Q&A: Mike McCormack, Toronto cops’ biggest defender

Q&A: Mike McCormack, Toronto cops’ biggest defender

(Image: Claire Foster)

Mike McCormack is the head of the Toronto Police Association, the labour union that represents over 8,000 civilian and uniformed employees of the Toronto Police Service. The son of a former Toronto police chief, he comes by his cop credentials honestly, but his pugnacious personality and his history of run-ins with the force’s brass (in 2009, he was found guilty of insubordination) make him a controversial figure. Currently, he’s best known for demanding the resignation of Alok Mukherjee, the chair of the Toronto Police Service’s civilian oversight board, after Mukherjee posted a not-all-that-inflammatory meme to his personal Facebook wall. We caught up with McCormack to talk budgets, police reputation and The Wire.

Pretty much your entire family is in policing. How did that happen?

It’s genetics, I guess. My father’s father was involved in policing, and my mother’s father was involved in the OPP back in the day with the anti-racketeering stuff. It’s been part of our family culture forever.

How did you start your career as an officer?
I started in 52 Division downtown, and then I went over to 51 Division in Regent Park. Working 52 was quite a different experience than working in Regent Park. I think Regent Park was my niche. I loved every minute of it. I loved the challenges of policing in those neighbourhoods, and I love the community of Regent Park.

Did you ever consider trying to become police chief, like your father, rather than going the union route?
Never. I think this is more suited to my personality and my demeanor.

You’ve got some upcoming political battles: a new police chief on the way, contract negotiations. How are you mentally preparing for those?
Lots of push-ups, chin-ups. Jogging, swimming. But actually, we’re always prepared for that. We’re a sophisticated organization, and we’re prepared for bargaining. As a taxpayer, I want to make sure I’m providing a fair service, but I don’t want to compromise public safety for a political agenda.

Many people think police costs are the city’s most pressing budgetary issue. David Soknacki once said that “if we can fix the police budget, we can fix the city’s budget.” How legitimate are these concerns?
I think that budgets always require transparency and dialogue. We do that, and I do that at the association. I live in Toronto, I pay taxes, so it’s something I’m concerned about. But I also have to look at the reality of what we provide in the policing sector and the costs associated with that. When you provide a service, there’s going to be a cost, and I think it’s a fair cost and we provide a great service and a fair service.

The city pays for 28 hours of police work a day. Can you explain why that is?
If you want to give me another 10 pages of space, I’m sure I could. Trying to condense it into a short version really does it a disservice, but I’ll try. With policing, there’s overlap. There’s a transfer of information and intelligence when officers are coming in or leaving. So there’s a communication overlap that’s required, and also there’s an overlap for peak times of calls. It’s something that fluctuates, and we’re looking at different shift models and being more efficient in responding to calls.

So there was that incident with Alok Mukherjee, who chairs the Toronto Police Service’s civilian oversight board, and his Facebook post.
I think I heard about that.

You called for his resignation. Isn’t that a bit harsh?
I’ve got a bunch of people—almost 8,000 people—who expect and respect civilian oversight. And the one thing they ask is that it’s unbiased and fair. Then I’ve got the person responsible for civilian oversight putting up a post from Occupy Wall Street that says cops are worse than ISIS and worse than Ebola. And it was posted in a way that wasn’t up for discussion or debate. There was no context. I think it’s fair for me, somebody who’s looking for fair and unbiased treatment, to look at that and think, “This is how that person truly thinks.” And I think the right thing for him to do would be to resign.

The post was about American police, though.
So, does the post say, “Look at how American police are. Our police are better?” Is that how you took it? Did you take it that we’re lucky to be in Toronto, because this is what’s happening in the States? Because that’s not how I took it. If you want to have a debate, set it up as a real debate. Have a real look at it.

Do you notice a trickle-down effect from the turmoil that’s happening in the U.S.?
That’s a significant point. With the proximity to the States, a lot of people look to what’s going on there. We poll the public regularly, and we find we still have a lot of support with the general public. But I can tell you right now: when our officers see the amount of media that comes out, they feel demoralized. When police officers are seen as the enemy, it does have an effect. We just did focus groups with our officers, and every group said the same thing: that they feel stressed by the perception of policing. But although they find it frustrating, they still go out and do their job. They don’t let that get in the way of what they do.

