We should be wary when the police communicate in a way that politicizes information, increases public fear and fuels hate.
On July 12, 2018 the Toronto Police Service acknowledged on Twitter that there was some truth in a leaked rumor about imminent risk of an ‘attack’ on a high-profile target downtown. They also tweeted that people should expect increased police presence throughout the region. Tweets and Facebook posts from eyewitnesses indicated that a number of downtown Toronto intersections had been overtaken by police, particularly in the area surrounding Queens Quay, Union Station and the CN Tower.
As far away as Canada’s Wonderland in York Region, other police units were similarly increasing security, a practice known to law enforcers and security experts as “target hardening.” The actual details of the threat are still hazy. A possible vehicle ramming attack. Maybe the police made some inquiries of U-Haul vehicle rentals. There were tweets about that. Despite the threats, the police chose to hold a press conference outdoors in one of the areas they were securing. A few blocks away from where the security spectacle was unfolding, Doug Ford the new populist conservative (well, Progressive Conservative) Premier of Ontario was delivering his throne speech, laying out his agenda to the legislature.
How were we supposed to take this tweet?
The vagueness of the police announcement invited (and clearly provoked) widespread fear and speculation. Stating that there was a threat, without getting into the details of the threat threw the door wide for opportunists, including Islamophobes and anti-immigration bigots to spread their vitriol freely across social media. Who needs clarifying details when you can just scare the crap out of people and deliberately invite them fill in the blanks?
In the kind of move which should always be analyzed for political subtext, police dramatically increased their presence across the Toronto downtown for a day. While it appears to have been isolated and the mobilization ended quickly, this temporary ‘surge’ of police followed on the heels of an announced increase of almost 200 uniformed officers on the night shift as part of a guns and gangs strategy being implemented by the city. It is also anticipated by experts (and foreshadowed in Ford’s throne speech) that police across Ontario will be returning to the controversial practices of arbitrary detention and unlawful search (carding) and can expect to be similarly empowered in other ways.
In early July, during his first meeting with Justin Trudeau, Ford said he planned to withdraw the province from refugee resettlement agreements with the Federal government. Then a few days later, as the legislature reconvened, Toronto police were suddenly engaging with a high profile but cryptic public safety crisis which was in turn linked rhetorically by Ford supporters to Islamic extremism and refugees, well before any evidence was in. I don’t want to sound like I’m suggesting a link, but looked at critically, it’s all very convenient.
Some far-right bloviators on social media even went so far as to create entirely new fake news about the case. An alarming post circulated which purports to show a CTV segment announcing that the RCMP disrupted a major terror plot. The date is cropped from the video and the mobile version of CTV’s site fails to provide any context for the clip. The segment also clearly displays Olympic medal results at the top of the screen, but it requires that close, critical inspection to realize this is an old clip. This is the extent to which hateful manipulation of information by malicious actors goes hand in hand with the intentional vagueness of the police, it’s a coherent strategy which creates more public support for Ford’s law and order rhetoric and anti-Refugee politics.
Don’t get me wrong please, I like feeling safe too. There have been two gang related murders within a block of my residence in the last month and several other shootings and assaults. Even though I’m not connected to it, a few bystanders have been hurt and it’s clear everybody in the (very gentrified) neighborhood is a bit more vigilant these days. At times it’s a war zone. It’s also apparent that there’s a gang war going throughout the Great Lakes region, from Chicago to Albany, and this is likely impacting Toronto too. An abnormally high number of shootings have occurred so far this year, it’s undeniable that something is up.
Safety still doesn’t mean uncritically handing law enforcement and bureaucrats a free pass to manipulate the public by proffering vague statements which encourage, support and fuel reactionary rhetoric. More fear, more cops on the streets and fewer rights and freedoms for civilians aren’t the answer and will only create more problems. A wonderful, if perhaps myopic series of social media posts proposing constructive alternatives to law enforcement have been circulating over the past weeks.
It’s becoming clear that as a society, we need to do something differently. A sudden uptick in police-citizen interactions via carding, exigent action-movie style public safety mobilizations in public places and cryptic leaks and memos about ‘threats’ are straight out of the developing world strong-man playbook for undermining democracy.
