Facing calls from the public to defund parts of the Ottawa Police Service (OPS), the chief of police and members of the board overseeing the local force said Monday they support calls to reform policing in Ottawa but noted any changes in funding or wider overhauls to the institution will be lengthy processes.
Delegations speaking to the Ottawa Police Services Board (OPSB) on Monday evening called on the oversight body, which is responsible for policy directions and crafting the annual budget for the OPS, to take immediate action to protect Black lives by removing funding from local police and allocating it to marginalized communities.
“The solution to police brutality and racial inequalities in policing is simple, as far as we see it: defund police,” said Robin Browne, who spoke Monday on behalf of the 613/819 Black Hub.
Calls to defund the police have been widespread across North America following numerous examples of police violence, particularly against members of Black and Indigenous communities.
The movement has seen Ottawa streets filled by two separate demonstrations, the most recent held this past Saturday, calling for an end to systemic anti-Black racism in the city and its police force.
Also speaking Monday was Farhia Ahmed, chair of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, which organized Saturday’s protest.
Ahmed told the OPSB that systemic racism is a public health threat that needs to be addressed with the same level of attention and action that Ottawa has given the novel coronavirus pandemic in recent weeks.
“The extra-judicial killings of Black, Indigenous and people of colour at the hands of police has become a pandemic,” she said.
L.A. (Sandy) Smallwood, the acting chair of the OPSB, acknowledged the public’s recent calls for reform and accountability in policing in Ottawa and around the world.
“I think we are all in agreement that there is a very strong need and call for change,” he said Monday.
Smallwood said he and other members of the board have followed the public conversations around reallocating police resources for social services such as addressing mental health crises.
Ahmed noted that the coalition has been lobbying to implement reforms like this in the OPS for years.
Two years ago Justice for Abdirahman submitted more than 40 recommendations to improve policing outcomes in Ottawa and has heard back only “non-committal, empty words” when asking for updates on these initiatives, she said.
In response to the delegations’ calls to defund the OPS, Smallwood said he was open to “rebalancing” how these services are delivered.
“I think we’ve sort’ve realized there is a time and place for police. But it’s not all the time and it’s not every place,” Smallwood said.
He noted that overhauling the way policing has been done in Ottawa and Canada at large will take time, but invited all members of the public to share their thoughts with the OPSB during its budget deliberations in the fall.
“Sometimes changes take time. I know that sounds like an excuse but it is a reality we face.”
Chief Peter Sloly pushes back on defund, disband calls
Speaking in prepared remarks as part of a verbal update to the board on Monday, OPS Chief Peter Sloly acknowledged the need for “systemic change” in policing in Canada.
He said conversations around police accountability are too often reduced to talking about “bad apples,” when it’s just as important to examine the “overall health of the tree” and its “branches” of oversight when attempting to impart lasting change in an institution.
“This is not the time for incremental change. This is not the time for resisting change. This is a time for systemic change,” he said.
He proposed a reframing of the police’s role in society, from the “thin blue line” of old to a “thin blue thread” that sees police woven into the other fabrics of society. He said he wanted to “align” policing with public health, social services and the non-profit sector to form a more reliable safety net for at-risk and vulnerable populations.
“We must change the operating model of policing from being simply the entry point into the criminal justice system to being a point of referral to a wide variety of integrated, non-criminal streams, many of which are far better positioned to solve both the symptoms and the underlying issues of crime in our communities,” Sloly said.
But Ottawa’s chief of police pushed back on calls to disband or defund the OPS or other policing bodies in Canada.
“Defunding and disbanding any institution is a complex issue and it requires careful analysis,” he said.
He noted that policing structures such as Ottawa’s are part of layers of government statutes at the federal, provincial and municipal levels overseeing emergency response models including fire and paramedic services.
Substituting any police jurisdiction with another service delivery method would require an overhaul of Canada’s justice system, he argued, and therefore require years of deliberation before widespread change is implemented.
He also noted other aspects of policing specific to the National Capital Region, such as protecting critical infrastructure for the federal government and responding to natural disasters such as flooding and tornadoes.
“The police therefore cannot simply be defunded or disbanded without massive impacts on the entire justice system, our national security systems and our ability to be resilient against Mother Nature,” he said.
Sloly also argued specifically against cutting the OPS budget, which he claimed would undercut internal reform work in the force.
The OPSB approved a motion Monday providing five recommendations to the chief of police to consider in his efforts to reform the OPS.
- Efforts to make the OPS more equitable should explicitly include all members of the force, inclusive of men, women, Black and Indigenous officers and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
- Redesign long-standing structures and systems in the OPS to be more equitable, based on recommendations from stakeholders and members of the community.
- Track incidents of discrimination and bias not currently accounted for in current OPS complaint systems.
- Review the OPS racial profiling policy.
- Establish a partnership with the City of Ottawa’s new anti-racism secretariat.