centre stage


He has a raft of enemies, hut Julian Fantino is a cop’s cop

Dan Burke October 3 1994
centre stage


He has a raft of enemies, hut Julian Fantino is a cop’s cop

Dan Burke October 3 1994


centre stage

He has a raft of enemies, hut Julian Fantino is a cop’s cop

Dan Burke

It’s getting so that nowhere is sacred in these crime-crazed times. Take London, Ont., an abnormally tranquil city of 300,000 with all the personality of a mutual fund.

About three years ago, the city’s new police chief, freshly recruited from the badlands of Toronto, warned civic leaders that the dreaded substance crack would soon be “migrating” into town. Skeptics dismissed the prediction and the chief along with it, ridiculing him as a latter-day Wyatt Earp itching to draw his six-shooter.

Then, lo and behold, crack did arrive in the city’s east end. Guns and gunfire •£ weren’t far behind. Chalk one up for the £j incorrigible maverick, Julian Fantino. I

“It was bad here,” Fantino, 52, remarked 5 on a recent evening as he cruised by the £ poor houses of Glebe Street towards a sefc ries of former crack houses whose windows have just been boarded up by their landlord. Eying the renovations, Fantino peddles a little crack of his own.

“Have you ever seen a better use of plywood?” he grins. “It looks like we got the message through.”

Six years after getting scalded in the hot water of big-city racial politics, one of Canada’s most controversial cops—the man who compiled statistics showing that delinquent black youths in Toronto’s Jane-Finch district were responsible for a disproportionate share of the area’s crime—is back in a familiar saddle, busting criminals and riding roughshod over certain sensitivities.

The landlord who boarded up his prop-

erties to hinder London’s crack trade happens to be an Afro-Canadian, former school teacher Cy Campbell. Last April, Fantino delivered a letter to Campbell threatening to hold him personally responsible for the problems in the buildings.

“I didn’t just decide one day I was going to come and pick on poor Cy here,” says Fantino, surveying the disarmed combat zone from behind the wheel of his black executive model Ford. “We weren’t saying that he was involved in the trafficking, just that these premises were being used as crack houses. I’m sorry the man had to close his buildings, but. ...”

All of which might just amount to a

tempest in teapot-town, Ont., if it weren’t for one thing: lately, Fantino has been publicly heralded in the Toronto media as a possible successor to the outgoing chief of the Metro police, Bill McCormack, who retires early next year. In a career already dramatized by leaps and bounds, this would be Fantino’s greatest feat.

“Julie” Fantino’s first accomplishments in Canada were learning English and adapting to a new world. His parents arrived from northern Italy when he was 11. At St. Matthew’s Catholic school in Toronto’s working-class west end, he chummed around with Angelo Delfino, playing soccer at recess and reading comic books—ac-

tion/adventure, westerns—after school. He wasn’t much of an athlete (too puny), “but he had a spark of intelligence. He was focused,” recalls Delfino. “He wanted to be a detective. Maybe he got the idea from the comics.”

After high school, Fantino put in time as a retail security man before finally being accepted at age 26 into the Metro force. At police academy, they brought in teachers from the field, local legends with a comicstrip quality about them.

“They had nicknames. They had reputations. They were characters,” recalls Fantino, still sounding awed by the experience. “They had an indelible impact on you.”

Out on the street, Toronto had become the “speed” capital of North America, with the student residence Rochdale serving as its parliament. Fantino quickly made an indelible impact on both by joining the city’s first drug squad. “Crack is a rerun of speed,” he says. “The violence, the

squad, followed eventually by a promotion to the rarefied rank of superintendent. By the late 1980s, he was supervising the JaneFinch district, a position that allowed him to expand the definition of policing beyond the simple concept of lawman. He started a baseball league for disadvantaged kids; he organized neighborhood cleanups and barbecues; when the Metro Housing Authority let the condition of certain public-housing projects slide, he took videos of the squalor and put them “on notice.” For Fantino, a policeman could be more than a detective, he could be a leader, a neighborhood hero.

“Politics, the police—these are callings,” he says today. “They require people with mettle. Too many people bend with the winds. We’re so politically correct now we can’t even tell the truth.”

