Saturday marks eight months since a rally organized by the London, Ont., chapter of Black Lives Matter drew 10,000 people to the city’s downtown, but how have the calls to defund police that were issued at the rally been answered in the time since?
While some changes have been implemented by policy-makers, the group’s lead activist says they fall outside of what’s being sought by Black Lives Matter London.
The massive rally in Victoria Park on June 6, 2020, came less than two weeks after the death of George Floyd, a Black American man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police. Footage of the moments leading up to his death, in which an officer could be seen kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes, would later spark worldwide outrage and protests.
Black Lives Matter London would go on to organize more rallies throughout the summer.
Those in attendance voiced opposition to racial injustice and systemic racism, and called on officials to defund the police — a goal that aims to see municipal funds for police reallocated to initiatives that fight food insecurity and racism and support public health and affordable housing, according to a list of demands put forward by Black Lives Matter London.
In the City of London’s multi-year budget, policing is by far the largest item, taking up about 18 per cent of the average daily cost of municipal services to taxpayers.
That number is pulled from an update of the budget that was approved in January. The budget covers 2020 to 2023 and the next update is set to be drafted in late 2021.
The second-largest item is capital financing, which takes up 13 per cent of that share.
Elsewhere, housing services, the Housing Development Corporation and London and Middlesex Community Housing make up a combined total of less than five per cent.
Social and community support services and public support services share a combined total of less than four per cent.
In the time since last summer’s rallies, some funds within the police budget have been reallocated.
In June, the London Police Services Board (LPSB), a civilian board tasked with oversight of police, approved a number of reforms.
They included reallocating LPSB’s “annual travel budget towards training and engagement related to addressing anti-Black Racism” and deferring the hiring of new staff with the funding for that process. The funds were instead to be shifted to “a high priority item like homelessness prevention on a one-time basis.”
Black Lives Matter London’s lead activist Alexandra Kane acknowledges the reforms but says they still fall outside of what the group has been seeking.
“We were looking for more like, stripped-down to the bare to basically nothing, and rebuild the system so that it is most beneficial to the Londoners most impacted, which is Black and Indigenous Londoners,” Kane said.
Kane adds she’s been frustrated by the pace Black Lives Matter London has been presented with when it comes to defunding police.
“When I first started with all the work, there was this worldwide momentum of ‘let’s get this done, let’s get it done now,’ and as moments and momentums die down, we are sort of left with the legislation and the bureaucracy,” Kane said.
“I think this system is designed to put itself first and to keep itself intact, and then when you start talking about outside groups like the Black community or the Indigenous community, and you start talking about the changes and the redoing of the system that we need to survive … it’s just drawn out.”
While the first Black Lives Matter London protest took place last summer, Kane notes that their call to reframe the role of police services isn’t anything new.
“This has been a cry … from the beginning, from before the pandemic.
“Police brutality stems back for centuries.”
A move in September pitched by Chief Steve Williams and approved by LPSB transferred $500,000 from the London Police Services’ operating budget to fund the upcoming Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST).
Supt. Bill Chantler says COAST is aiming for an April launch and adds that the pilot project won’t be led by police.
Instead, it will be comprised of four members in a partnership between the Canadian Mental Health Association, St. Joseph’s Health Care, Middlesex-London Paramedic Services and London police. Each of those organizations will put forward one member to join the team.
Chantler says COAST aims to provide a health care-led and police-supported response to individuals dealing with crises related to mental illness, as opposed to a prior model that was police-led and health care-supported.
“We are planning to do an evidence-based analysis of our program at the end of the first year of the program,” Chantler said.
“We have engaged Dr. Craig Bennell from the Police Research Lab at Carleton University to conduct a research project on COAST.”
Bennell’s research project will provide an independent assessment and evaluation of the program, along with recommendations on how to improve COAST, according to Chantler.
While COAST was announced after the Black Lives Matter London summer rallies, Chantler says the program was in the works for nearly two years prior.
Continued calls to defund police were acknowledged by LPSB during a meeting of the board on Dec. 17, 2020.
Board chair Dr. Javeed Sukhera noted that he had received a number of emails on the topic of defunding police and submitted a memo to fellow board members in light of the correspondence. The memo can be found on the last page of that meeting’s agenda.
Sukhera wrote that while the board agrees “about the need for more funding to address mental health, addictions, poverty, and housing in our community,” the budget developed by LPSB is tied to the four-year budget cycle that the City of London has committed to.
