of deaths caused by guns showed a nearly 20 per cent drop since 2005.
Spikes in gun violence have persisted, including two deadly shootings that rocked the city in 2012. First, gunfire in the Eaton Centre food court, killing two. Then, six weeks later, the mass shooting at a block party on Danzig St. that left two dead and 22 injured ? gun violence Blair called ?unprecedented.?
McLane notes many factors affect crime rates, but the overall decline is impressive considering guns have never been so accessible in the city. ?I think that he?s faced more challenges that way than any other chief,? he said.
Blair also faced intense criticism over deaths at the hands of his officers. During his tenure, 23 people died in shooting incidents involving Toronto police. A growing number of deaths involving mentally ill or emotionally disturbed persons prompted outraged calls for changes to the service?s use of lethal force.
The high-profile shooting death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatim by Toronto Const. James Forcillo prompted Blair to commission an independent report on interactions with people in crisis, resulting in 84 recommendations aimed at eliminating fatal encounters with police.
Overwhelmingly white and male. Such was the police force Blair joined in 1976, and what it was for years to come. There was definitely no such thing as a diversity and inclusion unit.
Today, nearly one quarter of the officers are visible minorities, thanks in part to an emphasis on diversity in hiring practices during Blair?s tenure. As chief, Blair appointed the force?s first black deputy chief, Keith Forde.
Forde says Blair had been supporting visible minority officers throughout his career. As both men worked their way up through the service, Forde always went to Blair with the complaints he was hearing from fellow officers of colour.
?Any issue to do with racism . . . Blair was the person I called. And he always did something,? said Forde, now retired. ?I think he had a larger picture and saw the service more globally than a lot of people.?
In June 2005, Blair was the first Toronto police chief to march in the city?s Pride parade, a gesture that brought the force closer to the city?s LGBT community. For Rev. Brent Hawkes, an openly gay pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, it was a monumental step.
?With the police, you generally don?t make a big leap forward, it?s a slow process, but you?re in it for the long haul, and so symbolic things along the ways are crucially important.?
Police chiefs aren?t here to make friends, nor can they count on keeping the ones they had. Relationships have a way of straining when, say, the mayor becomes the subject of a scandalous criminal investigation.
Before police recovered the notorious crack video allegedly starring Rob Ford (open Rob Ford's policard), the former mayor and his brother, then-city councillor Doug Ford, praised Blair, and even came to his defence after the G20.
Their support shifted when Blair told reporters in October 2013 he was ?disappointed? as a citizen after viewing the video. An incensed Doug Ford called for Blair to step down and filed a complaint to the police review director, saying the comment showed Blair was biased against Ford.
Messiness ensued. Mayor Ford was filmed at a late-night diner, bragging about how he evaded police surveillance (?F---ing Chief Blair,? he can be heard saying). Months later, Doug Ford accused Blair of leaking information involving Rob Ford to the Star, prompting Blair to serve Doug with a notice of defamation (Blair dropped the suit after Doug apologized).
?There was a lot of emotions running on all fronts at that point,? Doug Ford said this week. ?We?re past that point, we?re looking at the future, and what happened, happened. I wish Bill Blair all the best in his new endeavour.?
Contrition isn?t coming from Councillor Michael Thompson (open Michael Thompson's policard), former vice-chair of the Toronto Police Services Board and once among Blair?s backers. Thompson says he began to see a different side of Blair as the board discussed ways to trim the ballooning police budget, now past $1 billion. Thompson says Blair showed an unwillingness to budge, suggesting he saw civilian oversight as an intrusion, Thompson said.
The chief today is not the man chosen for the job, the councillor says; he has become more about ?pacifying with language and less about actually doing something.?
?The metamorphosis this man went through in the last 10 years has been absolutely frightening.?
THE FINAL CONFLICT
Blair famously acknowledged racial profiling existed in the Toronto police force. But whether he did everything he could to eliminate it has now, in the final stretch of his tenure, come into question.
Carding, the Toronto police practice of stopping, questioning and documenting citizens, is considered by many as racial profiling by another name. A series of Star investigations found young brown and black men are disproportionately carded, leaving them feeling harassed and targeted.
When the Toronto Police Services Board last April made sweeping changes to the practice, it was hailed as a sizeable step toward improving police-community relations.
