Ultra Vires


Toronto Police Pay an Inaugural Visit

Two Toronto cops share thoughts on implicit bias training

Wearing dark suits and joking about free sandwiches, Detective Sergeant Aly Virji and Sergeant Syed Ali Moosvi looked more like corporate lawyers than police officers. They were hosted on October 18 by the Indigenous Initiatives Office and the Asper Centre to speak about implicit bias and police decision-making. The two men gave the audience of about 50 students an overview of the bias training they give to officers city-wide.

This is first time in recent memory that the Toronto Police Services (TPS) has given a talk at the Faculty of Law. It is also the first time that a presentation of this nature has been offered to any law school in the city. Det Sgt Virji opened the lunch session by acknowledging that he and his partner would be talking about “difficult topics,” warmed up the room with an aside about Australian accents, and launched into the PowerPoint by asking an open-ended question about what bias in police-making looked like. “Carding,” was the first answer given.

Det Sgt Virji, and the older, 15-year-more-experienced Sgt Moosvi, spent three quarters of the lunch period presenting a bite-sized picture of a program called Fair & Impartial Policing. Developed by Dr Lorie Fridell at the University of South Florida, it was brought to Toronto in 2013 after the release of the landmark PACER report that envisioned a path toward “bias-free” policing for the city. It would take four years after PACER’s release for the police service to disband its anti-violence intervention strategy taskforce, TAVIS, that was widely known for carding racial minorities as a policing tool.

“It wasn’t about teaching us content; it was to show that they were teaching their officers the content. It was PR.”

Matthew Prior (2L)

The presentation highlighted the approach behind the new TPS bias training. The program aims to show officers that bias is a normal human trait. During police work, which involves life or death decisions, recognizing and mitigating for the influence of biases is crucial. Sgt Moosvi stressed in an interview later that the training recognized that biases cannot be changed overnight but often can shift over a lifetime through an individual’s personal interactions. Some mitigation techniques involved taking more time and utilizing critical thinking to make a decision.

Det Sgt Virji and Sgt Moosvi switched off during the presentation and kept the tone jovial and humorous. Matthew Prior (2L), however, did not find the substantive portion of the training particularly useful. “I don’t think the point was to give law students bias training,” he said. “The presentation condensed the longer training given to officers into something necessarily faster and less detailed. It wasn’t about teaching us content; it was to show that they were teaching their officers the content. It was PR.”

The floor opened to questions from students during the last 15 minutes of the event. By this time, Michelle Huang (1L) who had been looking forward to the talk, had become disappointed. “They talked like politicians,” she said, “they skimmed the surface of so many topics without delving into anything of substance. They took up too much time talking about what they wanted and then didn’t leave a good amount of time for a Q&A where we could discuss the actual ‘difficult’ topics they kept boasting they were here to talk about.” Agreeing with Prior, she said the event felt like a PR campaign and criticized the presentation for not delving deep into controversial topics like police brutality.  

Sgt Moosvi understands how this event could be seen as PR but doesn’t necessarily take issue with that characterization. For him, the motivation behind this event was to have a candid conversation in an effort to break down barriers. “We may have biases about a community we serve, and a community may have biases about us and our role,” he said. “If we talk about PR as the brand of policing, we’re not selling a product but trying to overcome biases on both sides. It’s our responsibility to improve our brand.”

The organizers at the Faculty of Law and the speakers from the TPS both expressed interest in continuing collaboration and events. Sgt Moosvi said that building connections between lawyers-to-be and police officers now could have a positive impact in the future, when interactions might be more adversarial. He believes that officers and law students could share insight, especially when classes and events at the school cover topics related to policing. From a student’s perspective, Prior is intrigued by the idea, in theory. “It would give a voice to TPS’s opinions and provide an opportunity for others to respond,” he said. “But I can’t be sure this exercise would actually be useful.”

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