A Toronto police officer wearing a controversial patch on their uniform while at a traffic safety news conference is facing discipline by the service, prompting community members to speak out online in response to the image.
The patch was seen on the officer’s vest by Toronto Star reporter Ben Spurr Tuesday morning and a picture was subsequently shared on Twitter. The main figure seen on the patch is the Punisher skull along with the phrase “Make no mistake I am the sheepdog” and a Thin Blue Line Canadian flag.
The skull stems from the fictional Marvel character Frank Castle, also known as The Punisher, an ex-Marine-turned-violent vigilante seeking justice after his family was murdered. However, it has been used by some officers as a pro-police symbol.
The “Make no mistake I am the sheepdog” design is available in different forms and interpretations, and is available on different types of clothing and materials. The Thin Blue Line Shop website, which sells items in support of police, described the message using the Punisher skull as one in which “law enforcement officers stand between the community and chaos.”
The full message listed on a decal on the website reads as, “I may walk among the sheep but make no mistake I am the sheepdog.” That decal shows a skull and two firearms on the side with Thin Blue Line colouring.
One of The Punisher skull co-creators, Gerry Conway, launched a fundraiser in support of Black Lives Matter (BLM) in June for young comic artists in an effort “to reclaim the Punisher skull as a symbol of justice rather than lawless police oppression.”
“As to the debate over whether the Punisher symbol can ever be a symbol for justice, I agree that’s an open question,” Conway wrote on Twitter on June 5.
“What it must *not* be is a symbol of oppression. I want to deny police the use of the symbol by claiming it for BLM. Call it irony.”
Meaghan Gray, a Toronto police spokesperson, told Global News Radio 640 Toronto the service became aware of the patch after Spurr’s tweet. She said the unit commander was contacted “immediately” and the officer who wore the patch was identified internally. As of Tuesday evening, it was not publicly known who wore the patch.
“Since that time, the officer has been directed to remove that patch from his uniform immediately,” Gray said.
She said officers need the approval from the chief’s office to add items to standard-issued uniforms.
“When they add a patch to their uniform that’s not approved by the Toronto Police Service, and one that can certainly be misunderstood or taken offence by people, it’s not appropriate for them to be wearing those types of patches,” Gray said.
“As a service, we don’t condone those types of patches that are not appropriate to the uniform.”
She said the matter now rests with the officer’s unit commander and it is up to that commander to determine the level of discipline. Gray said there are various disciplinary levels, such as a written reprimand all the way up to dismissal. She said the commander will decide if it will be handled within the unit, referred to professional standards, or referred to a police tribunal hearing.
For matters that don’t end up at a tribunal hearing, Gray said Ontario’s Police Services Act prohibits disclosing what discipline was rendered.
Gray said she’s not aware of any other instances of a Toronto police officer wearing a similar patch on their uniform, reiterating the service’s uniform policy.
Spurr’s tweet sparked a lot of reaction online. As of Tuesday evening, the tweet was liked more than 1,200 times and retweeted more than 600 times.
NDP MPP Rima Berns-McGown condemned symbols such as the patch, sharing a tweet with a screenshot of Spurr’s tweet by author and journalist Desmond Cole. He also highlighted another instance that purported to show a paramedic wearing a patch saying, “Don’t run you’ll only die tired.”
“This is why BIPOC communities don’t trust the police. Everyone in Ontario deserves to be safe. Institutions that don’t keep everyone safe don’t deserve public funding,” Berns-McGowan wrote Tuesday afternoon.
Liberal MP Adam Vaughan called the image “beyond appalling” and “beyond vile.”
“Read all the tweets… it gets worse… just taking the patch off doesn’t make it better because the person who used their ‘discretion’ to attach the symbol still has the discretion to use a weapon,” he tweeted.
“Take the patch and the badge and with them the gun too.”
Meanwhile, Gray said she understands how people might be upset in response to the photo and urged members to be “very sensitive to the existing context in which we all live.”
“I can see how an incident such as today would be very disparaging to some members of the public to see that and not want to continue to look at ways to work with us,” she said.
“But I would encourage them to have that dialogue with us knowing that’s not reflective of our position as a Toronto Police Service.”