What defunding the police could look like in Canada’s largest city

TORONTO — As anti-Black racism protests continue across the world, the push to defund the police is gaining momentum in some parts of Canada.

In Toronto, where almost a quarter of residents’ property taxes go just to funding the police, two city councillors on Monday put forward a motion to cut the city’s police budget by 10 per cent and shift it to “much-needed community supports.”

Thousands have signed petitions in other parts of the country, including Vancouver, Regina and Montreal, for similar reallocations of police funds.

However, the concept of defunding the police doesn’t necessarily mean abolishing police forces. As University of Toronto Mississauga sociology professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah explains, defunding the police would mean redistributing some of their funding elsewhere.

“[It’s] a reallocation or a reassignment of certain tasks and functions that we recognize that the police aren’t performing very well, that there are negative outcomes to their involvement in those activities such as increased risk for the use of violence and potential for criminalization,” Owusu-Bempah told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday.

So what would defunding the police actually look like in Canada’s largest city?

NEW SERVICE FOR MENTAL HEALTH CRISES

Mental health is an essential piece of the call for defunding since many police-involved deaths in Canada have involved mental health and substance abuse issues.

Owusu-Bempah said redirected police funding could go to boosting supports for mental health and creating a new type of emergency service used in times of mental health crises.

“A large part of the problem is for individuals who are suffering mental health crises, and for those around them, the police are often the quickest point of contact or seemingly the most sensible resource to call,” Owusu-Bempah said.

He said there should be another number to call, rather than 911, so mental health care workers can intervene in cases involving people in crisis.

“When you talk to police officers and even police leaders, they will agree that they’re not well equipped to perform that function and they would like to see some of these roles and responsibilities given to other organizations and agencies.”

Toronto Police Service responds to approximately 30,000 mental health calls every year, according to TPS spokeswoman Meaghan Gray.

“The reason that we see such a high number of calls to the police [is] because we don’t have another readily available service, whether that’d be another number to call with another service attached for individuals and those around them in those situations,” Owusu-Bempah said.

It’s a position echoed by Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson, who told CTV’s Power Play on Sunday that the current response to a mental health crisis is harmful.

“People would have the option to call experts who are trained to deal with the health needs and social needs of people who are experiencing a mental health crisis,” Hudson said. “That way, those people maybe don’t show up with lethal force, and that way we can ensure that people get the support that they need from people who are trained to deal with that very particular complex situation.”

However, this would not entirely eliminate a police presence. Owusu-Bempah suggested that the new emergency service could run along side police forces.

“It’s not to say that the police wouldn’t have to be present for some of those calls. There may be instances where an individual is posing a serious risk to themselves [or], to others, where we would want the police to be there,” he said.

ALLOCATING FUNDS ELSEWHERE

While Toronto Police Service Constable Dale Swift agrees that some police funding should be reallocated to mental health services, he told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday that communities should be consulted on where they think the funding would be best used.

“It’s really [about] establishing really good relationships with our communities and even more so, recognizing what each community needs… By implementing officers in those communities to work with individuals in those communities, figure out what their needs are and really try to address that — not with the police service but having those talks on other resources to better help those communities,” Swift said.

Swift, who previously worked in mental health, said services to help the city’s youth, specifically those who have been incarcerated, should also be considered for reallocated police funding.

“Not only with mental health, but I talk and deal with a lot of individuals, a lot of youth that come out of incarceration, and we tell them ‘go make something better for yourself,’ but they don’t have any resources,” Swift said. “If we actually want to see youth who have made mistakes, who have been incarcerated get back into the public, we have to set them up for success.”

Without such resources, Swift said incarcerated youth typically reoffend.

More than $15 billion was spent in Canada on policing in 2017-18, according to Statistics Canada, an increase to the year prior. In Toronto, the police service allocation of more than $1 billion is the single-biggest line item in the city’s operating budget.

Owusu-Bempah said reallocating the police budget could see the return of funding for organizations in the city that were previously defunded.

“The very organizations, agencies and institutions that we’ve been defunding over the past 20 years should be seeing those funds so we would be talking social welfare services, child welfare services, education, and then it could trickle down as well to community programming,” Owusu-Bempah said.

Swift also said some funds could be reallocated within the police force to obtain body cameras. Swift said implementing body cameras is a “good idea” because it will hold police officers more accountable.

“[In] a situation where things go down and there’s speculation it will help us do our job better. It will help the community, put them at ease a bit more in regards to our investigations, and probably feel a bit more comfortable as well,” Swift said.

“If you’re a good cop doing good things, you legitimately have nothing to worry about,” he added.

RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki agreed Monday to outfit some Mounties with body cameras following a conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. However, some advocates pushing against systemic anti-Black racism in policing say the measure doesn’t go far enough.

“There needs to be broad consultation and review on what needs to be done. Political rhetoric and gizmos like cameras are not the answer,” Kelly Sundberg, a criminologist with Mount Royal University, told CTV News Channel on Tuesday.

Sundberg admitted that body cameras have been successful in some cities, but said they are only “one small step, and very limited step, in addressing police oversight.”

When asked recently if he would consider defunding the RCMP, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t reject the notion.

“I think there are many different paths toward making a better country. We need to explore the range of them,” Trudeau said.

WHERE TO START

Owusu-Bempah said defunding the police should start with an audit of everything police forces are doing and the costs associated with those tasks. He acknowledged that this would look different in various jurisdictions.

“Many police budgets, at least the public ones, aren’t very detailed, but we want to get an understanding of what the police are doing and identifying those roles, functions, tasks that would be better served by other organizations and agencies,” Owusu-Bempah said.

One example Owusu-Bempah highlighted is the use of police officers in schools. While Toronto no longer has officers stationed in schools, he said getting rid of them in other jurisdictions would free up funding for other resources.

As a Black officer who grew up in Toronto Community Housing, Swift said “it’s two worlds that usually don’t get along historically.” He suggests that defunding the police should start with education within the force on how to be an ally to those communities.

“Coming from Toronto Housing, having negative interactions with police, having positive interactions with the police — once you get out of there and you put this [uniform] on, it’s almost like you have to regain credibility with those communities again because they see you as an Uncle Tom or a traitor,” Swift said. “You have to reassure them that you are there for them and the only way you do that is through consistency.”

Swift said he had “multiple feelings” when he first saw the video of George Floyd being arrested in Minneapolis. He initially didn’t believe the video was real.

Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died after a white police officer’s knee was held on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.

“I was in this place where I was both individuals at the same time — a police officer and George Floyd,” Swift said. “It was just a very disturbing image to watch because I knew that wasn’t policing, but I knew that if I’m not in uniform that could be me.”

While the arrest of Floyd has given Black people more power to speak up about the injustices they face, Swift said racism is a “human problem” and is the responsibility of everyone to address.

However, Swift said keeping that in mind as a Black officer isn’t always easy.

“All eyes are always on you and how are you are, especially when you’re dealing with your with ‘your own.’ So I really made sure I take a lot of pride, not only just with individuals but especially when I’m dealing with other Black individuals from situations that I’m very familiar with. I make sure that they know that I hear them,” Swift said.

“Being truthful, being honest, having those talks, transparency it goes a long way,” he added.

MORE CONVERSATIONS NEEDED

While some activists continue to call for defunding the police, some of Ontario’s leaders are hesitant and say more conversations are needed.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford dismissed the defunding movement on Tuesday, saying he believes in a “strong police” system based on better community involvement.

“I just don’t believe in cutting police budgets,” Ford said. “Never believed in that.”

Earlier this month, Ford said Ontario does not have the same systemic racism experienced in the U.S. He later backtracked on the statement.

“I do not have those lived experiences and I can empathize with them. But again Mr. Speaker, a lot of us have never lived that, we’ve never walked a mile in someone’s shoes that has faced racism. Not only just in the black community, a lot of minority communities, throughout the history of Ontario and Canada have faced racism,” Ford said during a sitting at Queen’s Park last week.

Jamil Jivani is hoping he can help address the problem.

As Ontario’s first Advocate for Community Opportunities, Jivani advises on what the government could do to help disadvantaged communities. Amid the anti-Black racism protests, Jivani is now leading Ontario’s new Black-focused council on opportunities for young people.

Jivani told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday that anti-Black racism protests have highlighted that systemic racism does exist in Canada, but agreed with Ford in that the country’s racial inequality is different from other places.

“I think the confusion is really about when we compare ourselves to the United States because we are different, and I mean that’s just a reality. Every country is different from one another,” Jivani said in an interview on Wednesday.

“But we still have a problem, and there’s still a difference between where we are now and where I think we want to be as a country, and being focused on that, instead of comparing ourselves to the U.S., is what I’ve encouraged people to do.”

However, Jivani said defunding the police isn’t a solution to the problem.

“Every city should have a debate about how to best use their resources… What I don’t support though, is the idea that somehow taking resources away from cops is always a good thing, because there are times where we need more police, we need good police and that’s a really important part of community safety,” Jivani said.

Instead, he suggests that the Ontario government focus on creating opportunities for young people “who are being left out of our economy,” including the opportunity to own a home and start a family.

“Our goal is really to bring a diverse group of leaders together who can help the government understand what is the role of government in knocking down barriers that prevent young people from achieving their potential,” Jivani said.

“We’re seeing a young generation that the cost of living, the burdens of trying to make a way in the world are becoming overwhelming and I think that’s part of the frustration you see right now around racial inequality, around the protests that are happening all over the world.”

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