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Re-defining policing


Right now, there is an opportunity to make meaningful changes to the way our communities are policed. And I don’t mean cosmetic changes like the kind outlined in the Toronto Police Board's The Way Forward plan, which was launched in 2016 while I was sitting on that Board. I mean the deep, institutional changes we have needed for decades.

The galvanizing force comes not from the announced retirement of Mark Saunders, Toronto's Police Chief, but from the shocking video evidence of the police brutality that killed George Floyd. The "Defund" movement There are misconceptions swirling around the global activist movement known as “Defund The Police”. Consider this excerpt from last Sunday’s New York Times: “Advocates for police reform are making the case that the phrase “defund the police” doesn’t mean what many people think it means. “Be not afraid,” Christy E. Lopez, a Georgetown University law professor, wrote in The Washington Post. “‘Defunding the police’ is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds.” What it actually means, these advocates say, is reducing police budgets and no longer asking officers to do many jobs that they often don’t even want to do: resolving family and school disputes, moving homeless people into shelters and so on. Instead, funding for education, health care and other social services would increase. The challenge for advocates is that many people equate “defunding” with a major reduction in policing — and they don’t like that idea. Reducing police budgets is arguably the only high-profile reform idea that’s not popular:”

I have received thousands of emails since the deaths of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, many from right here in Don Valley North. As I read these emails, I suspect the same survey you saw above would produce similar results here in our community. And I doubt it's about saving money; rather, the Defund movement still has a ways to go in explaining that defunding is not just about cutting — it's about re-defining who should be responsible for keeping vulnerable people safe. As this global movement continues, it's becoming clear that "defund" really means pushing the reset button. It means starting over completely and creating a new map of services as if you were building the whole system from scratch. That includes disrupting the culture of police officers as the sole responders to society's challenges. It also includes breaking up the not-so-hidden practice of police union leadership acting as the arbiter of police culture and resisting needed change. Such things are necessary here in Toronto just as they are in the States. A case study Consider the case of Camden, New Jersey — at one time the most cash-strapped and also most dangerous city in the USA. Camden was struggling with crime and poverty while their local police force was bankrupting the city with no results.

So, Camden County disbanded the police force in 2012 and set up a new one. Every single officer was terminated, shown a new set of principles of safety and guardianship and made to re-apply for their jobs. The latest crime statistics in Camden show a 42 per cent drop in violent crime between 2012 and 2019. Overall crime has also dropped. Even more fascinating is that increased investment in education, housing and social services has led to economic growth and drastic improvements in graduation rates. Today, Camden police boil this down to one fundamental change: “Our police are guardians and not warriors.” On the first weekend of the George Floyd protests — while police cars rammed protesters with their cars in one American city — Camden’s police chief, Joseph Wysocki, walked alongside them.

What can Toronto do? We have our own community of "Defund The Police" protesters and they are passionate. They have watched as studies to improve policing in Toronto have been ordered, delivered and then passed on by like sushi boats travelling along a restaurant conveyor belt. We cannot ignore that people are dying in the presence of police. Across Canada they are disproportionately Black and Indigenous men. Here in the GTA, they're almost always Black.

Parents have to teach their young Black sons to move slowly and show their hands when they encounter police. Because no matter their personal background, they are more than twice as likely to have an encounter with police than a young white person. Recommendations What many people might not know is that the steps to change police culture have already been laid out for us. Years ago, Justices Frank Iacobucci and Michael Tulloch conducted separate, exhaustive studies and recommended sweeping changes in the areas of personal crisis response, police oversight and conduct. But as often happens, these recommendations were only partially implemented and only through the lens of status quo police culture. When Toronto City Council meets on June 30th, 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. This includes partnering with our provincial government to ensure professionals with proper training respond to people in crisis. Let both governments be open to the idea that this professional should not be an armed police officer. Most importantly, we must have a police service that does not view change as their enemy. We have to break out of a decades-long cycle of under-funding social services and then leaving the police to deal with the negative results. Although she's speaking from the American perspective, Senator Kamala Harris explained best what I am hoping to convey: Reporter: “Can I ask you about this idea of defunding the police? What’s your thinking on that idea?” Senator Harris: “Well, it’s a concept. We do have to reimagine what public safety looks like. And here’s the thing. It is status quo thinking to believe that putting more police on the streets creates more safety. That’s wrong. It’s just wrong. You know what creates more safety? Funding public schools, affordable housing, increased home ownership, job skill development, jobs, access to capital for those who want to start small businesses, or who are running small businesses in communities. But, no, we’re not going to get rid of the police. We all have to be practical. But let’s separate out these discussions. Many cities in our country spend one-third of their entire budget on policing. With all the responsibilities those cities have, one-third on policing? Put it in the context of the fact that over the last many decades, we have essentially been defunding public schools. If anyone thinks that the way we’re going to cure these problems is by putting more police on the street, they’re wrong.”

Kwasi Skene-Peters Andrew Loku Jermaine Carby Ian Pryce Sammy Yatim Michael Eligon D’Andre Campbell Regis Korchinski-Paquet

This is an incomplete list of people who have died in the presence of police only in this decade. All but Sammy Yatim were Black; most were in the throes of a mental health or personal crisis. We have to change the way we respond to people in crisis, especially where people of colour are involved. I don't want to see more names added to this list. We have come to a place and time in the world where change is possible, and leaders in policing across the world are committing to it. Toronto cannot squander this opportunity — we need to get on the same page.


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