A Toronto city councillor is “discouraged and disappointed” that police will not establish a task force to protect houses of worship.
Coun. Mike Colle said the need is great for a separate police task force dedicated to places of worship, especially in light of recent deadly attacks on mosques, synagogues and churches around the world.
In May, Colle introduced a motion asking city council to request that the Toronto Police Service (TPS) Board consider establishing a task force “to examine issues related to security, safety and public safety in places of worship,” and the role such a force would play in creating a security plan at houses of worship. It would work with all levels of government and facilitate the sharing of intelligence. The motion passed 26-0.
In July, Andy Pringle, the chair of the TPS Board, asked police Chief Mark Saunders to report on measures currently in place to address security at places of worship and whether a new task force would enhance that approach.
In a presentation to the board in late July, Colle said the online world, “where many of these hate groups or individuals thrive, knows no municipal, provincial or federal boundaries, so this is more reason for an ongoing structured co-operative effort by our police force to deal with these threats that are aided and emboldened through the Internet.”
A five-page report from Saunders delivered at last month’s meeting of the TPS Board said police are “mindful that recent events across the globe have resulted in places of worship being the targets of extremist violence, and that these incidents have caused considerable anxiety within our communities.”
But Saunders did not recommend creating a standalone task force.
Rather, his report outlined “initiatives and procedures already established” to address hate crimes and extremism, including incidents at places of worship. They include the TPS hate crimes unit.
“Recognizing that hate crimes can often be a precursor to extremist behaviour and violence towards an identifiable group, including places of worship, the (TPS) security section’s mandate strategically includes investigation into extremism, counter-terrorism and international assistance,” Saunders’ report stated.
Other tools already available to police include “clear and seamless” sharing of information on hate crimes with the Ontario Provincial Police, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, as well as offering training in active attacker and lockdown situations to private organizations, including the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA).
As well, the TPS community partnerships and engagement unit works with racial and ethnic communities. Saunders said members of the Israeli and Jewish communities are represented, and that the unit works with Jewish community centres, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services and the Consulate General of Israel.
Despite all those measures, Colle said he feels “very discouraged and disappointed” that the TPS did not elect to establish a task force to help places of worship.
“The international scope of these hate crimes (means) it’s not like yesterday’s world,” Colle told The CJN. “We should look at new ways of countering these very dangerous threats, which are beyond the city’s borders. We need to have a full-time co-operation with all three levels of government on a regular basis. We can’t just react when something happens.”
Colle said one reason he wants a task force is that partnering with the federal government might mean more money from Ottawa’s Security Infrastructure Program, which helps places of worship and communal buildings defray security costs.
He said synagogues in his ward (Ward 8) are asking for permanent barriers, concrete blocks and planters to thwart attacks. He said about 80 planter boxes have been distributed to shuls to date.
“These costs are enormous,” Colle said. “We need to really step up our game because this is something that requires permanent co-operation and action (from) all three levels of government and get serious money to pay for security.”
Saunders offered a ray of light in September, when he announced the expansion of the TPS Neighbourhood Community Officer Program. Introduced in 2013, the program embeds an officer in a neighbourhood for at least four years to establish deeper relationships between communities and police.
The program will grow from 44 to 127 officers serving in 35 Toronto neighbourhoods, according to police.
The development was welcomed by CIJA and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, whose representatives met with Saunders in August.
In addition to supporting vulnerable institutions directly, specialized police units have proven valuable in protecting targeted communities and engaging at- risk groups, CIJA told The CJN in a statement.