In recent days, protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality have erupted across the U.S. and Canada in response to the deaths of Black Americans George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor.
Now, some advocates are calling for police forces to be defunded and taxpayer money to be redirected — a conversation that is also happening in Canada, stemming from the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black and Indigenous woman who fell from her Toronto apartment balcony after police entered the unit.
Police claim they were responding to a reported assault, but the family has questioned the role of the police in her death. The Special Investigations Unit, Ontario’s police watchdog, is currently investigating.
Defunding the police means redirecting the budget for Canada’s police forces to other services that focus on social supports, mental health and even spaces like transit, said Sandy Hudson, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter Toronto and a law student at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“There’s no reason why we can’t start a service that is another emergency response service where people can call a number and have someone who is trained in de-escalation,” Hudson said.
Now, with more incidents of police brutality in the news, calls for defunding the police both in the U.S. and Canada are louder than ever.
The history of police in Canada
This is hardly the first time defunding the police has been talked about in Canada, experts told Global News.
Examining the way police uphold and participate in anti-Black racism and violence towards Black and Indigenous communities in Canada has been a discussion for decades, said Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
“Part of it is discrimination within policing — both implicit and explicit — but then the other parts of it are how the police operate and what we’re asking police to do,” he said.
The origins of policing in the southern United States were based on preserving the slavery system, as Time magazine reports, and police were primarily tasked with being “slave patrols” to prevent Black slaves from escaping. After the Civil War ended, these patrols still existed to uphold segregation and discrimination towards Black people.
Police in Canada were historically also tasked with “clearing the land” to steal the property of Indigenous Peoples, said Hudson.
“Those two focuses of the police, Indigenous and Black people, controlling us … there’s a through line to today and how the police interact with our communities,” she said.
Policing has been used to enforce the dominant narrative in Canada, which is colonization, said Alicia Boatswain-Kyte, a social work professor at McGill University whose research examines systemic oppression.
“These institutions are a product of (colonialism); they stem from that,” she said. “Right now we’re seeing what it looks like at this stage … and it gets manifested in the form of police brutality.”
Mental health, homelessness and other social issues
Experts are concerned that police in Canada are tasked with issues related to poverty, mental health and homelessness, and they are “ill-equipped and an inappropriate resource to be addressing those issues,” Owusu-Bempah said.
A 2018 report on racial profiling by the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that a Black person was 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by Toronto police. The report was the result of an inquiry launched after Andrew Loku, a father of five who was experiencing mental health issues, died after being shot by police.
A coroner’s inquest ruled that Loku’s death was the result of a homicide and recommended that police are better trained if they are to deal with mental health calls.
“The violence we see inflicted by the police are often happening with people who are having a mental health crisis,” said Hudson.
Shifting the money to fund organizations that understand the nuances of mental health issues and the challenges faced by racialized communities would be a better use of taxpayers’ money, she said.
Out of the nearly one million calls the force responds to, Toronto police respond to about 30,000 mental health calls every year, spokeswoman Meaghan Gray told the Canadian Press.
The force’s mobile crisis intervention teams — which include a trained officer and a mental health nurse — attend only 6,000 of those calls each year because they do not go to calls where a weapon may be involved.
Annual training for the force includes courses on communication and deescalation techniques, said Gray.
“The Toronto Police Service believes that mental health is a complex issue that requires the involvement of multiple entities, including but not limited to community support, public health, and all levels of government, to render any meaningful change,” she said.
It would be better if a mental health nurse or some other trained expert was always present, Boatswain-Kyte said.
“Are they (police) really the ones that are best suited?” she said.
“Social workers, for instance, go to school to understand how to form relationships, to understand how people are excluded and what factors contribute to their exclusion.”
By making police the body available to provide help in these situations, Boatswain-Kyte said, it sends a message that people with those health issues aren’t welcome in our society.
“Regardless of the amount of training … the implicit bias as a result of what (police) have been socialized to believe and understand about the ‘dangers’ of Black and brown bodies is going to influence them at the time when they have to make a decision.”
Boatswain-Kyte points to a study published in May from Columbia University that found there is “no evidence that enhanced police training focused on mental health crises” can reduce fatal shootings towards those having a mental health crisis, or racialized people in general.
By the numbers
In Toronto, the largest portion of a resident’s property tax bill — around $700 out of an average bill of $3,020 — goes to the Toronto Police Service. The lowest portion of property taxes goes to children’s services, Toronto employment and social services and economic development and culture.
The situation is similar elsewhere in the country, as the Vancouver police budget has grown by more than $100 million in the last decade, representing about one-fifth of the city’s $1.6-billion 2020 operating budget.
A 2014 report published by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute found that policing budgets in Canada had doubled compared to the GDP since 2004, even though the public calls to police have “remained stable.”
“Police associations have been happy to stoke public fears about safety, but the correlation between numbers of officers, crime rates and response times has long been shown to be spurious,” the report said, authored by Christian Leuprecht, a political science professor at Queen’s University and Royal Military College.
Police work that is essentially unrelated to policing could be done by other groups, Leuprecht explains.
Owusu-Bempah is calling on city mayors like Toronto Mayor John Tory to review which roles and functions we want the police to provide and which should be provided by other agencies.
“Then we need a lot of (the) funding currently spent on police … given to other organizations” that are better equipped to help with issues like homelessness and mental illness, he said.
Given the recent incidents of anti-Black racism and brutality perpetuated by police, Hudson says defunding the police would also give agency and safety to Black communities.
“How could the body that is ostensibly meant to provide safety for our communities … be one of the reasons we keep getting hurt?” Hudson said.
“Most people don’t have to interact with police at all … but for our communities, they’re targeting us.
“We just want to live like everybody else.”
— With files from the Canadian Press