Policing as an institution increasingly has an image problem they’re struggling to correct, but many citizens don’t trust them, and cryptic tweets about exigent threats are really just digging deeper. It’s also clear that the police across Ontario are veering toward full politicization in the upper echelons of their unions and management, in the street-level use of rights infringing practices or tacit support for far-right groups. The political police force is the right hand of totalitarianism.
Elsewhere in the world, the events of July 12 might have been reported under the headline “Police Seize Intersections in Provincial Capital”.
These existing conditions in Ontario law enforcement overlap with the burgeoning refugee resettlement conflicts between the Conservative Provincial and Liberal Federal governments, the support police are promised in Ford’s agenda and the arsenal of enforcement and security tools at the disposal of the province. Those tools include groups like the creepy HCEIT (Hate Crimes and Extremism Investigative Team) a secretive provincial intelligence agency created by the Provincial Liberals and linked to the Waterloo Regional Police, which has historically snooped on political and environmental activists. More recently, HCEIT has shifted focus to far-right and Islamist groups. Any change in mandate for HCEIT over the coming months will certainly indicate a broader shift in provincial law enforcement priorities.
It’s also undeniable that on the whole, the police are Ford’s people. He promises them support, defers to their lobbying and quite transparently made the participation of Police in the annual Toronto Pride Parade a precondition of any personal support for the LGBT+ event. Bear in mind that a close alignment between police and strong-man type politicians is definitely a horrifying warning sign of some of the more disastrous and deadly outcomes of eroding democracy. Elsewhere in the world, the events of July 12 might have been accurately reported under the headline “Police Seize Intersections in Provincial Capital”.
Reporters asked Superintendent Michael Barsky a 52 Division spokesperson about the unspecified ‘threat’ at a non-event Toronto Police press conference. Crucially, they asked how people should react to the vague information police had provided, or whether it would be reasonable for people to react with fear. Barsky stated that he “couldn’t say how people might react.” Notably he didn’t rule out fear or hate. That was at the very least, irresponsible and if intentional, completely inexcusable.
Not giving clear answers to questions and being manipulative with word choice is a common trope in political speech. Was this political policing in action, intersecting the force’s public relations strategy with the ‘tough on crime’ and pro-Police agenda Ford will be pushing in the legislature?
In both word and deed, the Toronto police invited fear, panic and anti-refugee/anti-Muslim scapegoating. It was less Public Safety Unit and more public insecurity unit. It’s also interesting that the geographical focus of their efforts was the area where Kim’s Convenience actor Andrew Phung reported a racist incident with a Toronto Police Service member only a few days before. Do increased visibility and vague threats have a public relations benefit? It bears consideration.
Given the bad press the police get, and given a choice between apolitically protecting the public by quietly deploying more security professionals to an at-risk area, or loudly proclaiming a threat for immediate amplification by scoop-thirsty journalists and hate propagandists, why wouldn’t the Toronto Police Service PR flacks choose to play the crisis up?
The threat, if it existed, and whatever its specifics, was clearly concerning enough to provoke widespread hate speech on social media, but not concerning enough to upset the sensitivities of downtown business owners and event managers by telling folks to avoid the area, thereby putting the brakes on commerce. Because when we stop spending money that’s when the terrorists win, right?
Target hardening may have been necessary. It may have been a show. We certainly shouldn’t trust the police to determine that, independent of journalists and civilian security experts reviewing the facts. In order for transparency to exist, there has to be meaningful information, consisting of facts made available in a timely and responsible manner. “Be afraid, be very afraid” isn’t a fact. It’s shameful political manipulation.
The approach taken by law enforcement will only serve to harden a far more important target — the hearts of Ontarians. This approach will empower hate propagandists and make incidences of Islamophobic hate and anti-Muslim bigotry more and more commonplace.The impacted neighbourhoods remained open for business, but this strategy defied common sense, unless of course senseless fear or desensitization to authority were the desired outcomes.
Other tweets about this: