Surprising no one, a review of the Toronto Police Service’s (TPS) handling of missing person cases found that “systemic discrimination” contributed to their failure to prevent disappearances, most infamously in the Bruce McArthur serial killing case. The report, led by former judge Gloria Epstein, detailed how the police “could have done better,” had “stereotypical ideas about the LGBTQ2S+ communities,” and failed to address “barriers that prevented some witnesses from coming forward.” The report shines a critical light on the TPS, and its leaders are now scrambling to explain themselves.
However, Epstein analyzes these cases through a liberal intersectionalist lens, failing to get to the roots of police discrimination or provide recommendations that really make a difference. Her recommendations, which revolve around “more oversight”, “community engagement”, and “enhanced training”, amount to little more than putting lipstick on a pig (or pigs). A Marxist analysis is necessary for understanding why the police fail LGBT communities and particularly LGBT people of colour, and what workers can do about it.
Between 2010 and 2017, Bruce McArthur killed eight men in Toronto’s gay village. His first victims were Skandaraj “Skanda” Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, and Majeed Kayhan. Already in 2010, rumours circulated in the Village about a possible serial killer. In late 2012, the TPS launched “Project Houston” to investigate the disappearances, but concluded it in 2014 after falsely attributing Navaratnam’s murder to a cannibalism ring. McArthur was never suspected.
He went on to murder Soroush Mahmudi, Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam, Dean Lisowick, Selim Esen, and Andrew Kinsman. During this time, McArthur turned himself into the police for strangling a man during a sexual encounter, but the police let him go without charges. Finally in 2017, the TPS launched Project Prism to investigate the disappearances. It wasn’t lost on some community members that the police weren’t taking the disappearances seriously when the victims were all working class people of colour, and that they only launched a real investigation when the victim was a white man from the wealthier neighbourhood of Cabbagetown.
Despite widespread speculation about a serial killer, the TPS downplayed the idea, saying there is “no evidence—let me repeat, no evidence,” of the disappearances being connected. Frustration with the TPS led Pride Toronto to exclude uniformed police officers from marching in the Pride Parade. Seemingly as an act of retribution, TPS chief Mark Saunders blamed the LGBT community for his own failings, claiming civilians didn’t come forward to help the investigation.
He never considered why gay Torontonians might be hesitant about coming forward to the police. He never considered the long history of the TPS failing the LGBT community, from a similar botched missing persons case in the 1970s, to the bathhouse raids of 1981, to the continued street harassment and disproportionate incarceration of LGBT people to this day. The statistics are even worse for people of colour, with police more than five times more likely to “randomly” stop black and brown people in the Village than white people. It is abundantly clear that the police do not exist to serve the poor and marginalized.
Liberal vs Marxist analysis
Epstein’s report touches on much of this history, but it is framed as a question of “frayed relations”, not one of oppressor and oppressed. She wants to “repair” relations between the police and LGBT community, as if there was ever a good relationship to begin with. The reality is that the police were always a repressive force in Canada, set up to maintain bourgeois order and crush any threats to their power. While they’ve gone through various reforms over the years, their core function remains the same.
Marxists understand that prejudices do not arise out of thin air—they are the product of dynamic class relations, used to divide workers against each other and entrench the interests of the ruling class. Canadian capitalism was built on stolen Indigenous land, compelling capitalists to set up a police force to crush Indigenous resistance and protect their investments. Similarly, the primary economic unit under capitalism is the nuclear family, compelling capitalists to clamp down on any perceived threat to this arrangement, including LGBT people. Even though attitudes toward the LGBT community and people of colour have changed, these oppressive relationships and the attitudes that accompany them are baked into the police’s DNA. No amount of oversight bodies, anti-bias training, or handshaking exercises can change this fact.
Epstein does not understand this, which is why her proposed reforms only cut skin deep. You cannot have “accountability” in an institution that is accountable to no one but the ruling class. You cannot have “transparency” in what is essentially a mafia-type formation, with everyone hiding their skeletons and protecting each other. You cannot have “equity” in a system designed to protect the privileges of the few against the many. Epstein’s recommendations reflect a fundamentally idealist worldview, where racism and homophobia are simply the product of bad ideas that can be educated away through anti-bias training. Unsurprisingly, her proposals come with a price tag, making them just another excuse to pour more money into an already bloated police budget.
The TPS is well aware of the PR crisis they are in, which is why interim police chief James Ramer admitted to some of their past mistakes and the existence of “implicit bias” in the police. However, no amount of recognition and empty promises are going to change a fundamentally racist, homophobic, violent, oppressive institution. Police do not care about the poor and marginalized—they only care about capitalists and their property which they are paid to protect. They cannot be reformed, only given makeovers to fit the times.
Workers cannot rely on police for security. We need to fight police brutality, fight capitalism, and fight for a society where security is run by and for the working class. The police, created under capitalism to defend the private ownership of the means of production, reflect all the ills of the class society from which they stem. As long as the capitalists remain in power, they will continue to perpetuate these ills including sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. to divide the working class and oppressed and turn us against each other. The only way to do away with the problem of the police is to do away with class society, which requires the police to maintain social inequality and crush the exploited and oppressed when they challenge the status quo.