Alok Mukherjee (Police Chair) Globe Profile

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    The cops' boss strikes a fine balance
    Between resolving contract disputes and mending a troubled reputation, policing the police is no easy task. But the board chair has faced bigger challenges in his time - as an Indian immigrant moving to 'Toronto the Good' 36 years ago. Omar El Akkad reports

    OMAR EL AKKAD

    December 8, 2007
    The Globe and Mail

    It's fair to say Toronto Police Services Board chairman Alok Mukherjee has mellowed somewhat in the three decades since the stubborn, activist graduate student came to Canada from India.

    But it's probably more accurate to say Toronto itself has become less activism-inducing - after all, Mr. Mukherjee no longer gets notes slipped under his door telling him to go back to where he came from; he's no longer trying to chase the Ku Klux Klan off Gerrard Street.

    Today, Mr. Mukherjee fights his battles from a more powerful, more plugged-in position. He heads up the Toronto Police's civilian oversight body - a group so historically dysfunctional that one of his predecessors (who quit after less than a year on the job when a smear campaign claimed he was sympathetic to child pornographers) openly described it as such. Another previous board chair, it was revealed this year, was the subject of eavesdropping as part of a 10-year police surveillance campaign targeting gay political activists.

    For years, the police board suffered from a shattered reputation. It took an outsider - one whose appointment initially drew fierce criticism - to give Torontonians a relatively novel dynamic: a police board and a police department that actually get along.

    "Civilian oversight cannot be symbolic," says Mr. Mukherjee, sitting in his sparsely decorated seventh-floor office at the Toronto Police headquarters - just down the hall from Police Chief Bill Blair's office. "We are not intended to do [the police force's] bidding. We must show that we can have meaningful oversight."

    Mr. Mukherjee is about to take on what could be his biggest challenge yet, as the police board begins negotiations with the union over police salaries. It's a bargaining process that could turn decidedly antagonistic, as the board tries to control a ballooning police budget and alter the way officers' shifts work.

    "Any force, especially in this city, will demand to be the best-paid across the province, if not across Canada," said Councillor Frank Di Giorgio, who sits on the police board. "I'm not sure we can meet all their demands."

    None of this was planned: In the beginning, all Mr. Mukherjee wanted to do was come to Canada and earn a PhD.

    arrival and activism

    Mr. Mukherjee was born 62 years ago in Kanpur, a northern Indian city that at the time was nicknamed India's Manchester because of its industrial sprawl. It also had one of the highest tuberculosis rates in the world.

    "My memory of my first 15 years is of tremendous hardship," Mr. Mukherjee says. "There was a shortage of everything."

    Eventually, he earned a degree in English and got a job as a college teacher in Delhi. His salary totalled about 12 or 13 dollars a month, half of which he sent home to his father. He learned to make do with what money he had, something that would come in handy (although on a much more bloated scale) when dealing with the annual Toronto Police budget about 30 years later.

    In large part, Mr. Mukherjee and his wife, Arun, decided to come to Canada because the country wasn't involved in the Vietnam War. The couple wanted to go abroad to complete their PhDs, but both the United States and Britain were in the midst of serious racial and political upheaval - Canada seemed like a safer bet.

    The couple arrived in Toronto in late August of 1971. Mr. Mukherjee enrolled at the University of Waterloo and later joined his wife at the University of Toronto.

    Things did not get off to a good start: Mr. Mukherjee's wife already had a master's degree and three years of PhD research under her belt, but was told that she would have to take undergraduate courses.

    "We went to meet the graduate director," Mr. Mukherjee recalls. "He had his feet up on the table; he said, 'If you don't like it here, go back.' "

    Occasionally, someone would slip a note under the door of the couple's grad residence, expressing the same sentiment in harsher terms. He remembers parties largely consisted of Indians and Pakistanis talking in one corner of the room and white students mocking their accents in the other corner.

    Mr. Mukherjee would eventually put his PhD plans on hold in the late 1970s and spend 10 years working with the school board, followed by work with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, an institution he eventually became the head of.

    His change of career plans came at a time when racial tensions within Toronto were running high. An Indian marketplace had just set up on Gerrard Street and the resulting backlash from the community got so bad that the KKK saw a great franchise opportunity and set up shop in the neighbourhood.

    A closer look at the situation revealed that much of the backlash was due to frustration over how few parking spots were available, because of the bazaar. Mr. Mukherjee helped to persuade a local school to open up its parking lot, and all of a sudden the KKK had far fewer angry residents to recruit.

    changes from the inside

    Mr. Mukherjee's road to the Police Services Board's chairmanship in 2004 was in large part accidental, he says, conceived when members of a community group told him that he should consider trying out for the job.

    The search for a new chair occurred when antagonism between the police and the civilian oversight body was high, driven by an argument over whether the polarizing police chief - Julian Fantino - should stay or go.

