Police, Hamilton mayor decry 'unfair' cartoon depicting law enforcement's treatment of people of colour

Police chiefs, police associations and officers in southern Ontario have been on the defensive as media scrutiny and public criticism persist during widespread calls for police reform.

Illustration depicting police car with a warning label appeared in the Hamilton Spectator last month

Local police officers and associations are raising objections to a recent cartoon in the Hamilton Spectator that was critical of how police handle situations with people of colour and people living with mental health issues. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

A newspaper cartoon and public criticism have put some southern Ontario police chiefs, officers and unions on the defensive amid mounting calls for reform following the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer.

Bill Fordy, deputy chief of Niagara Regional Police, released a statement on Thursday about how "saddened" he is by the "pattern of stereotyping all police officers, based on the actions of a few."

"We are human and we are not perfect, but the majority of police officers are authentic and kind-hearted people that want to make the world a better place," read his note.

"Make no mistake, I, like other police officers and leaders, want accountability ... having said that, we should respect the process for coming to that determination."

Cartoon reflects views of 'good portion' of population: editor

His comments follow outrage from the Hamilton Police Association, Hamilton officers and Halton's police chief over an editorial illustration by Theo Moudakis that was published in the Hamilton Spectator on June 26.

The illustration showed the back end of a police car with a label that reads: "WARNING: May be hazardous to Black, Indigenous and Other People of Colour, and to those with mental health issues."

Paul Berton, editor-in-chief at the Spec, told CBC News publishing the cartoon was a "last-minute decision."

"It was reflective of the views of certainly not all people, and I would suggest probably not the majority of our readers, but certainly a good portion of the population and we didn't really give it much more thought than that," he said.

The cartoon followed Floyd's murder on May 25. After white Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for seven minutes and forty-six seconds, Floyd — an unarmed Black man who was handcuffed and lying face down on a city street — died.

His last words were, "I can't breathe." According to a newly released transcript of police body camera footage, Chauvin's response was: "Then stop talking, stop yelling, it takes a heck of a lot of oxygen to talk."

Floyd's death sparked fiery protests across the world and ignited one of the largest civil rights movements, with rallies in Hamilton as well.

The illustration in the Spec also prompted an intense, online backlash from officers.

"I am a cop. A person of colour. I know racism. I have lived it. Breathed it. So believe me when I say, I would NEVER work for a service that turns a blind eye to prejudice in any form," read a tweet from Treena MacSween, a Division 1 inspector with the Hamilton Police Service.

MacSween told CBC News the legitimacy of policing is being questioned and she understands frustration from the public. MacSween said she has been followed by loss prevention workers in Hamilton retail stores while not in uniform. And she especially understands the public unrest after watching Floyd die and witnessing the police response to Black Lives Matter protests in America. 

But "nothing angers a good cop more than the inexcusable and irreversible actions of a bad cop," and MacSween said nothing could justify the cartoon in the local paper.

Her colleagues also criticized the illustration.

One officer, David Hartless, called for the local newspaper to be banned from communicating with police.

"The Spec can go to hell... they need to be removed from all releases by police service and association... no info or comments, no contact ... they no longer hold any legitimacy as a responsible media source. Excommunicate them," read his tweet from June 28.

The illustration also prompted tweets from Clint Twolan, head of the Hamilton Police Association (HPA) — the union that represents Hamilton officers — and Steve Tanner, chief of the Halton Regional Police Service.

Berton, the Spectator's editor, said he has respect for police officers and has never had issues with them, but noted "that's clearly not the case with a large portion, and appears to be a growing portion, of the population."

"As an organization, [Hamilton Police Service] are misinterpreting the desire for change in society and not understanding the need for its own transition to a 21st century organization."

Local Black leader defends cartoon

Kojo Damptey, executive director at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, defended the cartoon as an illustration of the "lived experience of racialized people."

"There's a feeling of fear and if [police] are not going to account for that ... that means [people of colour] are being discriminated against," he said.

Damptey said the police lack transparency, citing a previous CBC story that revealed local police were resistant to collecting race-based data during incidents that involve use of force.

"We're asking for full accountability because the money used for policing comes from taxpayers ... that's what the whole defund movement is asking for."

Kojo Damptey, executive director at Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion, said police lack the transparency and accountability they need to serve equity-seeking communities. He said police are upset about the cartoon because it exposes a harsh truth. (Adam Carter/CBC)

The day after the illustration ran in The Spec, HPA bought a full-page ad in the weekend edition of the paper, denouncing criticism toward police.

It said the cartoon "promotes hatred" and "suggests that police target groups in society, which is utterly false, and repulsive."

The ad included statistics from year-end reports related to calls for service, mental health calls and school liaison officers.

It also featured a false claim that the local police service is the most diverse in Ontario, citing a CBC Hamilton story.

Berton said the HPA ad, which "was not cheap," ran like any other advertisement and said ads don't face the same journalistic rigour as stories.

"Our advertising department would leave it to the advertisers themselves to make claims like, 'We're the best hamburgers in town,' whether or not we know that to be true."

Twolan declined to comment after multiple interview requests over the past week, but the HPA ad noted police were "open to working toward meaningful solutions that will improve the relationship between the police and the various communities we serve. However, demonizing police only impedes progress."

Mayor calls media 'attack' on police 'unfair'

Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger sits on the police services board. He told CBC News he didn't appreciate the cartoon.

"Let's have an open and frank and factual discussion around these matters, not just kind of throwing barbs out there. And this kind of attack on police, I think, is unfortunate," he said.

"Making the kind of inference that all police officers are hazardous to the health of Black and Indigenous people I think is unfair."

Mayor Fred Eisenberger said the cartoon attacked police instead of creating a dialogue. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Eisenberger also said the HPA ad raised "good points."

"Having said that, is there a dialogue to be had around what else we could have a look at in terms of where police might not be optimal in those situations? Absolutely, and I think we're doing that through the community safety and wellness exercise that's already under way," he said.

"I'm not on board for indiscriminate budget cuts just because. There needs to be a conversation."

Damptey said the HPA ad's statistics are useless until they are broken down by community and race.

"The stats have no context," he said.

He also criticized the police service and association for not buying a full page ad in the local paper to apologize for failing to protect citizens during the Pride parade in 2019.

"Now when people are speaking out, now they are concerned," Damptey said.

Treena MacSween has spent 20 of her 23 years in policing with the Hamilton Police Service. She is currently a Division 1 inspector with the service, and says she is the first person of colour in the service to ever reach that rank. (Treena McSween/Twitter)

MacSween, the 20-year-veteran with Hamilton police, said she doesn't support defunding the service, but does support conversations about rethinking which calls officers respond to and which ones might be better suited for other community groups.

"Those conversations are important to have because a lot of calls that fall to the police service may not necessarily need to be on our shoulders, but over time are something we absorbed," she said.

"We are having those discussions … it's going to take time to delve into that but is something I know our police service is committed to doing."


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.