There is no question that the relationship between the Toronto Police Services (TPS) and the citizenry of Hogtown have been rocky of late. Whether it is the controversial carding programme or allegations of police brutality and unnecessary use of force, many Torontonians have a jaded opinion of the men and women sworn to protect them. Clearly there have been incidents that have shown the TPS in a bad light and there is also a need for more dialogue and bridge building, but there are also public reactions that are unwise and defy logic.
One of the recent demands made by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) fits into this category. According to a story in the Toronto Star, the board has posted a staff report on its Web site calling for the elimination of a programme that puts TPS officers in schools across the Greater Toronto Area. I have not read the report but did note that despite an overwhelming positive response there was ‘significant concern’ expressed by youth who stated that the presence of officers made them feel “uncomfortable, intimidated and targeted.” The board later agreed to suspend the programme “pending review.”
I do not know why the students feel this way, whether it has to do for instance with the ‘racialized’ (how I hate that term) population, and I accept that there have probably been incidents where bad blood has surfaced. Nevertheless, this is a terrible recommendation and should have been rejected outright. As I am not a specialist in crime or police relations with the community I will refrain from making any comments on these issues, but I will elaborate on why taking cops out of schools will make us less safe from both a national security and public safety perspective.
Simply stated, the School Resource Officer (SRO) programme has served as a very useful aid in identifying young people on the road to violent radicalization. I should point out that I have briefed many SRO officers across Canada (the programme is not limited to Toronto) on what to look for with regard to violent radicalization indicators and while I am not aware of any officer who has detected or passed on information to the appropriate authorities I maintain that the more people who are trained on what to take note of the better. This applies to families, religious authorities, friends, health care workers and teachers as much as it does to police officers. After all, more information is always better than less.
Some may see this aspect of the programme as ‘spying’: it is nothing of the sort. It is the careful observation and documentation of individuals who are displaying overt behaviours and attitudes that are consistent with those who could go on to join terrorist groups or plan acts of terrorism here in Canada. Note that I wrote ‘could go on to’: there is no foolproof way to predict the next terrorist. Nevertheless, early detection serves two very important goals. First, we want our protectors to start investigating threats sooner rather than later so they can take action to prevent deaths and destruction. Secondly, early warning paves the way for intervention to nip the radicalization process in the bud before it morphs into something much more serious and much more disastrous for the young people (and their families) involved.
I hope for the sake of those youth who are embracing violent ideologies or who are merely dipping a toe into violent radical ideologies that the TDSB changes its mind. We need more programmes right across the spectrum of radicalization to violence, from very early intervention to investigation, arrest and trials, not fewer.
Phil Gurski is a former senior strategic analyst at CSIS and president and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting.