‘We’re not ignoring this’: New Peel police board chair vows that change is coming

·4 min read

Peel Region’s incoming police board chair is vowing to listen to the burning concerns of the diverse communities he represents, particularly amid an ongoing outcry from Black and other racialized communities following a brutal 2020.

Ahmad Attia, who previously served as vice-chair, is taking the helm at the time when Peel Regional Police remain embroiled in anger and protest over a series of injuries and deaths following calls to police last year.

“We recognize the demands of the community, particularly Black and other racialized communities to defund the police,” Attia told the Star recently. “We’re not ignoring this.”

Attia’s ascent to the chair late last month came down to the wire and had to be decided by outgoing chair Ron Chatha. Chatha was then kept on as vice-chair.

Both men now have to lead the board through a storm of ongoing criticism over how Peel police are handling mental health crisis calls and over several recent cases of use of force against people of colour.

Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit (SIU) has cleared Peel police officers of criminal wrongdoing in two recent cases — the deaths of Jamal Derek Francique Jr. on Jan. 7, 2020, and of D’Andre Campbell, on April 6. A now-former Peel officer is facing several charges including criminal negligence causing bodily harm for the Mother’s Day shooting of Black mother Chantelle Krupka. And a probe is ongoing in the fatal shooting of 62-year-old Ejaz Choudry.

The force is also facing backlash from community advocacy groups for charging of Krupka and Francique’s father with mischief for their alleged involvement in two December protests outside Peel police facilities.

“It does require change and we’re on that path,” said Attia, a 38-year-old father of three.

Peel Regional Police introduces a series of bold and sometimes controversial measures toward change last year, the first full year under Chief Nishan Duraiappah, a Sri Lankan-born immigrant and person of colour, like Attia, Chatha and much of the community they serve.

“It’s important that the board reflects the community,” said Attia, an entrepreneur and computer and software engineer by trade. “It gives hope and encouragement to our community to see this kind of change.”

Attia now has to lead a board that has to finalize a legally binding commitment with the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) to address systemic racism and discrimination, and oversee the service’s implementation of body-worn cameras and the collection of race-based data.

“We already have other boards in other jurisdictions contacting us to understand how and why we did this, because it’s unprecedented,” Attia said of the OHRC agreement. “I think many boards have reservations around proactive steps.”

“If we didn’t believe in being accountable and responsible we wouldn’t proactively take leadership on working with the OHRC and voluntarily hold ourselves accountable to an external entity, ” he said.

Attia, who sat on the board for two years before becoming chair said there has been an overreliance on police for social services such as mental health crisis calls, several of which have ended in “devastating circumstances” for some families in Peel.

“We’re looking at creative ways to reduce the role of policing in areas where police do not need to be the first responders,” Attia said. “Preventative measures are more important than incident response.”

Just last Friday, an 18-year-old man died in hospital three days after he had been apprehended by Peel officers responding to another mental health crisis call. On Friday, the SIU said it was too early to say what caused the man’s death.

Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. said communities of colour can be hesitant to trust any signals of reform happening within police departments because they sense that “no matter who is plugged into what role, there is a culture around looking out for the interest of the police.”

Jason Miller is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering crime and justice in the Peel Region. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him on email: jasonmiller@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @millermotionpic

Jason Miller, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star