In 1989, Fantino delivered what he considered the truth in the form of a report on crime to the race-relations committee of suburban North York. The report contained a small section citing blacks as the culprits in more than 50 per cent of the drug offences, muggings and robberies in

Laws. Needless to say, Fantino did not leave Toronto on good terms with the city’s vocal minority-rights groups, such as the Black Action Defence Committee (BAD).

“Fantino’s fantasy of becoming chief of police in Toronto will not bear fruit,” says Charles Roach, a Toronto lawyer who represents Laws and has now filed suit against Fantino on behalf of Cy Campbell, charging defamation.

“The BAD will not support any candidate in particular,” he explains. “But they would be quick to oppose Fantino. It’s not that he’s a racist. But there’s a perception he is insensitive to the black community. And in this day and age, perception is a reality.”

If Fantino is aggrieved by any of this, he doesn’t show it. For one thing, he’s enjoying his job in London, where he has set up a baseball little league, established friendly relations with minority groups and generally made the force more responsive to community needs. Last Christmas, he had his officers gather in the lobby of police headquarters to sing carols with local schoolchildren. “We thought, ‘This is different!’ ” says

‘We’re so politically correct now we can’t even tell the truth’

weapons, the paranoia: we went through the same thing with speed.” Unlike most of the “Popeye Doyle” types on the squad, Fantino developed a flair for organizational work, writing briefs for prosecutors and serving as the liaison man between the law-enforcement bureaucracy and the squad’s foot soldiers.

“He was a good ‘paper’ man,” says Staff Insp. Bob Strathdee, one of Fantino’s colleagues on the drug squad. “And you needed that. We worked with a lot of good people on the street who couldn’t spell ‘cat.’ ”

Not that Fantino was averse to front-line action. One day while he was in uniform, walking by a pool hall, some punk happened to fire off an insulting remark in Italian about policemen. Fantino wheeled around and took down the offender—then arrested him for “causing a disturbance.” “One thing that Julie believes in is authority,” says officer Doug MacCheyne, Fantino’s partner that day. “If you challenge his authority, he’ll take you up on it.” Fantino’s achievements as an officer earned him a place on the city’s homicide

the Jane-Finch area. Fantino, who was branded a racist by some black leaders, claims the board asked for the straight goods; he also claims he didn’t know the media would be at the meeting where the report was presented.

“The statistics, the statistics,” Fantino sighs. “It was like a gold rush: everybody came running with an opinion.” Fantino’s critics accused him of stigmatizing the entire black community. They wanted to make an example of him. They wanted him shipped out of Jane-Finch.

Fantino kept his job, but his feelings about the matter haven’t cooled. “It wasn’t me who invited the media to the meeting,” he continues. “The board knew what I was bringing in.” Then, Fantino pauses for a moment, preparing for a burst of what he’s best at: honesty. “Obviously, they didn’t know exactly what I was bringing in.”

The city of London knew exactly what it was getting when it recruited the ItalianCanadian to run its 421-member force in 1991. After the statistics uproar, Fantino had personally led an investigation into an illegal-alien smuggling ring linked to Toronto’s leading black cop critic, Dudley

Fred Schell, a 35-year veteran of the force.

In London, Fantino can easily practise his vocation and fulfil the heroic fantasy of a boy who still remembers the pier in Halifax where he got off the boat from Italy. Last year, he went back to the old country, one of only two Canadian police chiefs invited to celebrate the 180th anniversary of the carabinieri, Italy’s national force. Standing on a ceremonial stage with the Italian president gave him perspective on the distance of his journey.

“We came to this country with nothing, not even the language,” he says. “I know what discrimination tastes like. Nobody’s got to teach me a lesson about—how should I put it?—the apprenticeship of becoming Canadian.”

In the age of entitlement, journeyman Fantino embodies an anachronistic set of values founded on an allegiance to law, order and the rough trade of being a cop. And if his actions betray a certain resistance to modern political fashion, perhaps it is because it is hard to make an example of a man who has paid his dues.

iBy Dan Burke