I understand that it’s your job to stand up for your officers. But has anything happened during your tenure—any report, any piece of information, anything you’ve witnessed—that’s made you stop and think that something needs to change right now?
From a broader perspective, I’m always about change and how to do things better. I don’t try to stay myopic in what the issues are. So I look at police training and police equipment. This is the frustrating part: we get told to go out there and do a job, and we’re not always given the proper equipment or training to deal with that. So we’ve been advocating for better training and better equipment. There have been quite a few incidents where we look at how to improve the outcome for the public and for our officers. For instance, advocating for Tasers for front-line officers. Having our officers better trained to give testimony and better trained in how to deal with people with mental health crisis. And we’re participating in the Pacer review. We’re always into discussions about having better resolutions, but we’re not going to be vilified and scapegoated to do that. Policing is often the occupation that’s blamed for socioeconomic disparity and education disparity and all of that. It seems to crystallize with police officers.

Speaking of mental health issues, there was Sammy Yatim’s death. Do you recall what your thought process was like when you first heard what had happened, and when you first saw the video of the shooting?
For me, I thought that people were watching that video and not having a context of what police are trained to do and the dangers of a person with a weapon. Clearly, this video can be interpreted in many different ways without context. I had a concern that it was going to be a trial by YouTube, which is what it has been. I think we as an association have not done a good enough job in educating the public as to what we really do and what the challenges are. You have people who ask why you can’t just shoot the knife out of somebody’s hand, and that’s just not a reality. And I’ve heard of no evidence that Sammy Yatim had any mental health issues.

What was the G20 and its aftermath like from your perspective?
Once again the Toronto Police Service was a dumping ground. The federal people came in and gave us no time to plan for it. It was set up for failure from the beginning. And everybody rode out of town and left the Toronto Police holding the bag. Our officers did some things wrong, which we admitted. We removed nametags, and all of those officers were disciplined. But when I look at the amount of interactions that went on that day, I think our officers showed amazing restraint given some of the actions of the crowd that day. At the end of the day, we’re still going through the trial process, but when you look at the amount of officers who were convicted for misconduct, we only had two who were convicted. One officer was convicted for assault, which we’re appealing.

It’s difficult for a police officer to get convicted, though.
I think that’s a misnomer. People think that the system protects us. My experience is the opposite—that people are so afraid of not being transparent and not being accountable that there’s a hyper-vigilance when it comes to investigating and convicting police officers. We saw that in Officer Cavanagh, who was charged with manslaughter and it was later upgraded to second-degree murder. I believe in any other case, it would have been thrown out for lack of evidence. We are held to a way higher standard.

You mentioned that you think police officers showed restraint during the G20, considering the crowd’s actions. Which actions?
I was down on Queen Street when one of our officers was barricaded in his car. People were jumping on his car, smashing windows with rocks. We removed our officer from the scene and pulled back. They weren’t really protestors, they were people within the crowd. Our officers just pulled back and allowed the car to be torched and destroyed because of the fear that somebody could get hurt. It was very difficult for our officers to watch that kind of behaviour when we’re sworn to protect the city, and I saw that a number of times.

Do you still do FiteNite?
No. It had its time and its place. It was a successful event. It was a bunch of things—it was a parody, it was a chance for our officers to get together and have fun. But we were also able to raise funds to put six kids from Regent Park through post-secondary education. We paid their tuition.

Did the scuffle from a few years ago have anything to do with ending it?
It definitely had an impact on my psyche as far as FiteNite was concerned. Overall, it was just time to wind it up.

What’s your favourite cop show?
That would have been Barney Miller from back in the day, and The Wire for a more contemporary one. There’s a gritty realism in both: one with humour, for Barney Miller, and some of the stuff in The Wire paints a picture in different ways of what it’s like to be a cop.