Despite the Toronto Police Service’s rebranding efforts, its new chief can’t escape his well-publicized involvement in an infamous 2000 bathhouse raid.
The new chief of police
On December 19, Specialized Operations Command Chief Myron Demkiw will take over the leadership of the Toronto Police Service (TPS). In a press release, the TPS’s communications branch said Demkiw will work to “reform” the service and, supposedly, make Toronto’s police “progressive and community-centred.”
Recent years have brought a string of troubling headlines about Toronto police. From disproportionately killing people of colour, to violating charter rights without restraint, to neglecting the deaths of LGBTQ people, the police have tobogganed from scandal to scandal.
Amidst this, the police board spent two years searching for a new chief on a $150,000 budget. Throughout the process, the board made all manner of promises to “build bridges” and reflect the “wellbeing needs” of various communities.
Yet, the incoming chief was immediately linked to one of the TPS’s most infamous anti-LGBTQ sting operations.
The ‘morality squad’
Demkiw was a member of the Toronto police’s vice squad in June 2000 when it raided the Pussy Palace, a bathhouse event for women and trans people at Club Toronto.
After an initial inspection by two undercover female officers, five uniformed male police entered, threatening obstruction charges if attendees warned those inside.
According to CityNews, Demkiw “planned and executed” the raid. In an interview at the time, Demkiw told the Toronto Star that the raid followed a tip that the event “would be an organized orgy and there was the possibility of violence and drug activity.”
On the night of the raid, Demkiw identified himself as a member of the city’s “morality squad”, remarking: “We were there on a mission to find out what was going on in there.”
All told, the police spent nearly an hour harassing and surveilling the patrons before leaving. Only weeks later did they charge two women with liquor license violations.
Subsequently, Judge Peter Hyrn of the Ontario Court of Justice dismissed the charges and denounced the operation as an “outrageous”, “flagrant”, “deliberate”, and “unjustified” attack on the patrons’ charter rights. Later, the province’s Human Rights Commission ordered the police service to pay out $350,000 to those harmed.
Following the announcement of Demkiw’s appointment as police chief, an open letter from members of the Toronto Women’s Bathhouse Committee asked: “Was Mr. Demkiw’s role in the raids on queer spaces addressed in the selection process?”
The letter further notes that since the 2000 raid, “Mr. Demkiw has been involved in task forces that conducted surveillance and raids in predominantly Black neighbourhoods.” When the Vice Squad was disbanded, Demkiw became Staff Superintendent, overseeing the TPS’s detective services—including its “guns-and-gangs task force” and its “holdup squad.” In that role, he also helped unveil Project Sunder—a plan to develop “neighbourhood teams” across the province to monitor communities extensively and to accelerate hundreds of “surgical” arrests.
On both counts, the letter explains, Demkiw’s history is deeply troubling:
“In the 22 years since the Pussy Palace raid, annual Toronto police budgets have doubled, from $550 million to $1.1 billion. And yet we see no evidence that the city has become safer for LGBTQ2S people – or for anyone. In the intervening years, the Toronto police were found to be twenty times more likely to shoot Black residents dead. They looked away while a serial killer preyed on gay men and trans women went missing. And yet, you have appointed Mr. Demkiw to lead the police at this time.”
Past abuse overlooked
In an interview with CityNews, Mayor John Tory claimed Demkiw “is a person throughout his professional career who has shown respect for all Torontonians.” Yet the mayor also revealed that Demkiw’s involvement in past police abuse was ignored—Tory said he “does not recall the raid being brought up during discussions with the police board.”
Tory’s statement is particularly galling in light of the TPS’s 2016 apology for “Operation Soap” the infamous February 1981 operation in which police raided four gay bathhouses and carried out one of the largest mass arrests in Canadian history. At the time of the apology, then-police chief Mark Saunders expressed “regrets” for the previous abuse, and Tory stated that it was “a good and appropriate time to acknowledge something in our community that was wrong.”
Yet it would seem little has actually changed.
Apologies and ‘regrets’ will not end police abuse
While the mayor has so far declined requests to hold a public meeting on the appointment of Demkiw, this is in line with his past history. In between apologies, John Tory has spent his career expanding police budgets, shielding the police from criticism, and insisting they go further.
When Tory led Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, he repeatedly called for police action against Six Nations land defenders. “We’re not going to put up with lawless behaviour and we’re not going to sit at negotiating tables with people who break the law,” he said.
Later, Tory faced criticism for insisting Toronto police “work aggressively” against “profoundly anti-social” “thugs” and “sewer rats.” He was also denounced for blaming disproportionate police violence on “underachievement” among Black people.
In 2020, he further thanked police for monitoring Black Lives Matter activists supposedly looking to “wreak havoc” during Pride weekend.
Last year, Tory also backed a wave of brutality against the city’s homeless population and other community members, with the intent to “clear” encampments—promising a “firm” response to protesters and shielding the police from an official inquiry thereafter.
In short, looking to John Tory to help curb police abuse is a dead end.
But this is about more than just bad individuals. Appointing a different person without such a terrible track record as Demkiw’s to the position of police chief would not change anything about the role the police play in capitalist society.
Right-wing politicians like John Tory know their role and fulfill it well. In between press conferences about “reform”, they selected Demkiw without question—just as they increase police budgets and denounce community groups without question.
These people have done nothing and will do nothing to make the police any less oppressive because the police, as an institution, exist to oppress.
As we’ve explained before, capitalism cannot exist without police terror. Police violence is necessary to keep workers, the poor, and the oppressed down. Therefore, for capitalist politicians, meaningful police reform is fundamentally beyond question. To this end, racist, homophobic, transphobic and other forms of abuse will continue because they are useful — even if they occasionally create public relations problems.
The nature of the police as an oppressive tool of class rule will not change until the fundamental nature of society is changed. The socialist transformation of society would take the wealth that is regularly squandered on ballooning police budgets and public relations maneuvers, and invest it in providing equitable employment, housing, healthcare and assistance programs for all. Clearing away the capitalist system and its state, including the police, is the firststep towards clearing away its legacy of racist, homophobic and transphobic abuse.