“The last cycle resulted in engagement around a budget that was submitted and approved in January of 2020,” Sukhera said in an interview with Global News.
“We will begin work on the next budget as part of the cycle. We are very much supportive of public engagement and will likely be further engaging with the public about the next budget cycle towards the end of 2021.”
“I can appreciate that people feel or may feel that things are moving not at the pace that they would like. My response would be, ‘then come help us.’ Seven people on a public board aren’t going to be able to make major structural change, but join us and work with us towards those solutions,” Sukhera said.
Sukhera hopes that collaboration can be carried out, in part, through a pair of upcoming advisory panels, one focused on anti-racism and the other focused on mental health and addictions.
“We hope that those panels will also allow community members to engage with us on structural solutions (and) policy-based solutions that can help respond to those concerns in a meaningful way,” Sukhera said.
LPSB is striving to have diverse voices on the panels. The deadline to submit applications was on Jan. 31.
“We have a great amount of response and we’ve struck a separate selection committee. We’re going to start reviewing those applications and moving forward, developing transparent processes so everybody knows how it goes,” Sukhera said.
Sukhera, who is also a physician, along with an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Western University, says he understands that communities may be limited in their ability to engage with police based on past trauma.
“It’s important that we validate that trauma, that we hear it, that we recognize it, but we also work towards healing and trust-building,” Sukhera said.
“As a board, we’re here, we’re present and in whatever ways people are comfortable to engage with us in a trauma-informed way, we will continue to try to create those safe and brave spaces for that kind of engagement.”
Kane says Black Lives Matter London chose to not apply to the upcoming advisory panels, adding that the group has already made their concerns known to LPSB.
“You don’t have to pay me for it, I’m telling you this is what I want, I’m telling you this is what the community wants,” Kane said.
The group’s lead activist also worries the panels won’t go far enough in creating change.
“We don’t believe in reforming the system and I feel like this is one of those measures of reform … It needs to be completely replaced. Boil it down and then redo this whole system,” Kane said.
Kane points to the racism embedded in Canadian policing history as a need to rebuild from the ground up.
“I don’t think you can reform that. We are smart, forward-thinking people. We can remake a system, we can make a new system.”
Elsewhere in London’s policy-making sphere, city council is limited in its ability to adjust the budget for London police, according to Deputy Mayor Josh Morgan.
Detailing the budgeting process, Morgan notes that while city council approves the police budget submitted by LPSB, it’s up to the board to allocate the budget how board members see fit.
“Council has no discretion or influence over how they spend the money,” said Morgan, who also serves as council’s budget chair as well as the councillor for Ward 7.
“If we decrease the global amount, the board has the ability to appeal to a body called the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.”
Morgan says police services boards across Ontario are often successful in their appeals to the commission, which then results in municipalities having to restore reduced funding.
“It is not a mechanism that is really viable. We have tried it in the past — back in the last multi-year budget — and we ended restoring the funding that was reduced,” Morgan said.
“These are really critical discussions and part of the challenge that I think members of the public have in expressing their strong and correct views on this is that it is difficult to tell which jurisdiction has the ability to make the decisions.”
Morgan noted that boards in London are free to adjust their budget on an annual basis through the city-wide annual updates of the multi-year budget.
“The other opportunity is always through assessment growth. As we grow as a city, so do the needs of the police service, and in the past, they have reduced their assessment growth ask and asked (city council) to reallocate that to housing and homelessness initiatives,” Morgan said.
“Our next opportunity to discuss assessment growth asks will be in March, so coming up in just over a month. I do not know what business case has been submitted by the London Police Services, but I know that they are looking at these things carefully.”
While the pace of change at the policy level has been slow for Black Lives Matter London, Kane says they’re finding their stride when it comes to advocacy.
“The protests came before our organization really formed and got together, so now that the rallies and that sort of huge, major excitement has died down, we’re able to sort of lay everything out on the table and say, ‘okay, how do we move forward?'” Kane said.
“It’s not always a rally, it’s not always an email blast, sometimes it’s literally me calling and setting up a meeting … and having conversations with the people who make the laws.”
Elsewhere, Museum London has dedicated an exhibit to Black Lives Matter London. The installation is made up of signs from the June 6, 2020 protest and is being revisited virtually for Black History Month.
Black Lives Matter London is also teaming up with the Black London Network in support of Black History Month.
Kane says the initiative will see members create awareness and share “wonderful things about the Black community locally and beyond.”
“I’m hoping we can use this month as another springboard to create momentum to getting some real work done.”