Calls to defund the police gain traction with some Canadian policymakers. But what does it mean?
The increasing calls to defund the police in the wake of the death of George Floyd have been seized upon by some Canadian lawmakers and social activists hoping for significant reforms.
The hashtag #defundthepolice has become a rallying cry since video emerged more than two weeks ago of a Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee into the neck of Floyd as he pleaded he couldn’t breathe moments before his death.
The killing of Floyd has sparked protests across the U.S. against anti-Black racism and police brutality. In some cases, police violence against protesters — recorded by smartphone cameras and shared online — has resulted in charges against officers and seemingly added fuel to the calls for defunding.
But not everyone agrees on the exact definition of the concept. It has become a catch-all phrase for proposals ranging from police budget cuts to a complete dismantling of police forces.
“The term defunding, I think, is a bit of a misnomer,” said Jim Hart, chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. “Generally speaking, the conversations I’ve heard out there are more about where should we put our money.“
However, in Minneapolis, political action has already begun. This week, a majority of city councilors said they support disbanding the city’s police department and replacing it with a new public safety model that has yet to be developed.
Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson said the police in Canada’s largest city could be pared down to a tactical unit to respond to ongoing violent crime — a service that certainly wouldn’t require the current policing budget of more than $1 billion a year.
Create front-line emergency service
Instead, most of the funds could go to creating a new front-line emergency service where health experts, social workers and those trained to deal with mental-health crises would be called upon, she said.
“The people who would show up wouldn’t show up with lethal weapons and very little training to deal with people who are having some sort of health crisis,” she recently told CBC News.
“I don’t know why we haven’t considered creating something new where the police have failed so often.”
So far, in some of Canada’s biggest cities, some politicians are taking a different approach to the concept of defunding the police.
Toronto city councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam are proposing a motion that calls for a 10 per cent across-the-board cut to the police budget. The money saved would be invested in community programs.
“It’s time to defund the police budget and re-balance our use of public funds toward ensuring that our communities are supported in ways that avoid having to have the police show up to the door in the first place,” Matlow said.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante says she has been talking with other mayors in the province about how public funds are distributed to law enforcement.
“This is a big, big conversation,” Plante said Monday when asked about the possibility of reforming Montreal’s police department.
“I think at this point there are a lot of good ideas coming.”
Interested in conversation
In Vancouver, Coun. Christine Boyle said she isn’t clear exactly how defunding would work, or what the best approach to it is, but she wants to have that conversation.
“I’m very interested in how we better support communities and front-line efforts to develop community safety themselves. And for that to mean a decreased need for policing and being able to shift that policing funding.”
Considering the police budget is more than 20 percent of the total city budget, it’s reasonable and responsible to be asking whether this is the best use of public safety funds, she said.
But implementing any kind of defunding policy could be challenging. The Vancouver Police Board already rejected a one percent budget cut that was approved by city council last month.
Still, Boyle said she’s hearing very clearly from residents across Vancouver that they are open to the conversation, particularly from Black and Indigenous communities, “who believe the current approach to policing and safety actually doesn’t make them feel safer in their home, in their community.”
But not all politicians are sold on the idea. Ontario Premier Doug Ford dismissed it during a news conference Tuesday.
“I don’t believe in that for a second,” he told reporters.
“I think we need strong police within the communities. What we do need to do is have a higher standard. We need for focus on more training.”
Meanwhile, the demand for police services remains high, said Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, an advocacy organization representing 60,000 police personnel across the country.
“What we are seeing across this country is a demand on the police is actually increasing year over year, and of course that drives costs and the need for funding and resources,” he said.
‘I think it’s unrealistic’
Stamatakis said police are responding to those calls with fewer sworn officers than ever before and relying more on civilian personnel, including psychologists and counselors, to assist them.
However, Stamatakis questioned the idea of a non-police specialist responding on their own to a potentially dangerous situation in an uncontrolled environment where someone is in crisis.
“I think it’s unrealistic,” he said. “You’re typically in an environment where you really don’t know a lot about the person you’re dealing with. When the police are called to deal with the mental-health crises, it’s because it’s a crisis.”
Hart, the Toronto Police Services Board chair, said it’s always good to have conversations about budgets. But the proposal for a police budget cut of 10 per cent? Absolutely not, he said.
“I don’t support saying cut any budget, I don’t care what the budget is, by any percentage amount without a full discussion of what the implications are,” he said.
“If you said to me, ‘By cutting a budget by 10 per cent, we have to stop doing A, B, C, D.’ And I agreed with you on A, B, C, D. That’s a different conversation. But saying cut by 10 per cent without any ramifications. Then I can’t agree with that blanket statement.”
Hart said between 2015 and 2019, dispatch calls for service in Toronto went up 7.6 per cent. But the number of deployed uniformed officers went down by 10 per cent, meaning the workload for officers during that period went up, he said.
If the decision is to have a conversation about defunding, then a decision will have to be made about what it is police are not going to do anymore,” Hart said.
“There would have to be an impact on officers. And when you look at the number of calls for service, that would almost have to mean that some calls are going to go unanswered.”