    "I think the board had gone through a tumultuous time," Mr. Di Giorgio said. "There were problems that I think unfortunately started back in the eighties, when they tried to design a different work week for police."

    Now, just as those tumultuous times seem to be dying down, they could very easily flare up again during the ongoing contract negotiations, which just began and will probably go on until at least early next year.

    One of the proposals likely to come from the board involves changing police shifts to put more officers on the streets during times where crime rates are traditionally higher, as opposed to more uniform shifts.

    Both sides also come to the table with a very recent contract precedent hanging over their heads. In late October, City Council quietly passed a deal that gave firefighters pay hikes of more than 9 per cent over three years, even as the city struggles through a shaky financial period. At the time, police union president Dave Wilson said the firefighters' contract "does not bind us in any way." Mr. Di Giorgio said it's difficult to imagine the police union will settle for anything less than what the firefighters got.

    The contract talks will probably prove pivotal not only to the city's finances, but also to how Mr. Mukherjee's tenure is remembered.

    Several councillors objected vehemently to his appointment at the time, calling it politically driven by the mayor's office. But anything resembling a lopsided contract in the union's favour could give the impression that Mr. Mukherjee has become a pushover.

    Mr. Di Giorgio said the qualities that make Mr. Mukherjee so amicable may also help him at the bargaining table. "I've never seen an emotional side to him and he's non-confrontational as well," he said.

    "My first impression of him is that he's a very thoughtful man," says Chief Blair, the only chief Mr. Mukherjee has had to deal with during his tenure. "He is also a quieter man."

    The interaction between the board and police has always created an element of what Chief Blair describes as "creative tension." There is never a clear-cut way of separating the big-picture management issues from the street-level police work.

    Both Chief Blair and Mr. Mukherjee say they have spent much of their time working on a way to resolve resulting disputes. "We want to make sure there's a structure in place that's working beyond our tenure," the chief says.

    In a way, the men are lucky to be working with each other, especially right after the dysfunction that marked their predecessors' terms. Indeed, many councillors believed that Mr. Mukherjee's appointment to the board effectively cemented Mr. Fantino's departure.

    Mr. Mukherjee doesn't volunteer a particularly detailed answer when asked about his relationship with Mr. Fantino, only saying the two respect one another. His disputes with the current police chief have often been centred on what the board chair considers his top mandate - increasing community-based policing and diversity within the force. This mandate comes at a time when, while almost all other violent crime rates are down, homicide rates are on the rise, especially in minority communities.

    Chief Blair points to a recent example of a dispute that arose over Mr. Mukherjee's concerns about recent immigrants not wanting to report being victimized because of their immigration status. Mr. Mukherjee wanted the police to enact a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, where they wouldn't ask about the victims' immigration status and wouldn't report immigration violations. Chief Blair wouldn't accept having officers not report violations. In the end, the two reached a compromise: Officers won't ask, but they will tell.

    "Chief Blair and I are low-key people; we make a commitment not to discuss disagreements in public," Mr. Mukherjee says. "Which is to say we do have disagreements."

    These days, Mr. Mukherjee's priorities for the force largely fall into three sets: Increasing diversity and community involvement among front-line officers, making the force greener and dealing with the ballooning police budget. Instead of the KKK and racist university professors, he is tackling the 35 million sheets of paper the police go through in a year. He is talking about giving the Justice Department CD-ROMs instead of print documents and giving the parking officers hybrid cars. He still thinks of these as human-rights issues, although they are no longer as direct, or as personal.

    "This is part of a comprehensive effort to bring about cultural change in the organization," he says. "We can't wait 50 years."

    In 2004, Mr. Mukherjee finally found time to complete the PhD he planned on starting in the 1970s. His wife is an English professor at York University. It may have taken about 30 years, but the couple have finally achieved what they first came here to do. All that's left is everything else they found along the way.

    What the board does

    The Toronto Police Services Board is, in the simplest terms, the cops' boss. The seven-member board is charged with overseeing the country's largest municipal police force and has done so since 1957. Perhaps the board's main defining characteristic is that it is a civilian body, ensuring that police aren't overseen by other police.

    Three of the board's seven members - including chair Alok Mukherjee and vice-chair Pam McConnell - are appointed by City Council. Another three are appointed by the province. The seventh member, David Miller, is on the board by virtue of being the city's mayor.

    The board's mandate is to establish overall objectives for the police department. But while the board can give the chief orders, it can't give orders to any other members of the force.

    The issues before the board at any given time can be varied - recently, the board considered whether to allow the police force to join a "Support Our Troops" campaign. However, the major issues every year almost always revolve around money. The 2008 police budget is projected at almost $840-million, of which almost 90 per cent goes to salaries and benefits. As such, the most intense period of board activity tends to come during contract bargaining with the police union, a process that is under way.

    Omar El Akkad
     
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