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Calls to redirect police funding to mental health and other social services are growing amid massive protests over police brutality and systemic racism, but Toronto’s mayor seems determined to stick with more police training and community outreach instead.
The death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last month has revived calls to defund police amid frustration that reforms — such as more sensitivity training for officers and the use of body cameras — has not stopped police violence, which disproportionately targets people of colour.
“It is recognizing that policing itself is a form of harm,” says author Robyn Maynard, whose book Policing Black Lives chronicles the history of state violence against Black people in Canada.
“What do we need to prioritize instead of these massive, bloated policing budgets, of over a billion dollars in the case of Toronto. What would it mean to direct that towards people’s real needs?” she asks.
“This is a project that in many ways is calling for us to imagine and think about the possibility of safety entirely differently,” she says.
But the concept of actively diverting funding from Toronto’s police force, which has a long-acknowledged history of racial discrimination, is not on the agenda for John Tory, the city’s mayor.
“People present this as an either/or case and I just don’t accept that polarized decision-making tree,” he said this week when asked about diverting funding from police to provide more mental health services.
Tory is calling for the provincial and federal governments to step up on mental health funding and said the city is actively looking to purchase body cameras for officers and is expanding community outreach.
“We’ve got to restore trust in the police. We’re going to restore trust by having police officers in the community for years at a time, the same police officers actually walking through the neighbourhoods, developing relationships with people,” he said.
“This notion that we’re going to defund the police, and I don’t know whether we’re not going to have police or whatever, is not a credible option. I don’t think anybody can realistically put it forward.”
But it’s not an unprecedented idea for Toronto, which is the fourth-largest city in North America and boasts of being the most ethnically diverse metropolis in the world.
Calls for police funding to be redirected towards social services that could improve the lives of those most susceptible to police violence are growing, but Toronto's mayor sticking to $1 billion police budget
In 2016, Councillor Michael Thompson (now deputy mayor) proposed that city council redirect $24 million from the municipal police force’s budget to transit, child care and other social services. (The motion did not pass.)
The city launched an initiative, the Neighbourhood Community Officer Program, several years ago to try to improve the police service's relations with marginalized communities.
It’s a program lauded by Dexter Voisin, dean of the University of Toronto's Factor-Inwentash faculty of social work.
But he says the current climate of protest across the United States should also prompt Canadians to reassess how to deal with structural obstacles such as poverty, social exclusion and lack of access to quality education that create the conditions where crime flourishes.
“It’s an opportunity for communities, law enforcement, policymakers, social advocates to come together and start discussing these things in more earnest ways,” he says.
Meanwhile, the push to defund law enforcement is a growing part of the protest movement and political response in the U.S.
In Minneapolis, activist groups are calling on the mayor to cut $45 million US from the budget of the city’s police department in the wake of Floyd’s death. In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti said on Wednesday that he is scrapping plans for a massive boost to the city's police department.
One of the key arguments of the defund police movement is that law enforcement often escalate problems they are asked to solve, including when responding to people dealing with a mental health crisis.
The concept extends to the elimination of certain crimes, such as public transit fare evasion, says Sandy Hudson, a co-founder of the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter.
“We've seen police brutality for fare evasion, certainly in Toronto on the TTC,” she says. “And it's like, man, if we didn't put $1.07 billion into funding the police, could we take some of that money, make transit free and make the whole idea of fare evasion impossible?”
Alastair Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer