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Mukherjee's take: Why he and Bill Blair couldn't see eye-to-eye on Toronto's police costs

Toronto Police Services Board Chair Dr. Alok Mukherjee at his office.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

The trip was supposed to have been their chance at reconciliation. An opportunity for the two of them, chief and chair, to get away from the city, the political pressures, the independent reviews and budget squabbles, and have tough conversations about the future of the Toronto Police Service.

Alok Mukherjee, chair of the civilian oversight board, and Bill Blair, chief of Canada's largest municipal police service, were part of a 12-person delegation heading to Britain.

In October, 2010, the British government announced plans to slash police funding across England and Wales by 20 per cent. The government didn't tell the chiefs how to do it. Just to get it done. Financially, the initiative has been a huge success. Since 2011, police services in Britain have reduced their budgets by $4.6-billion.

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Mr. Mukherjee and Chief Blair were there to see how they did it.

"What I saw interested me very much," Mr. Mukherjee said.

Police forces had completely overhauled their operations, homing in on the core duties required of a police service. Mr. Mukherjee remembers one service in particular where all non-police functions – accounting, human relations, IT, the help desk, etc. – had been farmed out to a private company. The head of that company worked in partnership with the service's chief. A sort of mirrored chain of command between the business and the service was setup all the way down the through the ranks.

This was exactly the sort of thing Mr. Mukherjee been advocating for in Toronto. In 2011, while grappling with how to deal with a budget that had ballooned to nearly $1-billion, Mr. Mukherjee wrote a lengthy discussion paper entitled "Avoiding Crisis; An opportunity: Transforming the Toronto Police Service." It called for contracting out administrative functions, scaling back the number of officers in management positions and rethinking some of the tasks currently being performed by police officers. Mr. Mukherjee was inspired by what he saw happening – and working – in Britain. Chief Bill Blair was horrified.

"Quite frankly, the senior police officers from Canada had huge problems with [what we saw]. Huge problems with it," Mr. Mukherjee said. "I wouldn't want to single out Chief Blair."

Mr. Mukherjee insists there was no particular moment when the board decided not to extend the chief's contract. The chair praised what Chief Blair had done with community-based policing and the anti-gangs TAVIS unit. "Overall, he was an outstanding leader."

This week, the Police Services Board announced it was not renewing Chief Blair's contract. Chief Blair, who will have served the city for 10 years when his term is up in April, 2015, had asked for an extension at the helm. Days after the chief made his intentions known, the Board voted not to accept his offer and gave few reasons publicly, except to say it had nothing to do with the massive arrests during G20 or how the chief had dealt with the investigation of Mayor Rob Ford. The tension between the chief and the mayor and his brother have been high since Chief Blair revealed the existence of the purported crack video. On Friday, Chief Blair threatened Doug Ford with legal action.

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The board's unexpectedly quick decision has led many to believe Mr. Mukherjee will try to put a new chief in place before the next city council is sworn in this December. It's a scenario that would cast Mr. Mukherjee – who has been chair for about nine years – in the role of kingmaker, free to choose a leader who shares his values about civilian oversight, equity and the need for new ideas.

Chief Blair's spokesperson Mark Pugash said the chief was unavailable to comment.

In a lengthy interview with the soft-spoken 68-year-old chair a day after the board made its shocking announcement, it became clear that the British trip was a turning point in Mr. Mukherjee's mind.

It crystallized the differences between Toronto's two police leaders. Chief Blair, an old school cop who had spent decades working his way through the Toronto police ranks, believed that the Toronto service was essentially, a lean and well-run operation that needed minimal tweaking. Mr. Mukherjee saw it a different way. Yes, the organization, as it was, ran well. But the model – where nearly 90 per cent of budget costs are salary and benefits related – was not sustainable. (Chief Blair has always contended that he has limited ability to trim costs in the situation where salary and benefits are decided by a collective agreement.)

The chief and the chair had wildly different beliefs about the future of the Toronto Police Service. And there wasn't room for both of them.

(Asked about this tension, Mr. Mukherjee said he and the chief had a healthy relationship and he has nothing but respect for Chief Blair.)

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The trip was about two years ago. The chill continues to this day, although neither Mr. Mukherjee or Chief Blair will speak about it publicly.

It wasn't always that way.

Back in the early days of Chief Blair's term, the duo was as close as a chair and chief could be. Both ascended to their positions in 2005. Mr. Mukherjee, who'd built a name for himself doing race relations consulting and human rights work, won his spot on the board in 2004 and became chair within a year. He was part of the group that selected Mr. Blair as a successor to chief Julian Fantino.

Mr. Mukherjee admired Chief Blair's commitment to community outreach, diversity and belief in civilian oversight – particularly after the turbulent Fantino years.

For the next five years, the two more or less walked in  lockstep. They backed each other in the press, presented a united front during budget debates and contract negotiations. Most importantly, they enjoyed regular private meetings where each could speak candidly about issues facing the service.

The first ripples of trouble formed in 2009, when the board named then 43-year-old Peter Sloly as the next deputy chief. Mr. Sloly is a divisive figure within the service. Smart, ambitious, and a natural leader, he holds a master's degree in business and takes an analytical approach to his job. He moved rapidly through the ranks – too quickly for some people's liking – and at the time, many believed he was destined to become Toronto's first black police chief.

