Deals that allow officers to stop anyone at any time on Toronto community housing property should be abolished, says anti-Black racism probe

·7 min read

For years, in Toronto neighbourhoods like Jane and Finch, young people living in community housing have felt harassed by the constant — and seemingly arbitrary — questioning by police: What’s your name? Where are you going? Do you live here?

Community members have long raised alarms about the impacts of that heightened policing on racialized youth, warning they were subject to unneeded surveillance.

“Policing, security and housing have long been in deep partnership,” said Sam Tecle, who grew up in social housing and who now works as a community leader with a local youth organization. “In places like Jane and Finch, police don’t see any difference between the streets that they patrol … and housing.”

That experience is backed by policy: longstanding deals between the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) and Toronto police have allowed police to act on TCHC’s behalf as a landlord in certain social housing buildings — effectively, allowing officers to stop anyone on the properties, anytime, to determine whether or not they’re trespassing.

The power has been condemned by community members as an example of systemic anti-Black racism in the city’s social housing. Now, TCHC is admitting the agreements have caused problems.

Known as “agent of the landlord” agreements or “trespass to property act authorization letters,” the deals came under scrutiny during a recent probe into how anti-Black racism has permeated TCHC, which began last September after global protests about racism and policing.

A report from that probe, endorsed by TCHC’s board of directors in February, said the deals created an “us versus them” dynamic with their residents, and should therefore be abolished.

It’s unclear just how many agreements would be eliminated. Neither TCHC nor police will say how many have been in force over recent years, nor where they have been in the past.

TCHC spokesperson Bruce Malloch declined to share those details. Malloch said the agency was currently reviewing the agent of the landlord agreements in light of the anti-Black racism report. Following that review, the agency said it plans to report back to its board of directors.

The Toronto Police Service deferred questions about the arrangements back to TCHC, saying it was the housing agency’s choice where the deals were enacted. The Toronto Police Association, which represents uniformed and civilian members of the service, said questions about the deals were better posed to the police service, since they weren’t familiar with the formal agreements.

“I think these institutions are ashamed to reveal to what degree they’re cozy with police,” said Tecle, adding that disclosing that information would give the community housing agency a clear starting point to move in another direction.

Court records fill in some of the gaps. A 2019 case reveals one such deal, which covered a TCHC townhouse complex in the Jane and Finch area in 2010. A highrise at 2765 Islington Ave., was covered by one of the agreements as recently as 2017. A letter from TCHC to cops in Scarborough’s 43 Division from 2012 — obtained by the Star — let officers act as community housing’s agent “until otherwise noted” in 20 nearby buildings.

Some residents in recent years have called for more police in their buildings, with hopes of heightening security, but court records also show where the deals have led to problems.

In 2008, at a TCHC property at 4205 Lawrence Ave. E., a police officer enforcing the trespass act on the agency’s behalf saw a man standing near what he thought to be a “crack house” and asked him to identify himself, according to an Ontario court decision. When the man hesitated, the officer arrested and searched him — finding cocaine — without cautioning he could be arrested, asking him to leave, or warning he could be ticketed as a trespasser if he refused.

The resulting charges were thrown out. The judge called the officer’s approach — using his authority to enforce trespassing to look for other criminal activity — “rather cavalier and unprofessional,” while deeming the search a breach of the man’s rights.

The deals between TCHC and police also played a role in the case of four Black teenage boys – known as the Neptune Four – who were arrested and charged outside their Lawrence Heights home in 2011. The incident kicked off a years-long misconduct hearing that resulted in two police officers being found guilty of unlawful arrest this year, and one of excessive force.

The two officers, assigned to the now-disbanded Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) unit, were at a Neptune Drive community housing complex to enforce the trespassing law, the tribunal heard. They stopped the boys on their way to a mentoring session based on no observable actions or specific complaints, according to hearing officer Insp. Richard Hegudus.

Both officers were found guilty of discreditable conduct — for making arrests without enough cause — and one was found guilty of using excessive force, after punching one of the boys.

Naomi Nichols, a Trent University professor who studied TCHC’s security strategies in Jane and Finch for several years starting in 2013, said it’s been evident since long before last year’s Black Lives Matter protests that heightened police presence in social housing was exposing racialized youth to greater surveillance. While doing interviews for her own study, she said youth who lived or hung out in social housing reported being subject to “relentless” police encounters.

Young person after young person would describe a similar situation to what Tecle said he hears from high schools in the area today — they’d be walking or biking around their community, Nichols said, and police officers would suddenly approach to ask them where they were going.

When police were given freer access to community housing, she said it opened the door for Black tenants in particular to be subject to more scrutiny and police interactions. In consultations for this year’s anti-Black racism report, young Black men living in TCHC buildings described feeling targeted, mocked and unsafe in their own communities.

“The thing that’s sad is that the young people that we talked to, it was 70 young people that we interviewed … they knew this six years ago,” she said. “They were clear about the problem six years ago. We, six years ago, put together articles like this that laid out the evidence of how this is happening. And it’s taken a long time for people to respond ... somehow, none of that mattered in the face of the evidence the police were generating about their own practices.”

She sees eliminating the formal deals with Toronto police as an “excellent” first step to address the way security practices can impact Black tenants in particular.

Tecle hopes scrapping the deals forces officers to think more before entering community housing. “Every incident is not a beat down or end at the barrel of a gun. Sometimes it’s just knowing there’s just a bunch of police, all the time, in your area and they can stop you whenever they want.”

Without the agreements with TCHC, police could still come onto its properties in a law enforcement capacity — they just wouldn’t be acting on the agency’s behalf. Moving forward, Tecle hopes TCHC involves in any safety initiatives faith leaders, local organizations and its own residents, who may already have a measure of trust in their communities.

“I fully like the idea that it’ll force us to do something else,” he said.

But he worries that after relying on an embedded police presences for so long, the report still won’t lead to a true transformation.

“We’ve been saying this s--t since at least I was young, since the 90s, and other groups before us since the 70s,” Tecle said. “Nothing has changed.”

With files from Jim Rankin and Wendy Gillis

Victoria Gibson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star