Co-opting 'good' gays

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James Dubro / Toronto / Thursday, June 21, 2007

It seems Toronto police would like to restrict the class of people who sit with them on community liaison committees.

I was in attendance for the lively community forum Police Checks And Balances: Community Policing Or Policing Communities? held Jun 11 at the 519 Community Centre. Approximately 50 people came out to hear about the new police reference and psychiatric check requirements for community consultation committees, including the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans] Community Consultation Committee. Several senior police representatives were in the audience, including Supt Jerry Maguire, cochair of the LGBT liaison committee and head of 51 Division. The presence of these senior officers afforded panellists and other attendees the chance to question the cops directly on the issue. All in all it made for an evening of frequent and animated debate.

After years of working on two different police liaison committees I would argue that the police checks aren't necessary. One of the most effective members of the Church-Wellesley Neighbourhood Police Liaison Committee in its early years was the late Greg Pavelich, a tireless activist who constantly challenged police in our meetings, particularly in connection to raids of queer clubs.

As it happens, Pavelich had a police file in a connection to a protest against then-premier Mike Harris. Although committee members were not subject to checks then, the cops on the committee already knew about Pavelich's activist background. (After all, the cops have a very well-staffed "intelligence" unit to find out things about people, one that has been used to monitor queer activists.)

In other words, the police already have the necessary information to veto prospective members from the committees if there truly is a security reason, something Maguire denied at the forum.

The six panellists on hand for the forum were an intelligent and diverse lot: Jeffrey Patterson, the former chair of the Black Community Consultation Committee, who chose to resign rather than submit to police checking requirements; two out of the four LGBT Community Consultation Committee members, cochair Howard Shulman and moderator Kyle Scanlon; social activist Anna Willats of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition; and two police reference procedure-savvy lawyers, Lisa Romano, the legal counsel for the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office and a member of the the Mental Health Police Records Check Coalition, and Bill Thompson, a lawyer with Sack Goldblatt Mitchell.

What was notable about the forum was the unified opposition to the newly required police reference checks. None of the panellists argued in favour, and, with the exception of the three police representatives present, only one audience member spoke up for the new policy.

Essentially what is happening with these newly required checks is that the cops want to take over a community-driven process and make it a "police-controlled and police-driven" process, as Patterson so succinctly put it.

Thompson offered up one of the most informative presentations of the evening when he outlined the four types of people the police would be able to exclude from community committees by imposing the checks: "Persons of interest," meaning "possible suspects in criminal activity," people already accused of a crime, people who have been detained under the mental health act and people who have otherwise had contact with the cops, including through suicide attempts or demonstrable irrational psychiatric behaviours.

So, basically, the cops would like to exclude crooks and crazies from the consultative committees. But how many people involved in criminal behaviour want to spend time with cops? And what are the chances that people with serious mental issues would ever be elected?

In her forceful and articulate presentation Willats argued that "the very people who are most likely to have negative interactions with the cops are the people who we want to be involved in our community groups and initiatives." This includes sex workers, trans people, homeless people and members of other vulnerable populations — people who may very well have police records because their lives have been criminalized, as homo-sexuals' lives were not so long ago.

Both Shulman and Scanlon, the two elected members of the LGBT Community Consultation Committee present at the forum, say they have not yet decided whether they will submit to the newly required checks or resign from the committee. The fate of the LGBT Community Consultative Committee now hangs in the balance.

At the forum, Maguire stuck to his guns about the new police rules. But in the meantime there are queer leaders with police ties who are trying to engineer a compromise. I have been told by two sources that there is a desire to use their influence "to diffuse the escalating situation" and find a compromise that "may very well involve police doing a more limited check and doing reference checks only on one or two [members] of the LGBT committee, not checks on all members."

But the reference checks aren't necessary, period. I don't believe this new policy is really about security; it's about making community committee members part of the police team, separating out the good gays from the bad gays.

I was chair of the 52 Division Community Police Liaison Committee in early 2001 when the police started issuing photo ID cards for members so we could gain entrance to 52 Division for meetings. I managed to avoid being issued one but there were civilian members of the committee who loved those cards — they looked official and, perhaps, made them feel more like cops themselves.

Like the cards, the police checks are a stamp of approval from the cops, and that's a form of co-optation that queers should be wary of given our history with the cops. James Dubro has been an elected member of two police/community liaison committees — the now-defunct Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Police Liaison Committee from its founding in 1992 until 2000 and the 52 Division Community Police Liaison Committee from 1996 until 2002.

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