Toronto police are withdrawing their application to march in the city's Pride parade, the force's chief announced Tuesday after event organizers said the presence of uniformed officers would make members of the LGBTQ community feel unsafe.
Chief Mark Saunders said he hopes the move "will be received as a concrete example" of the fact that he is listening closely to the community's concerns.
"I am committed thoroughly to building a better, stronger relationship between us," Saunders said in a statement. "Much more work is needed, of course. But hopefully this moment moves us forward in an important way."
Pride Toronto and other community groups had posted a letter online Monday night asking police to withdraw their application, saying the force should work instead on better communication with the LGBTQ community.
Olivia Nuamah, Pride Toronto's executive director, said the force's handling of several high-profile deaths connected to the city's gay village, including the disappearances of six men allegedly murdered by an accused serial killer, have shaken community relations with police.
"In asking them to (withdraw), instead of spending that time planning their participation in the parade, what (we hope police) would do is spend that time planning how to better consult with the LGBTQ community about what it thinks it needs to keep itself safe," Nuamah said in an interview before Saunders announced his decision.
Several LGBTQ groups have said police did not seriously consider community fears that a serial killer was targeting men in the gay village. Relations were further strained when Saunders told a newspaper in Feburary that "nobody'' came to officers with information in 2012, when police launched an ultimately unsuccessful investigation into men missing from the area.
"Pride was born out of protest. It actually was born out of resistance to police," Nuamah said. "That's the context in which the community feels shaken, and it comes together to show strength and unity."
Individual officers will still be allowed to participate in the parade if they leave their uniforms, cruisers and guns at home, as those are police symbols that make the LGBTQ community feel unsafe, Nuamah added.
Police presence at the parade emerged as a contentious issue in 2016 — that year's march was interrupted by the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, which said it opposed uniformed officers being in the parade because their presence could discourage marginalized communities from participating.
The issue was thrust under the spotlight again in January last year, when Pride Toronto adopted a list of demands issued by Black Lives Matter that included banning police floats from the parade. The following month, Saunders announced the force would not be participating in 2017's event.
On Tuesday, the chief said he had hoped to see uniformed officers invited back to march in the 2018 parade, but said he understands that insisting they be allowed to participate could set back progress made with the community.
"I strongly believe that we should be working toward a time when this issue is no longer a point of controversy and where the participation of our members in the Pride Parade is accepted and welcomed," he said. "The Toronto Police Service will work hard over the course of the next year toward that end."
Mike McCormack, the president of the union that represents Toronto police officers, said he thinks Saunders made the wrong move.
"We don't think this fosters a conversation or a narrative that's positive. We think that this type of action drives a wedge deeper in the community and policing, and it's disappointing to our members," he said.
But Alok Mukherjee, the former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board and a visiting professor of criminology at Ryerson University, said he feels Saunders made the right call.
"It's important to understand the depth of feeling that exists right now in the LGBTQ community generally, but particularly the racialized members of that community," he said.
"There's a perception that the work that was done before in terms of building relationships between police and the LGBTQ community did not pay adequate attention to the fact that it's not a homogenous group."
Given those feelings, Mukherjee said, it's important that police try to diffuse tensions and build a better relationship with all community members.
Meanwhile, Toronto's mayor said he was "heartened" that police and community groups seemed to be communicating.
"I'm optimistic that's going to bear fruit going forward and be a better, longer lasting, more meaningful answer to this than if we'd just been able to say that police are back in the parade," John Tory said.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said she, too, was hopeful that police would improve relations with the LGBTQ community.
"I truly hope that there can be a good discussion between Pride and the police services so that that relationship can be healed," she said. "But I do understand with all the things that have happened over the last year that it's a strained relationship right now."