But months went by, and Blair had not implemented the changes the police board requested. The loggerheads eventually required a retired judge to moderate and brought criticisms Blair was not acting on the board?s directions. On Thursday, to shouts of ?Shame!? from the gallery, the board passed a revised policy that many felt lacked the civilian safeguards that were contained in the original guidelines written by the board.
?I would have loved to see his tenure completed by first thing, getting rid of carding,? said Forde, Blair?s former deputy chief.
?It?s just basically allowing black men to be racially profiled and harassed, and all the other bad things that come along with that,? said Knia Singh, a law student and outspoken critic of carding. ?I just don?t understand. He?s a very intelligent guy, he?s very perceptive. I just don?t get how he didn?t see the problem with it and how wrong it is.?
?He?s thoroughly modernized the Toronto Police Service. It?s now instinctual in the police service that it works with communities and responds to them. That was not true before. Before, it was a response ? if there?s a crime you call 911, police are dispatched. Now, it?s a much more proactive process, including not just in community work but in the actual policing itself.? ?David Miller, Toronto mayor from 2003-2010
?He started out with promise and he ended with failure. We thought he was going to make a difference on this crucial issue (of racial profiling). It is, if anything, probably his biggest failing. He had an opportunity here, not just make a pronouncement but put words into action. Words alone are not enough for us.? ? Margaret Parsons, executive director of the African Canadian Legal Clinic
?He has taught so many other police leaders, and the impact he?s had on policing, if you look around and see former Toronto officers like (Hamilton Police Chief) Glenn De Caire, (Barrie Police Chief) Kimberley Greenwood . . . In my view, his legacy will be that he?s taught us to be good leaders and take us right across the province.? ?Jeffrey McGuire, Chief of Niagara Regional Police Service and former Toronto Police officer
?Bill Blair is a sophisticated, articulate, interesting guy. What was missing in the formula for policing during his time, in my view, was an equally sophisticated Police Services Board capable of managing him. I believe that while in the short or medium term that really wasn?t obvious, I think in the long term it hurt policing in this city. I think that when you take a strong leader like Bill Blair, and you have none of the checks and balances that you need to ensure an effective, accountable police service, then Bill Blair starts to look bad.? ?Julian Falconer, a Toronto criminal lawyer who has represented several families of police shooting victims
What they said
?I survived as a deputy because he was my boss. He has been nothing but good to me: good direction, good support. I?ll tell you ? I always say to (visible minorities) when they come to me, and they start to make roads into the organization, I say, ?Make sure you get the support of your boss. Make sure, because without the support of your boss, you might have the position, but not the power that goes with it.? His support, and I don?t mean his support behind closed doors, his visible support for me gave me the power that came with rank to do the things to make this organization and this city better.? ?Keith Forde, now retired former deputy chief serving under Blair, and the force?s first black deputy chief
?He grew into loving the position, not the responsibilities. He loved the trappings . . . I want the public to realize that he is a master manipulator.? ?Michael Thompson, current Toronto city councillor and former vice-chair of the Toronto Police Services Board
?I?ve attended quite a few board meetings, and if you look at the chief?s demeanour and his body language when deputants come up to speak, it?s quite telling, I think. Most board members are looking at the deputants, there?s the occasional head nod, but often Chief Blair is looking down, he?s reading, he gets up more frequently than anybody else at the table, he goes and grabs a Pepsi. It?s a stark visual when you have members of the public who he is charged with serving coming to a governance body to share their perspectives, their opinions, their views, and the head of the police force, one of the most powerful public institutions, in his body language and his demeanour seem so disinterested, it?s quite a sight.? ?Neil Price, executive director of non-profit consulting group LogicalOutcomes, who recently uncovered widespread mistrust of police in the Jane and Finch area caused by carding
?(Blair) could have made some very serious changes . . . At the end of the day, it?s been disappointing for someone like me. Here was the opportunity of a progressive guy who could have done some things, but he never got the support from the board. I don?t think as much change happened in the police force as should have happened. Spending wildly out of control. Just shameful.? ?John Sewell, former Toronto Mayor and current head of Toronto Police Action Coalition
?The chief suggested to his son (Matt) that I do his wedding . . . To me, that speaks a lot to who chief Blair is. It was amazing. I think for the chief to do that and not ever have a second thought about it was his way of saying that the gay community has arrived. And that there?s no hesitation to have an openly gay pastor who has challenged the police quite a bit over the last few years.? ?Rev. Brent Hawkes, an openly gay pastor at the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto
