Time to ‘defund the police’? Outrage over brutality, racism in U.S. casts new light on Toronto’s police budget

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Would Regis Korchinski-Paquet still be alive if a mental health nurse had turned up when her family called 911, instead of just police officers?

What about D’Andre Campbell or Andrew Loku? Or Sammy Yatim?

The answer to that might never be known.

But as protests over police brutality and racism erupt across the United States and beyond, sparked by the case of George Floyd — an unarmed black man whose final moments were spent with an officer’s knee pressed into his neck — one refrain is growing louder and louder: “Defund the police.”

Exactly what that means can differ somewhat depending on who you ask. While some have called for an outright abolition of police forces, many others favour reducing police budgets so that their work focuses more squarely on violent crime. But the sentiments behind it stem from a singular question when it comes to dealing with people in mental distress: 

“Is that armed, highly-paid officer the right resource for that function?” asked Alok Mukherjee, who spent a decade as the chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. 

Defunding the police, for Mukherjee, begins with asking, “What percentage of the police officers’ work involves drawing the gun? Dealing with violent crime? And what percentage of the work involves social issues?

“I think the pressure right now around defunding creates an opportunity for people to be seriously thinking about these issues,” said Mukherjee, who first wrote a paper asking those very questions about a decade ago.

Single-biggest line item in Toronto’s budget

In Toronto, the police service is the single-biggest line item in the city’s $13.5-billion operating budget. Out of an average property tax bill of $3,020, the largest share — about $700 — is allocated to police. That’s followed by about $520 for transit. Shelters and housing take up about $150, while about $60 goes to paramedic services.

Over the past several years, the police budget has risen past the $1-billion mark. It first hit that mark in 2015, with Mayor John Tory saying at the time, “We can’t afford to keep the cost going up.”

There was talk of reducing the size of the force, with the mayor suggesting the service might need to shed some of its 5,400 officers.

Still, the budget increased by nearly $41 million last year, with nearly 90 per cent going toward salaries. 

Toronto has seen police officers stationed in schools, called on to respond to mental health crises and embedded in neighbourhoods to foster community ties. 

Time to 'defund the police'? Outrage over brutality, racism in U.S. casts new light on Toronto's police budget
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, believes the key to improving police-community relations is to change police culture. (CBC)

Those, according to University of Toronto sociology professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, are just some of the ways in which police have been asked to do more and more over the course of the last few decades.

“In much of the West in the 1980s and 1990s, when we saw the defunding of a variety of very important social services, the police were often left to pick up the slack and their budgets reflect that,” said Owusu-Bempah.

“We’ve seen a proliferation of gang-intervention and prevention programs that include funding for the police … rather than simply providing after-school services, education services, extracurricular activities and sports activities for young people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods,” he said.

About 30,000 mental health calls each year

Owusu-Bempah says he’s not a “police abolitionist,” but thinks a serious distinction has to be drawn between what the police are and are not.

“They’re not educators, they’re not social support workers,” he said

“I want the police to keep my community safe, and unfortunately the reality for many people is… the police are ill-equipped to do many of those things.” 

WATCH | Black Lives Matter co-founder Sandy Hudson on defunding the police:

As anti-black racism and anti-police brutality protests continue after the death of George Floyd in police custody — calls are reignited to defund, or even abolish the police. For more, CBC’s Carole MacNeil speaks with Black Lives Matter co-founder Sandy Hudson. 10:28

Out of the nearly one million calls Toronto police respond to every year, about 30,000 are mental health calls, said spokesperson Meaghan Gray.

“It is important to note that all police officers are trained to respond to mental health issues,” Gray said, adding annual training consists of courses on communication and de-escalation techniques.

The Toronto police mobile crisis intervention teams, where a trained officer and a mental health nurse respond to those in crisis, attend 6,000 of those calls each year. Those teams do not go to calls where a weapon may be involved.

That was the case with Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chief Mark Saunders told reporters last week. He said Toronto police received three calls for an assault with two saying a knife was involved.

The 29-year-old’s relatives have said police were called because of a family conflict that left Korchinksi-Paquet in distress. Claudette Korchinski-Beals, her mother, has said she asked police to take her daughter to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health to get her help, but that instead, she ended up dead. 

“I’m not going to send a nurse to a knife fight,” Saunders said when asked why a crisis team didn’t respond.

The province’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, is looking into the circumstances surrounding Korchinski-Paquet’s fall 24 storeys to her death last week when she was alone with police inside her family’s apartment.

‘Naive to reduce police officers’ for now: chief

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Saunders spoke about the strain on the police service saying, “Why do we do over 30,000 calls for mental health? We are law-enforcement.”

But when he was asked if he would be willing to take a hit to the police budget to free up more money for community groups doing that kind of work, Saunders wouldn’t answer directly. 

This is not about saying that we shun the police from our community…– Stachen Frederick 

Over the past 12 years, Saunders said, police have been the “de facto” service in terms of responding to mental health crises across the city. — especially between the hours of 4 p.m. and 6 a.m.. 

“Right now, we’ve got a responsibility and we’ve got a role and that role is to keep the community safe. Now, we need other agencies to help offload those responsibilities … then we can start talking about reduction.

Until then, he said, “It would be naive to reduce police officers.”

‘Intervention is not better than prevention’

Stachen Frederick, executive director of the Frontlines community centre in the Weston area, says reallocating some of the funding to services like the one she oversees, with the capacity to support the specific needs of the neighbourhoods they work in, would go a long way. 

She says many youth workers can find themselves in precarious situations because unpredictable funding makes it difficult for the young people they serve to develop lasting relationships with them.

Besides, the work police do in her community is often about intervention, not prevention, Frederick says.

“This is not about saying that we shun the police from our community, the police are there to serve and protect, the same as teachers are there to teach,” she said.

“When you look at police and engaging in supporting police initiatives, that’s a policing of the community. And we know that intervention is not better than prevention.”

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