Numerous sources say Chief Blair was one of the skeptics. He felt Mr. Sloly could use a few more years proving himself. Some believed the chief viewed his new deputy as a rival and Mr. Mukherjee was his champion.

For his part, Mr. Sloly said Friday: "I have always had and will continue to have full respect and support for both Chief Blair and chair Mukherjee."

Mr. Mukherjee had devoted much of his life fighting for employment equity. After emigrating from India as a young married man in his 20s, Mr. Mukherjee landed his first job at the Toronto District School Board doing race relations and community outreach, writing resource materials, designing policy and developing protocols to deal with allegations of discrimination. He continued in this line of work with his own consulting firm, and then as acting commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

"Bringing in the first chief who is a woman or a person of colour is part of a broader focus of doing policing within a strong human rights framework," Mr. Mukherjee said. "And one element of that is attention to hiring people, men and women, from all diverse backgrounds, but not just to leave them within the lowest levels of the organization."

With Mr. Sloly's situation already putting stress on the relationship, Prime Minister Stephen Harper threw gas on the flames. In December, 2009, he revealed Toronto would play host to June's G20 summit. It would produce a policing challenge unlike anything the city had ever seen.

For those few days, parts of the downtown core became a quasi-police state. After a small mob using Black Bloc tactics went on a rampage in the downtown core, torching police cruisers and smashing shop windows, officers clamped down on even peaceful protests. An independent review concluded police had violated civil rights and some officers had used excessive force.

The board felt they had not been properly consulted. Chief Blair felt the board was being unreasonable and overstepping. This tension of jurisdiction continued to play out over the next several years.

Sources say Mr. Mukherjee increasingly began pressing for details on officer deployment, internal officer misconduct investigations, and other areas that the chief felt had nothing to do with the board's civilian mandate.

"My interpretation of the operation-policy divide is that board members are not allowed to step into … stuff that I would call 'strict policing.' But I think the board, as the management body, has every right to know the deployment model, to know when a major event is happening what the plans are. The board ultimately carries liability when things go wrong," Mr. Mukherjee said. "It [was] a point of tension, there's no doubt. It's a point of tension right through this country where chiefs define operations way more broadly than it is legitimate to do."

Later that year, the next big strain on the Mukherjee-Blair dynamic entered the scene: Rob Ford.

Mr. Ford was sworn in as Mayor of Toronto in December, 2010. Many speculated he planned to oust Mr. Mukherjee – who was seen as an ally of Mr. Ford's predecessor, David Miller – from his job as chair, a position that comes with an annual salary of about $90,000.

The civilian oversight board is made up of seven members, three provincial appointees, three city councillors and another city appointee. A mayor with significant support on council can hold the balance of power on the police board.

Said a police source, "Mukherjee obviously thought he might lose his job as chair under the new mayor."

Whether this was the reason or not, Mr. Mukherjee appeared to quickly strike an alliance with then-Ford ally Councillor Michael Thompson. Chief Blair felt the chair was playing politics, a source close to the chief said. It didn't help the fact that Mr. Thompson didn't hide the fact he wanted Mr. Sloly to be chief one day. Mr. Mukherjee kept his job.

After Mayor Ford took office, he launched the core service review in 2011, requesting every department find efficiencies. Mr. Mukherjee saw it as an opportunity to push his ideas for reform. The chief bristled. But when the board – acting on orders from the Ford administration – ordered a mandatory 10 per cent budget cut, it looked like Chief Blair had no choice but to start making the tough decisions.

Councillor Thompson suggested Chief Blair should be replaced if he couldn't find the cuts. That's when the chief decided to get into the political game himself. He met privately with Mayor Ford in October, 2011 and brokered a deal that would give him a 1.5 per cent increase to the then $915-million budget.

Now it was Chief Blair who was seen to have overstepped. The ensuing years only got worse. When budget season rolled around, the chief made promises to find efficiencies, but the board felt that by 2014, he'd made almost no progress.

After Mayor Ford became almost irrelevant at city hall – having been stripped of much of his power and influence amidst the crack cocaine scandal – the budget tension between the board and the chief never eased.

Money, not controversy over the investigation the chief ordered into Mayor Ford's drug use, or the G20, spelled the end of Chief Blair, according to sources close to board.

So the question is, now that the board will soon begin its hunt for the next chief, what is Mr. Mukherjee looking for in a new chief? One individual on the board, who asked not to be named because they did not have authorization to speak, said they are interested in looking for an international candidate, someone who won't have friendships to consider when tough choices need to be made.

Mr. Mukherjee side-stepped the question, but noted that whoever wins the job of the country's most powerful municipal police chief, will be someone open to "unorthodox ideas."

"You can't have a real serious fundamental transformation if you're not prepared to think differently."

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About the Author
Investigative Reporter

Robyn Doolittle joined The Globe and Mail’s investigative team in April 2014 after spending nearly a decade reporting for the Toronto Star as a general assignment, crime and finally city hall reporter. Her probe of Mayor Rob Ford’s troubled personal life garnered worldwide attention and ultimately won the 2014 Michener Award for public service journalism. More

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