Toronto must find a new way to deal with people in mental health crisis and root out racism within its police force, concerned citizens said Thursday at a virtual town hall about police reform.
And the money to fund these new initiatives should come out of the existing police budget, many said.
The meeting _ launched by the city’s police board — comes amid calls to defund the force, which has come under criticism for its handling of mental health calls, some of which have resulted in people in crisis being fatally shot.
“When we send police to a mental health call we criminalize disability,” said Cybele Sack, a Toronto citizen who spoke at the town hall.
“Creating a new mental health service is an opportunity to innovate in service of the community with better outcomes and greater trust.”
Demand to speak at the meeting was so high that the board added three more dates to accommodate everyone who signed up, though many did not show up to the virtual town hall Thursday morning.
Late last month, city council voted against a cut to the force’s budget, but passed a motion proposing a suite of changes to policing that includes anti-racism measures and the implementation of body-worn cameras.
The calls for reform come in the wake of the U.S. police killing of George Floyd, a Black man from Minneapolis, and the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman who fell from her balcony while police were in her Toronto home. Korchinski-Paquet’s family has said they called police because she was in distress and needed help for her mental health.
Beverley Salmon, who became Toronto’s first Black city councillor in 1985, said it’s time for a culture change within the force.
“I have two sides to my family tree, the white side that experienced polite interactions with the police and the black side not so much,” said Salmon, who is the co-founder of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.
“In fact, on both sides, we’re reluctant to call the police on mental health issues.”
She said now is the time for change, she said, suggesting an outsider should take the helm of the force after Chief Mark Saunders retires at the end of July.
The new chief should be someone who “is not steeped in the current culture and can bring about the true systemic changes that are needed in policing,” she said.
Saunders acknowledged to the police board a few weeks ago that systemic racism exists within his force.
Salmon said she used to work with new recruits at the police college in Aylmer, Ont., decades ago for race-relations training. She said the entire training program at the college needs an overhaul as does recruitment.
“We need individuals who have the mentality to offer policing with sensitivity to the various people they serve,” she said.
Jacqueline Edwards, president of the Association of Black Law Enforcers, urged the board to create an environment in which racism within the force can be called out without fear of repercussions.
“As a Black professional in the field of public safety and justice, I can tell you very personally that there really is a need for Black and racialized leaders within (Toronto police) to feel supported and encouraged to stand out and call out racism,” Edwards said.
She said a fragile trust has long existed between law enforcement and the Black community.
“I’d like to also reiterate we as an organization are very aware of the real and perceived danger posed by unchecked systemic racism, racial profiling and the disproportionate use of force against Black people in the western world,” she said.
Some called for police to wear body cameras while others said that would be a waste of money. Saunders and Mayor John Tory have said they will be fast-tracking body-worn cameras to officers later this year.
Jaya Balkisoon said money earmarked for police should be invested in other areas.
“Why isn’t there money for mental health crisis teams, but there is money for weapons?” she said.