?There is a sentiment in the black community that we were just used. He opened up with this statement saying he was going to address racial profiling. Now it seems like he was doing that to advance his career.? ?Anthony Morgan, lawyer with the African Canadian Legal Clinic
?We had a few fights in (Regent Park). Once, on one occasion, a guy hit me, and Bill grabbed him. I ended up swinging, missed the guy, and broke Bill?s jaw. So I?m the only guy on the police force who can say that I broke his jaw. But he?ll never forget it.? ?Kim Derry, a retired cop who was one of Blair?s deputy chiefs and is one of his best friends
?He was somebody who took problems and tried to analyze them, and tried to figure out what the best solution was, and didn?t always do what was the popular thing to do or the easy thing to do. I may or may not like the final way in which things were handled, but I guess I felt like there were no simplistic, opportunistic decisions that he made . . . I think he was genuinely looking to the interests of the city of Toronto.? ?Anthony Doob, professor of criminology (emeritus) at the University of Toronto
?When he got promoted to chief, he came into my office, I was working out of homicide, and we were just chatting. And he?s always got a cup of black coffee in his hand, always. And he closed the door and said, ?So, I guess the Police Services Board is holding a press conference this morning.? And I said, ?Really, have they picked a chief?? And I looked and saw the grin was starting to form, and I jumped up, shook his hand and knocked his coffee all over his suit, the suit he had to wear into the press conference that was about to happen in a half an hour . . . He mopped himself up. The thing was, there was still a little bit on the tie he wore, which I thought was rather tacky, and I don?t think he ever wore it again.? ?Jeffrey McGuire, Chief of Niagara Regional Police Service and former Toronto Police officer
?The first car he had frankly was the same car that previous chiefs had, and with the exception of being black, it was basically a Crown Victoria that they use for scout cars. But the problem was, you couldn?t get the front seat back far enough to get his knees off the glove compartment . . . So we got him a Yukon, and we could get him all in the front seat now.? ?Bob Clarke, now retired Toronto police officer who served as Blair?s executive officer from 2005-2007
?On use of force, it is my view that Chief Blair has been misguided both in pushing the use of Tasers and in failing to insist that officers attempt verbal de-escalation in all situations in which it is feasible to do so.? ?Peter Rosenthal, Toronto lawyer who has represented families of people killed during interactions with police
?The demands of leadership in a position like that are very difficult. You?re really on your own, even though he heads a service of thousands of people and relies on them, in many ways he?s also on his own, and you could see Blair grow tremendously, although he?s a natural leader, you could see him grow under the challenge of really having no peers in policing in Canada . . . his peers are really New York, Chicago, there?s not a very big group of people you can discuss your challenges with, and he showed considerable class and strength and certainly integrity in handling that challenge.? ?David Miller, mayor of Toronto from 2003-2010, during Blair?s first term
?I think he?s had a great 10 years . . . I think 10 years is enough, I think he needs to get out and live life. I think he?s given enough to the city over the years, and I don?t think he?s got anything to be ashamed of or to be disappointed in, I think he?s had a great run.? ?Tony Warr, a former deputy chief under Blair who retired in 2011 after 45 years with the Toronto police
?While Chief and when he was a unit commander, Blair has supported greater contact between the community and his office. When he was unit commander he was the police contact for the Homelessness and Socially Isolated Committee. As Chief, he assigned Deputy Chief Sloly to the PACER committee, which includes many members of the ethnoracial community, myself for mental-health related matters, reps of the Human Rights Commission, etc. Deputy Chief Federico was the Chief?s point of contact on the Mental Health Subcommittee of the TPSB and the advisory committee formed out of the Iacobucci report. This assigning of high-ranking officers was a recommendation the Empowerment Council made at an inquest, having found that having a constable assigned was not useful for getting the ear of the Chief. So structures that allow for changes based in community consultation ?are there, and that is to Chief Blair?s credit.? ?Jennifer Chambers, a mental health advocate with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health?s Empowerment Council
?Bill Blair came along and the first thing he did was in front of a parade of his officers he acknowledged the existence of racial profiling. Perhaps it was the time in my career, but I will always have a very high regard for Chief Blair.? ?Julian Falconer, a Toronto criminal lawyer who has represented several families of police shooting victims
?His main transformation has really been about community policing, and connecting community to the policing world. That?s for me, the most important thing he leaves behind.? ?Councillor Pam McConnell, who has represented the Toronto Centre-Rosedale ward, which includes Regent Park