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Changing policing must go deeper than budget cuts alone

If you have someone in your life who lives with mental illness or some cognitive disability that causes unexplained behaviours — and many of us do — you worry a lot about their future. You shouldn’t have to worry they’ll end up dead after an encounter with police. But in Toronto, if that someone in your life is a person of colour, that’s exactly what you worry about every day. In our city, the issues of race and mental health converge, and far too often with tragic results.

My proposal I discussed this in my column a couple of weeks ago after the death of George Floyd in the States and Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto. Since then, I have been working every day on a motion to Council that will enact changes to our policing system. The broad community call for change happening across Toronto means this motion can result in real action. Let me remind you what I said on June 11th: “When Toronto City Council meets on June 29th, there will be a spirited debate on the 2021 police budget. I am working to build support for motions that will seize this moment and implement changes now. As I mentioned above, the studies have already been done — there is no reason to delay. I want to draw from these past studies and take the steps needed to ensure Black and all people of colour are safe in their own city. Not only that, I want them to grow up knowing Toronto is fully invested in their success.” The motions I referenced in that column have now been rolled into one long, multi-faceted motion that will be moved by Mayor Tory. My list of recommendations were improved through the input of other Councillors, some of the best staff in City Hall and, of course, the Mayor's staff team. The most important addition is Councillor Thompson’s insistence that the Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism be attached to the motion and expedited.

With Councillor Thompson’s addition, this motion now represents two sides of a very important ledger. First, we need to change the way police interact with Black Torontonians. We give several recommendations on how to get there; however, real change is only possible when we confront anti-Black racism in all our institutions — not just policing. The opportunities in the Action Plan were designed by Black community leaders to achieve just that. For me, it is important and strategic that this motion be introduced by Mayor Tory. His membership on the Toronto Police Services Board ensures the motion will be taken seriously by the Board, once Council adopts it. As Mayor, John is best positioned to insist that the provincial government, who legally define the role of police in Ontario through the Police Services Act, do whatever is required of them to make these changes. John also knows from my past work on the Police Board that, once this huge motion passes, I won't forget about it — I will work doggedly to bring every part of it to fruition. The Defund movement Now, I want to speak directly to the thousands of people who have written to me about the "Defund the Police" movement and the motion authored by my colleague, Councillor Matlow, to immediately cut the police budget by 10 per cent.

I have chosen a different route by collaborating with the Mayor and others on a separate motion. Initially, I hoped to bring together what I was working on with Councillor Matlow’s, but at the end of the day the two motions represent different approaches. A 10 per cent cut to the police budget is an arbitrary change that will not cause the culture shift we need. Just having fewer police officers won't change anything — we need to go deeper than that. Make no mistake: this motion I am supporting will result in a reduction to the Toronto Police Budget and funds will be reallocated to social services. It will redefine policing by removing police from tasks that don't require armed officers or do not achieve the best results. These actions will fundamentally change the police system as we know it. A motion that hinges on a number makes that number the media célèbre. If the Toronto Police Service were tasked to find $122 million in cuts by October, the conversation would be about that number. It needs to be about how we serve and protect Black and Indigenous Torontonians — particularly those in crisis. Mental health response The demand I hear most is that someone other than an officer armed with deadly weapons should be responding to a person in the throes of a mental health crisis. I agree — damn straight. That recommendation dates as far back as the death of Lester Donaldson in 1988. By 2014, Justice Frank Iacobucci proposed that our Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams (MCITs) be expanded. The MCIT dispatches a mental health nurse to attend calls involving people with mental health issues alongside police officers. Under current police practices, the MCIT is treated as a second response team, but Justice Iacobucci recommended they be the first responders to the scene. Chief Bill Blair held Justice Iacobucci’s report high, declaring it ground-breaking and promised "it would not gather dust." But where Blair found the report most useful was its recommendation that the use of Tasers be piloted, which was implemented rapidly. The recommendation that MCITs become first responders is indeed gathering dust. Today, armed police officers get dispatched to 911 calls for EDPs — "Emotionally Disturbed Persons." Once they decide the site is safe, they allow in the MCIT. If these specially-trained mental health nurses were first on the scene instead, could they have saved Regis Korchinski-Paquet? Could they have de-escalated the situation instead of shouting the same thing for 20 seconds at Andrew Loku and spared his life? Is it possible they might have convinced Michael Eligon, in his hospital gown, to stop walking for a moment and think about where he was so he wouldn’t be gunned down in the street? I wish they could have been allowed to try. That’s the recommendation at the heart of the motion I have worked so hard on. These are urgent conversations that need to be had and then move rapidly to implementation — right now.


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