Blending policing and human rights – the Toronto Police Charter Project

The balance between human rights and public security is sometimes difficult to achieve. For many years the OHRC had an adversarial relationship with various police services in the province, dealing with complaints on a case-by-case basis. We found that we were not getting to systemic solutions, especially around racial profiling and other concerns about bias.

Over the past three years, the OHRC has been involved in an innovative project to embed human rights into the day-to-day culture of the Toronto Police Service. The Toronto Police Charter Project brought together the OHRC, the Toronto Police Services Board and the Toronto Police Service. The Charter partners developed a comprehensive program to bring a human rights focus to all facets of policing in Toronto.

This project was bold and, potentially, risky for everyone involved. It required each partner to recognize the real limitations of the “old” system and to change basic attitudes and processes. Police officers and leaders in Toronto had to look at and talk about areas that are controversial, such as racial profiling, and take steps that were different from “the old way of doing things.” The OHRC needed to step aside from confrontational approaches, despite the concerns of some stakeholders.

Today, the three partners have learned to share information and expertise and to see where changes need to be made. Concerns about a “culture clash” between the organizations have faded as we have learned about each other. Through research, analysis, dialogue and consensus there has been real progress in four key areas: recruitment, selection, promotion and retention; police learning; accountability; and public education. There have been disagreements – for example, on the use of data collection – but there is a commitment to work through unresolved issues.

2010 marks the end of the formal Project Charter but a close relationship will continue. The Toronto Police Services Board is to finalize an internal policy on human rights to guide the police in the future. As well, a new Human Rights Advisory Committee includes two members from each of the sponsoring partners and will continue the momentum of the Project Charter. The committee will maintain and monitor all Project Charter strategies, and provide advice and support to other organizations involved in similar work. The advisory committee will support Ryerson University, which has the task of assessing the success of the Project Charter. Preliminary results will be released later this year, while a report by 2014 will gauge longer-term results and suggest how the Project Charter’s work will be sustained.

The success of the Charter has wider implications. The lessons learned in this process will be used to develop a road map for systemic change in other police services and other sectors. Willing partners, committed to human rights, can bring real change to major organizations. In coming months similar projects will be established.