A new police chief will have to prove himself, but two mayors deserve credit for their bold step
Photos by Mansoor Tanweer/Twitter

A new police chief will have to prove himself, but two mayors deserve credit for their bold step

Meetings of the Peel police board had for years resembled decision making in the basement of a frat-house. Citizen appointees with no experience in criminal justice or the complex relationship between police departments and the communities they serve joined fun-loving politicians who rubber-stamped whatever the chief wanted, then collected their tidy paycheques. The public portion of the bimonthly gatherings often lasted 10 to 15 minutes, with no discussion or debate.

But Friday, June 12, 2015, marked the end of business as usual within the Peel Police Service.

At that morning's meeting of the board that oversees this country’s third largest municipal police force, Mississauga’s new mayor, Bonnie Crombie, had pushed an item onto the agenda. It was quietly placed under the “New Business” section, which was fitting because the matter that had been burning in her mind had never been addressed before, despite widespread news coverage of this deepening problem across Ontario.

Crombie knew the force, under the leadership of Chief Jennifer Evans, routinely stopped citizens in “carding” encounters, known in Peel as “street checks." Policing data in cities such as Toronto had showed that Black men were being targeted in these random stops at a soul destroying rate and that their Charter-protected rights were routinely violated by officers.

Former Peel police chief Jennifer Evans

Peel’s department had escaped public scrutiny, but Crombie was hearing these encounters and the unfair singling-out of young Black men were happening routinely in her own community.

She wanted to find out what Evans knew about this and why the chief had failed to explain to the board what was going on inside the force, while carding headlines dominated the news in other cities.

The rookie mayor knew the two jurisdictions patrolled by Peel police, Brampton and Mississauga, were predominantly non-white, while the force was overwhelmingly white, a volatile dynamic that could lead to a complete breakdown in trust, especially if many community members were being randomly stopped because of their skin colour.

Crombie began that morning with a smooth line of questioning, as the chief’s face became flushed. Evans had never been asked such penetrating questions by a board member who, remarkably, sought answers.

“If police lose the ability to have contact with the community and make notes of it, then we will lose the battle in crime,” Evans, visibly flustered, responded when Crombie questioned the benefits of such a destructive practice.  

Data had shown that Black individuals in other jurisdictions were being stopped by police in carding encounters at three times the rate of whites. But as one force after another recognized the antiquated practice had zero investigative benefit as a policing tool, often leading to a breakdown of relations between police and the communities needed to assist them, the scrutiny of Evans finally began to reveal how out of touch the doomed chief really was.

She resisted Crombie’s request for a sweeping review of carding practices by Peel police, claiming that regular reporting to the board had always been done. The mayor knew this was not the case and that none of the telling information she was looking for, which would show the real picture, had ever been provided.

Crombie stood her ground. The chief grew more agitated. She had never been challenged like this. Board members, especially political leaders, knew how powerful and vindictive police brass could be. When election season rolls around, that’s when people like Evans, and the incredibly powerful police unions they quietly control, flex their muscles, highlighting for voters those candidates who stand for public safety and those who don’t support the men and women in uniform.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie at a police board meeting

How dare this upstart take on the chief of police.

But finally, someone on the board, one of a group that was supposed to raise questions, to ensure public safety and the ultimate protection of  citizens, was carrying out the mandate of the job. No longer would bobble-head board meetings feature old white men (appointed by friends in high places) backslapping each other between stories of fishing trips and other escapades over the past two months. The rubber-stamping days were over.

Crombie's motion was successful, despite the protests of the chief. When it came to exercising responsibility for protecting her residents, the mayor had shown the officer who the real boss was.

“Whereas the practice known as carding has been considered controversial for targeting ethnic minority communities; and whereas the practice of ‘Carding’ has been questioned and scrutinized for its appropriateness in keeping residents and neighbourhoods safe; and whereas information generated from informal contact with members of the public that are not related with any ongoing or active criminal investigation is widely considered unreliable; and whereas we must continuously review our policing methods to ensure that the rights and freedoms of all residents of Peel are respected; and whereas the practice of carding: is currently being challenged as to its Constitutionality; and whereas the Ontario Human Rights Commission has called for an immediate end to the practice of carding; and whereas the Peel Police Services Board (the Board) is seen to be the steward of the public’s interest and provides governance on behalf of the community; Therefore be it resolved that the Peel Police Services Board (the Board) calls for a full review of Street Checking practices by the Peel Regional Police (PRP), including consultation with key community stakeholders ensuring that the PRP fulfills their constitutional obligation to our citizens; and Therefore be it further resolved that the Peel Regional Police consult best practices regarding the retention of information on citizens.”

After a tense 30-minute exchange, Crombie picked up the piece of paper on which she had written out her motion and gathered up her belongings. From that day on, policing in Peel would change forever.

When the Toronto Star, through a freedom of information request, revealed the carding data Evans had kept under wraps, it was just as suspected. Her force had been targeting Blacks at more than three times the rate of whites. In September 2015, Evans refused the board’s directive to stop the practice, but it didn’t matter. She couldn't explain why certain individuals were being harassed by her officers because of how they looked. The chief’s days were now numbered.

Organizations such as the Law Union of Ontario singled Evans out for her defence of carding, despite her failure to provide evidence that it was beneficial. The chief suggested on CBC Radio that her officers only stopped and carded people if they appeared to be outside the neighbourhood in which they lived, and she repeatedly confused the practice of random carding with direct investigative procedures lawfully carried out in the event of suspicious activity. She failed to understand carding was never supposed to be used in that way, and that nothing would prevent officers from continuing to do their jobs as investigators as long as they followed the rules.   

Crombie led the push for a sweeping equity and diversity audit of the force, which sent the chief and her senior officers into a fury. Evans’ unhinged leadership became even more evident when a series of controversial cases (read about them here and here and here) pointed to a breakdown of authority within the force, as the board refused her request for a lengthy contract extension.

The equity audit was scathing (you can read about it here), showing that rank and file officers had lost confidence and that the department was being pulled apart from within. Before the audit's public release, calls from community groups demanding Evans’ resignation grew louder, and finally, in the fall, she obliged, announcing she would step down in January, weeks before the damning audit laid bare just how bad things had become under her chaotic leadership.

But in her effort to turn the force around, Crombie had one more obstacle to overcome: the police brass who wanted to carry on the legacy of Evans. The 2018 municipal election brought Crombie an ally.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown joined the police board, with one clear priority: selecting the right chief to remake the force and address widespread concern about public safety in two of the country’s most complex cities, where violent crime was on the rise.

Mayor Patrick Brown, next to Bonnie Crombie at a recent police board meeting

One of the most troubling events during Evans’ tenure as chief was the case of Baljiwan (BJ) Sandhu, a man who possessed the singular competency vital to policing in these two polyglot municipalities. Sandhu had directly helped solve numerous homicides and other violent crimes, often tied to organized international syndicates that had increasingly begun to operate in Peel. His use of four languages and deep knowledge of the spinning criminal web made him an obvious candidate for promotion into the senior ranks. With hundreds of hours as an acting inspector and a long list of policing commendations, including the prestigious Queen’s Diamond Jubilee medal recognizing his investigative work, he was a shoo-in for promotion.

But under Evans’ watch, Sandhu was denied the opportunity to enter the promotional competition for a full-inspector position. He filed a complaint with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, alleging that discrimination based on race and ethnicity played a key role in his treatment while Evans was chief. Evidence the force tried to prevent from coming out eventually showed that, despite the department’s claims, candidates with far less experience than Sandhu were invited to compete for the job.

During the hearings, a key area of detail was hammered on by Sandhu and former Inspector Norm English, who had been in charge of the homicide bureau and intelligence for the force and had worked closely with Sandhu. Over his decades-long career, the South Asian-Canadian officer had become the central figure in investigations involving the communities he had spent years building ties with. The tribunal heard that his work and his cultural competency, along with his investigative skills, had made Sandhu a superstar in the force, and that without his leadership there would be a dangerous void.

The tribunal ruled in his favour and found the force had discriminated against him on the basis of race and ethnicity. But Evans had pushed Sandhu away. He remains on leave from his duties.

Meanwhile, high-profile crimes, such as the bombing of a Mississauga family restaurant that caters to the South Asian community, have become more common. The bombing last year left 15 people injured and made international headlines for the brazen evening attack when 40 people, including many children, were inside. No arrests have been made.

Critics of the force have questioned if, under the leadership of Evans and acting chief Chris McCord, Peel Region Police has the investigative, intelligence and cultural competency to keep citizens in one of the country’s most diverse region’s safe.

This is what the tribunal ruling in Sandhu’s case concluded: police portfolios rooted in the South Asian community are "generally devalued in the service" because they are "associated with the South Asian population" and are "not considered real police work.”  

It was an alarming finding that sent shock waves throughout the criminal justice system.

Which brings us back to the search for a new police chief.

Staring at Crombie and Brown, as they sought to turn the force around and hit back at the rise in violent crime, was McCord. He was an Evans guy. He represented the status quo, the old way of doing business. As acting chief, he had brushed aside the alarming findings of the equity/diversity audit, presented under his provisional leadership. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Acting Chief Chris McCord

But tremendous effort was being made to give him the top job. Doug Ford and his PC government appointed three new members to the seven-person police board that would decide on the future direction of Peel Region Police. At least two of them have close ties to Ford.

It was clear in public communications and on social media that McCord was making every effort to influence the board.

Brown and Crombie made it clear that they wanted change. And they gained a key ally, the brand-new citizen appointee to the board, selected by a committee of regional council, Ahmad Attia.

They prevailed. On Friday, in an announcement that brought both relief and hope to those who have been fighting the force for years, trying to drag it into the future, the new leader of Peel police was revealed.

As of October, Nishan Duraiappah, a deputy chief from Halton Region, will take over as the top cop in Brampton and Mississauga.

Incoming Peel police Chief Nishan Duraiappah 

Crombie told The Pointer he “is an inspirational and aspirational leader with a strong track record from his 25 years of service in Halton. He brings a new and innovative style of policing to Peel, representing the next generation of leadership on the force.”

And Brown said, “I have long advocated for the hiring of a new chief with experience and fresh perspectives on how best to handle the growing number of 911 calls that are mental health related and gun violence in Peel Region.”

Duraiappah was born in Sri Lanka. After immigrating to Canada, he joined Halton’s force in 1995 as a constable. He has been a deputy chief since 2015, with experience on the drug and morality unit, the guns and gangs unit and district criminal investigations.

His service as the diversity and cultural relations coordinator for Halton police should serve him well as he enters a force wracked with internal problems. 

If he turns things around, Duraiappah will get most of the credit. But for now, it should go to Crombie and Brown. Those who put them into power, to serve and protect, have been rewarded.

It’s incredibly hard to take on a large police force that can rain fire on a political career. In an age when bashing our elected officials has become a blood sport, and even reasonable people have grown depressingly cynical toward political leaders, we sometimes forget the good that many still do.

The two mayors should be thanked for remaining steadfast in their commitment to finding the best person to lead our police department and protect the citizens it serves.  

To the rest of the board members, it’s time to do your job and help the incoming chief fulfill your collective mandate.

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