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Decency destroyed at the Toronto police board

Alan Heisey has never done anything but the right thing from the moment he accepted the chairmanship of the Toronto Police Services Board six tumultuous months ago, and he did it again yesterday when he stepped away from the job. He warned from the moment he accepted the chair that the board was on shaky ground, even dysfunctional. But nobody listened; he had to prove it by resigning. He cited personal reasons, refusing to cast blame. But the immolation of a man as consummately moderate as Mr. Heisey speaks loud.

There are many people who should be ashamed of themselves for bringing the board to such a pass, including the appointees who disrupted meetings rather than losing a vote, bringing two to a complete halt.

So who's next on the chopping block?

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Step forward John Filion. The city councillor and Police Services Board member boasted that he was not easily intimidated when he went public with his fears that some bad-apple police officers had placed him under surveillance. Basing the fears on neighbours' stories about suspicious activity around his house while he was away on vacation, Mr. Filion boldly tabled a motion at the board banning police from spying on elected officials unless they were conducting a criminal investigation.

But it wasn't long before he began to sing a more cautious tune; in fact, the change came abruptly after police officers visited Mr. Filion to interview him as part of a formal investigation into the affair. "I never said who it was. I don't know who it was," he told The Globe and Mail this week. "And my objective in raising it wasn't to have any investigation."

Judging by Mr. Filion's sudden loss of enthusiasm for the case, it is tempting to conclude that something has finally intimidated him. But judging by the facts, such as they are, it seems more likely that he has come to his senses and is now trying to tiptoe out of the political deathtrap he constructed himself and entered so boldly.

Did Mr. Filion finger the police or did he not? You decide: "I think 99.9 per cent, at least, [of]members of the Toronto Police Service are not engaged in any of these activities," he said, complaining about the suspected surveillance outside a police board meeting on May 27, where he first tabled his motion. "But I believe there are a small number who are engaged."

And if you want more quotations, just contact the communications department of the Toronto Police Service, which has assembled a handy dossier of transcripts of Mr. Filion's statements, both inside and outside the meeting room, on that significant day. As of now, they are the only actual evidence in an investigation the politician didn't want but now, as it methodically turns on him, he can't avoid.

The results are predictable: The investigation will discover no basis for Mr. Filion's fears about surveillance and intimidation. Just as another recently completed internal investigation failed to discover who leaked a police memo libelling Mr. Heisey, this one will likewise fail to shed light on Mr. Filion's complaint about details of his divorce turning up in the Toronto Sun shortly after he joined the board. Then the police association, already convinced that the reformist board member "hates" all police, will call for his resignation -- and the Toronto Sun will no doubt follow suit. If he manages to hang on, Mr. Filion will be discredited and isolated, the latest damaged goods on the police board, his potential effectiveness forever compromised.

Conventional wisdom says you have to be tough to sit on the police board, given a brass-knuckled political history that makes accusations of intimidation all too worrisome. But you also have to be smart, and it isn't smart for a board member to make allegations against police that can never be proven.

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Not that it hasn't been done before. Indeed, the Filion fracas bears a striking resemblance to an earlier scandal three years ago, when none other than Police Chief Julian Fantino endorsed similar allegations of covert surveillance, which were reported in the Toronto Sun -- only that time, he was the figure allegedly under surveillance and the Toronto Police Association was allegedly directing the alleged spy.

Mr. Fantino told the Sun, without ever offering any proof, "This is the trademark of this particular association leadership and I find it disgusting," adding, based on his belief, that he was "appalled this association leadership is pursuing these agendas."

In the aftermath, the police association launched a $19-million defamation suit against the chief, the police board, the Toronto Sun and Sun reporter George Christopoulos. But Mr. Fantino subsequently buried the hatchet with union head Craig Bromell and the latter dropped the suit. Two years later, Mr. Christopoulos left the Sun to join the police service as a high-ranking communications official.

For some reason, we never got the benefit of a full investigation into the chief's allegations. But that precedent is unlikely to save Mr. Filion. In his case, the dossier is growing apace.

Meanwhile the Toronto police board stumbles from scandal to scandal, its credibility sustaining ever-greater damage as more traps and tricks waylay both reformers and old guard alike. Judging by its disruption strategy, the latter appears to be screwing up deliberately. And this week, with the Heisey resignation, it achieved brilliant success.

jbarber@globeandmail.ca

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