“All the marijuana charges we laid back then seem so ludicrous to me now”: Police chief James Ramer on the push to decriminalize drug possession
“We’re much more enlightened today, which is how it should be”
I’m sorry to hear you have Covid. How are you feeling?
Not too bad. A cough, but no flu symptoms. I’ve been relegated to the basement, but my wife and family are bringing me food, so I’m well cared for and can keep working.
Do you know how you were exposed?
No. I was at a Wonderland event with our Toronto Police Association in early December, one thousand members, all outside. That might have been it. But I’m out every day and evening meeting with members of the community. We’ve also had a number of outbreaks in the division. I was supposed to have my granddaughters all weekend, so I figured I’d get tested, and lo and behold.
You’ve said the police are preparing for three in 10 officers to be infected. That’s a big hit to the workforce.
We are re-orienting resources to cope. Our investigative and plain-clothes officers have uniforms at the ready in case they need to assist with 911 response, for instance. Some administrative officers will likely switch over and will be operational.
What have you learned since March 2020 that informs your approach to this latest wave?
We know how to be safe—both keeping the public safe and our officers and their families, too. In 2020 the challenge was figuring out how to have one officer per car so we could keep every car on the road. We had to figure out new cleaning protocols and how to deal with the public in a way that was as safe as possible. We’ve learned a lot, but Omicron has changed the game with its speed.
How has your day-to-day changed with this heightened threat?
I’m back to daily meetings with the mayor, the medical officer of health, Chief Pegg and the rest of the city’s Covid-19 response team, which had tapered off.
Does it feel a bit like, I can’t believe we’re freaking back here?
There is disappointment. In November, we had the Chief’s Gala to raise money for Victim Services Toronto—1,000 people attended and everything was fine.
How challenging has the general anti-vax movement been from a policing perspective?
I can’t for the life of me understand what these people are thinking. It is a loud, loud, but rather small movement and we haven’t had that many significant problems. We’ve made it clear that if protesters get in the way of medical staff, they’ll be arrested. The hospitals have a direct line to 52 Division downtown and we have roving officers at the hospitals, too.
Presumably this means other important issues get put on the back burner?
I can’t deny that.
You recently backed a plan to decriminalize simple possession—that is, no intent to distribute—of all drugs. That’s a big shift for law enforcement.
Our support includes caveats like fully funded social services, but yes. This is an opportunity for Toronto to be a leader in recognizing that drug abuse is a public health issue, not a criminal one. But not charging people is hardly a cure-all. We haven’t been charging people for simple possession since November 2020, and yet we received 1,300 more calls for overdoses in 2021 than we did in 2019. It’s the fentanyl-laced product that is killing people. A close friend of mine lost a daughter. So we need to look hard at safe supply.
You started out as a beat cop in the ’80s. What would that guy think of your progressive stance?
Surprised would be putting it mildly. To think of all the marijuana charges we laid back then—it seems so ludicrous to me now. We’re more enlightened today, which is how it should be.
Particularly given that not all communities bore the consequences of all of those drug charges equally. Is that part of what has motivated this new approach?
I think that is certainly an element, but drug charges were so broadly and aggressively enforced that they touched everybody who found themselves facing criminal repercussions as a result of possession.
You took over as chief in mid-2020. With everything going on, there wasn’t much in the way of an introduction. What was your career path within the police service?
I started in 14 Division, which is in southwest Toronto. When I think about the issues that we’re dealing with today in terms of mental health, that was something I was dealing with from the day I started in February of 1981. At that time, we had 1001 Queen, which is now CAMH, plus a lot of rooming houses and halfway houses. The neighbourhood wasn’t gentrified the way it is now. Some 40 years hence, our response is decidedly better from a community standpoint and from a policing standpoint, but the issues are nonetheless the same, so that is frustrating. In 1989 I was promoted to sergeant and then landed in the homicide squad in the early ’90s, which is where I spent some of the most satisfying years of my career.
The expectation was that the role of chief would be filled by the end of 2020. Obviously, the pandemic has complicated, well, everything. But where is the search at now?
You’d have to ask the Toronto Police Services Board. I originally signed on for about a year; then they asked me to extend that. I am retiring from the force on December 31, 2022.
Some watchdog groups have said that to achieve real progress, the new chief should be an outside hire. What do you think?
I would prefer someone from within. I’m not saying you couldn’t hire from outside, but this job is about knowing the city, knowing the people in the communities. Creating chiefs is something we do very well—just look at the number of chiefs across the province who have come up in the TPS.
So you don’t agree the institution needs a shakeup?
I think we’re demonstrating an incredible willingness to change. When I took over, the board made 81 recommendations to address systemic racism and we have already implemented 51 of them. We are also working to overhaul the way we investigate missing persons based on former Justice Epstein’s report.
Is there a change you would most like to highlight?
The enhancement of the Neighbourhood Community Officer Program. I’m out all the time in marginalized communities, and I hear things like, “I can only have my kids out in the playground when the officers are around.”
Okay, but the counter-argument is that there is a major lack of trust between law enforcement and marginalized communities.
I think when people get to know us they realize there are a lot of great people with a genuine commitment to public safety and communities. Last year, we had a very traumatic event for a member of our community—a young Black man was mistakenly and wrongfully arrested. Recognizing our error, I reached out to the family to express our sorrow over what had happened. That entire interaction turned out well. And I can tell you the most significant factor in forging that relationship was the confidence the family had in the neighbourhood officer. When the family asked to meet with me they insisted the neighbourhood officer accompany me. I can’t think of a better example of the importance of building strong relationships.
I can’t let you go without asking for an update on the Sherman case, which has been gripping the public for more than four years now.
I would love to see this case solved, but the reality of the homicide world is that we have a number of unsolved cases. You saw great success identifying the murderer of Christine Jessop 36 years after the crime, so that shows you that we’re not going to stop. But discussing the entirety of the Sherman case in the media is not something the police do, because while you’re reading, so is the perpetrator. There was a tremendous amount of work done to try to identify the suspect who was recently revealed to the public.
Where do you plan to be on day one of your retirement?
I want to travel, I want to spend more time with my grandkids. I like working with my hands, doing renovations. My kids are always requesting paint jobs for their homes, so more of that, more time with friends. This is not the kind of job where you get your weekends.