Wednesday, January 26, 2000

John Duncanson

p. B1.

Police union to sue Sgro

MP's harassment claims 'false and defamatory'

Under attack for its aggressive tactics, the Toronto Police Association shot back yesterday, saying it is going to sue Judy Sgro after she made claims of harassment and intimidation by union officials.

The union's move came as the Toronto police board said it will seek legal opinion about whether the association is breaking any police act regulations with its controversial telemarketing campaign.

Critics contend the union's law-and-order fundraising campaign — dubbed Operation True Blue — is simply a front to raise funds for targeting its critics, much as Sgro (York West).

Sgro, who battled the union for nearly two years as a city councillor and police board member, accused it of attacking and intimidating her during a meeting between the union and the board in September, 1998. The lawsuit is based on comments she made recently about the meeting during a segment of the Fifth Estate on CBC.

The union says it will launch a civil suit in the next few days seeking "significant damages" in order to get to the bottom of what went on during that meeting. "After careful consideration… (the union) has concluded that Ms. Sgro's remarks are false and defamatory," its executive said in a news release yesterday.

Craig Bromell, president of the 7,000-member police union said the decision to sue Sgro was, in part, sparked by an editorial yesterday in The Star that was critical of his campaign and called for an investigation into Sgro's claims of intimidation.

"We agree with the editorial. There should be an investigation, and everyone should be interviewed so the truth will come out that what she (Sgro) is saying isn't true," Bromell said.

Sgro, who made the jump to federal politics as a Liberal earlier this year, has recently spoken out against the union's telemarketing campaign. she denied yesterday that she in any way defamed the union and dismissed it as another example of a "bullying tactic" and of an attempt "to keep public officials from speaking out."

Police board chair Norm Gardner came to the union's defence yesterday over Sgro's allegations about the meeting.

'I was there, other members of the board were there, we talked about it, and no one has indicated to me that they were intimidated, and no one has indicated to me that they were intimidated or that Judy should have been intimidated," he said.

However, Gardner said he isn't thrilled with parts of the union's telemarketing campaign, especially the tactics of giving out windshield decals to citizens who financially support the drive.

While he said he's concerned about public and media perception, he doesn't feel the general public should be intimidated by what the union is doing.

"I am not in favour of it," Gardner told a news conference just minutes before a group of lawyers held their own media scrum demanding the police board put a leash on the union's activities. "But I don't think there is a reason for politicians to be scared," he said.

Critics have charged that the car stickers given out by the union will ensure those people get some sort of preferential treatment if they are stopped by police.

The union has denied this, stating they are simply an acknowledgment that the person supports tougher laws for juveniles and repeat parole violators.

Gardner said he wants to know what the board's legal options are, if any, before it takes any action. He indicated lawyers from both from city hall and an independent firm will be looking closely at the Police Services Act for guidance.

As of 1997, the police act specifically banned officers from getting involved in political activities, but then in 1998 the government relaxed regulations, even allowing officers to run in elections as long as they aren't doing it in the municipality where they serve.

Lawyer Howard Morton, spokesperson for the 300-member Law Union of Ontario, disputed Gardner's view that the association may not be accountable to the board.

"Is he right? We say no, emphatically, he's wrong," said Morton, former head of the province's special investigations unit, which investigates deaths and serious injury involving police.

The police association has portrayed itself as part of the police department, Morton said.

"They've tried to shift us looking to the chief and the senior officers, to us looking towards the association as the leadership of the police generally."

The danger is that motorists may believe they'll get a break if there's a police union sticker on the windshield, Morton said. "I hope to God that that won't happen, but the perception is out there, and the risk is out there that, in fact, it will happen."

The union maintains that as an association it can advocate law-and-order issues and raise money for those campaigns, which is in no way banned by the police act.

Even if the board took a hard line when it comes to political activities, Bromell and his executives are not technically considered serving police officers. When they were elected to the union in the fall of 1997, all the executives were ordered to clean out their lockers and hand in their guns, and their power of arrest was taken away.

Last week, police chief David Boothby issued a warning to the public in a clear sign to distance his service from the union's aggressive phone campaign.

The union has said public response has been positive, but there are those who feel that the blitz is an intrusion on privacy and that the union shouldn't be soliciting public money to wage political battles.

"It is harassment," said Don Weitz, a Toronto freelance writer and radio-show host on CKLN, who received a call late last week from the union telemarketing firm.

"I didn't know whether I was talking to a cop or some PR asshole. I consider it misleading, and I consider this a serious intrusion on my privacy."

"It's irresponsible and as far as I'm concerned the (union) has violated the police act, which says, 'You don't get involved in politics, guy. You just enforce the goddamn laws the way you're supposed to and that's it.'

Helen Claire, a retired teacher, didn't realize the call she received soliciting as much as $100 was for the union until she read about the campaign in the newspapers.

"I was mad," said Claire. "I get this call, which first of all starts at $100, and for that you got a special marker or something, and it went down to $25. They're for your car, which I don't have.

"I guess this is a way to let police see that you gave $100 so you can get away with parking in the wrong places."

Claire didn't give any money, in fact, she grilled the telemarketer about where the money was going and was referred to another person, who didn't have any firm answers, either.

Toronto Police clippings… [Fiona Stewart]

Created: October 8, 2000
Last modified: October 8, 2000
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