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Police union wants to meddle in politics

Chief Julian Fantino speaks at tension-filled police services board meeting

Chief Julian Fantino

City politicians are "playing with a loaded gun" if they try to restrict the Toronto Police Association from endorsing candidates at election time, says union president Rick McIntosh.

His comments came yesterday as the police services board, the department's civilian overseer, sought to send the hot-button issue of the association's involvement with partisan politics to the Ontario courts.

The board, under chair Alan Heisey, dealt with several controversial issues at the meeting, including the police budget, the drug squad scandal that has shaken the force and, briefly, Julian Fantino's contract as chief.

In a statement to the board, Alan Heisey noted that Fantino's term ends in March, 2005, and "I will not discuss personnel issues in public, and that's all I have to say."

The Star reported this week that Fantino wants to extend his five-year contract until 2007. Yesterday, Fantino told reporters: "I am not going to get into something I feel is a personal matter between myself and my employer. ... I am not going to get into that rhetoric."

The board also named a retired judge to examine allegations of impropriety against Heisey contained in a leaked police memo.

There was tension yesterday over the long-simmering issue of police and politics, which erupted again last fall during the municipal vote that elected Mayor David Miller. Miller put three new members on the board, including vice-chair Pam McConnell and Councillors Case Ootes and John Filion.

"You tread on exceedingly dangerous ground when you start to restrict fundamental, core-value constitutional rights which are the foundation of our democracy," McIntosh, head of the 7,000-member police union, told the meeting, held at police headquarters on College St.

"It is like you are playing with a loaded gun," he added.

The board formally asked the Premier to seek a ruling from the Ontario Court of Appeal on, among other points, whether the association is prohibited from political activity. It also asked the province for clear legislation on the issue.

"A neutral and independent police force is the cornerstone of a free and democratic society," McConnell said. "It is antithetical to allow the police association to do what police officers are legally prohibited from doing." At one point, she asked McIntosh point-blank if his association would refrain from endorsing candidates in elections until the matter is settled.

"No," he replied.

McIntosh maintained that his union "will not meet to discuss any protocol" with the board, and that any attempt by the board to interfere with the rights of his members is "in violation of the supreme law of the land - our constitution."

"We do not break laws. Our members put their lives at risk to uphold laws," he said, adding the Supreme Court guarantees free public debate.

"You have not been to the Supreme Court," McConnell observed tartly.

Toronto lawyer Paul Copeland criticized McIntosh and his union, telling the board: "I think they'll go right ahead and do whatever they want, because that's what they've always done."

"Traditionally the police have been neutral in political matters," Copeland said.

He is a member of the Law Union of Ontario, which launched complaints to the board about the political activities of the association, as well as Fantino's alleged involvement in the political process.

'The board is anxious to resolve this matter as soon as possible'

Pam McConnell, vice-chair police services board

"I am not, in any way, shape or form, going to address these frivolous and vexatious allegations made about me, because they are untruthful," Fantino told reporters after the meeting.

McConnell asked Fantino about recommendations regarding the police department by retired judge George Ferguson, of the Superior Court of Justice. The judge held an investigation into police activities, concurrent with a task force, headed by Chief Superintendent John Neily of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which probed allegations of corruption on the drug squad.

That investigation led to six officers being charged this month with assault, extortion and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

Fantino reminded the board that he asked Ferguson to look at systemic issues in the force, from disclosure of information, recruitment and training to organizational structure, integrity and police culture.

He said he has received preliminary findings - none yet made public - and promised a full report to the police board at its March meeting. Fantino also promised to publish the findings on the police Web site.

Without providing details, he said that, as a result of Ferguson's work, "there has been a total and absolute restructure of how we do drug work in the city."

He noted that he has made internal changes that have "given everyone a sense of confidence," and stressed that affidavits in the Neily investigation, unveiled this week, were already two years old and out-of-date.

The affidavits alleged, among other points, that officers had a "tax" on drug dealers to ply their trade in specific areas of the city.

Toronto police officers are, said the chief, "diligent, hard-working and very honest, trying to do their jobs."

Fantino has faced a challenging week, with controversy over his contract and questions by a new board that appears intent on allowing more public scrutiny of the police budget.

Yesterday, a newspaper report cited sources as saying Fantino had a heated argument this week with Superintendent Bob Strathdee after the chief paid a surprise visit to 12 Division. The report said Strathdee, head of internal affairs in April, 1999, when the complaints were launched against the drug squad, was removed as head of 12 Division and transferred to court support at headquarters.

"The story is completely wrong," police spokesperson Mark Pugash said yesterday. He said the encounter did not take place, because Fantino was out of town, and that Strathdee was not demoted.

The board also acted yesterday on a controversy of its own by asking retired judge Sydney Robins, formerly of the Ontario Court of Appeal, to review allegations against Heisey involving a recently leaked memo from a sex-crimes unit detective to his superior, written 18 months ago.

The memo said Heisey, while on the board, asked the detective in 2002 about child pornography charges against a teacher at his child's school, in a case that was before the courts. It also says he made an inappropriate comment about child pornography, an allegation Heisey described as "deeply offensive."

Critics have attacked the timing of last week's leak because it diverted attention from a public hearing into the conduct of former board chair Norm Gardner.

"We are fortunate to have such a highly respected former jurist undertake this review," McConnell said in a statement.

"The board is anxious to resolve this matter as soon as possible, and Justice Robins has indicated he appreciates the need for a speedy resolution."

Robins wrote a 2000 report on how to prevent sexual abuse of children in public schools. The report led to new laws and regulations governing the conduct and qualifications of teachers in the public system.

He also successfully arbitrated a settlement for the province in the 1978 transit labour dispute.