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A bald man wearing a police uniform sits in front of a microphone
Chief James Ramer of the Toronto Police Service speaks during a press conference. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin

The Toronto Police’s #TPSTrust campaign misses the mark

Maintaining public trust in police is essential for effective policing and last month the Toronto Police Service (TPS), Canada’s largest municipal police service, launched yet another initiative to enhance public trust called #TPSTrust.

The initiative’s intention is to show the public “a side of police officers they don’t usually see” through a series of one-on-one video-recorded conversations between officers and former crime reporter Tamara Cherry — five episodes have been shared so far.

The segments are over 40 minutes long and snippets are shared across TPS social media accounts. Trust-enhancing efforts have been officially used on social media by the TPS since 2011.

Trust is a major driver of police legitimacy. The aim of police legitimacy is to facilitate voluntary public cooperation with police. It relies on the public judging police actions as reasonable and warranted, thereby manufacturing public support.

However, an irony exists as the #TPSTrust campaign has created a legitimacy conundrum.

A different side of police officers

Modern policing rests on the notion of impersonal authority, which is what gives policing its professional legitimacy. Impersonal authority is attached to the institution of policing, divorced from the personal interests of individual officers.

Continual attempts to show the public “a side of police officers they don’t usually see” are potentially problematic, since such activities are outside the scope of official police work and could ironically lead to the erosion of police legitimacy.

Consider as an example a #TPSTrust clip of Special Constable Kevin Machado salsa dancing in his office. He appears to be on duty, in uniform and his dance moves are seemingly funded by taxpayer dollars. While Constable Machado may be an excellent salsa dancer, his talent here does nothing to address his capabilities or behaviour as a police officer.

#TPSTrust with Special Constable Kevin Machado.

And the TPS has already proposed other ways to use video to enhance trust. An eye-watering amount of taxpayer money — $34 million — funds TPS body-worn cameras.

Despite being marketed to the public by police administrators to enhance trust, that claim is unsubstantiated. And recent reports suggest the public may actually never see body-worn camera footage.

Ways to enhance public trust

One way to enhance public trust in police is for the TPS to proactively share and transparently address body-worn camera footage of police misconduct (within the confines of the law).

According to the Toronto Police Services Board, the Chief of Police has the authority to initiate the release of body camera recordings of public interest. Public knowledge of how the TPS disciplines and, when necessary, terminates officers for misconduct would do far more to enhance public trust.

Likewise, the police could encourage the public to record the police (at a safe distance as to not interfere with police work) so that events can be documented on video from multiple angles and therefore everyone can get a better picture when problems arise.

Another way to enhance public trust in the TPS would be to require police officers to carry professional liability insurance, like the insurance carried by medical doctors.

Calls for officers to carry their own liability insurance have grown since the police murder of George Floyd. The officer who murdered Floyd had 18 complaints filed against him and was involved in multiple shootings. Increasingly higher premiums for repeated bad behaviour — or the revocation of insurance eligibility — would force abusive officers out of policing.

The public is told repeatedly that there are just “a few bad apples” in policing. If this is true, TPS police officers should actively promote and encourage trust in police through their interactions with the public and by demanding real accountability from the “bad apples.”

Officers should always publicly condemn the actions of fellow officers when they have been found to cause harm, rather than protecting them behind the silence of the blue line.

Doing this would really show the public “a side of police officers they don’t usually see,” and would surely contribute to the enhancement of public trust in the Toronto Police Service and set an example for other Canadian police services to follow.

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