After damning numbers from Canada’s largest police force proving what Black and other racialized communities have known for decades — that Toronto police have indeed used disproportionate force against them — the question now is what accountability might look like.
Ask Black Lives Matter Canada co-founder Sandy Hudson and the answer is one she and countless other community activists have been calling for for years: “Defund the police.”
“It’s the one solution that no one wants to talk about and it is the one solution that we know will be effective,” she said.
Hudson spoke to CBC News in the wake of the force unveiling never-before-seen data, mandated by the province. Among the findings: police used force against Black people about two times more than their share of the population; and that compared to white people, Black people were 1.5 times more likely to have an officer’s gun pointed at them.
“Defund” is a word that harkens back to what was seen as a moment of reckoning on police violence, sparked by the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests in cities worldwide, fuelling questions from in this city about whether Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Andrew Loku, Sammy Yatim, and many more might still be alive if not for the colour of their skin.
In the time since, Toronto’s police chief has moved on, an interim chief was brought in and a proposal to slash the police budget by 10 per cent — to redirect some $107 million to community services — was voted down by city council in favour of reforms proposed by Mayor John Tory, including the creation of a non-police response team for mental health calls and implementing body-worn cameras.
In Toronto, the police service is the single-biggest line item in the city’s $13.5-billion operating budget.
Reform ‘not what we need,’ says activist
Asked for his reaction to the question of defunding at a Wednesday news conference, Chief James Ramer responded: “When we hear that discussion, I think what the community is talking about is reform and it’s talking about modernization of the police service.”
Ramer went on to cite the force’s support for diverting certain 911 calls to a crisis centre, saying doing so has freed up officers to respond to where they may be needed most.
But for Hudson, “reform” is not a replacement for defunding.
“That is absolutely not true. That’s not what we need. Reform has been attempted over the decade,” she said. “What hasn’t been done is taking the power away from police to harm us…. I want to see that action.”
Exactly what defunding means can differ depending on who you ask. Some have called for an outright abolition of police forces, while others favour reducing police budgets so that their work focuses more squarely on violent crime.
Michael Thompson, deputy mayor and Toronto’s only Black city councillor, says he believes the idea of defunding police is a non-starter.
“I do not support this notion of defunding the police. The police are necessary agents of our society to help to keep the peace. Without them, quite frankly, I think many of us would have sleepless nights,” he said. “Frankly, we need police.”
Still, he says, the chief’s apology over the overpolicing of Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities is “just noise” without concrete “equity-based” reform.
Accusations of racism against members ‘unfounded’: TPA
Jon Reid, president of the Toronto Police Association, the union representing the city’s officers, told CBC News he supports certain calls, such as some involving mental health, being handled through non-police responses, but that that can’t come “at the expense of frontline policing.”
Reid says the association also supports any of the force’s 38 recommendations that call for more data collection, saying “greater transparency is always a good thing.” Some of the other recommendations, involving training on bias and de-escalation, have been underway for two decades, he said.
(In 2003, the TPA filed a lawsuit against the Toronto Star over reporting showing Black people were treated more harshly by Toronto police, arguing the articles libelled its members as racist. The lawsuit was thrown out the same year.)
Still, Reid said, he had concerns about some of the data presented Wednesday, saying it lacked context about what led to situations where police used force.
“Unfortunately recently officers are being painted somewhat — some of them — as racist. And that’s unfounded, quite honestly.”
Systemic racism built by racist individuals, say advocates
At Wednesday’s news conference, Ramer also made a point of noting that the data, which is anonymized, highlights the problem of systemic racism and isn’t meant to identify “individual acts of racism” by officers, which he says can be addressed through other channels.
But for some, that’s a distinction simply can’t be drawn.
“Systemic racism isn’t some sort of phenomenon without someone who’s responsible,” said Hudson. “When a police officer is … more likely to use force on a Black person, that is a racist decision that is being support by a system that never holds anybody accountable for that.”
Notisha Massaquoi, an assistant professor with the department of health and society at the University of Toronto Scarborough, who spent three years leading the process to develop the force’s race-based data collection policy, had a similar message.
“You cannot have systemic racism in an organization if it is not supported by racist people, racist policies, racist values, racist attitudes and racist behaviours,” she said.
As part of its data release, the force also put forward 38 recommendations, many centred on training and developing strategies. They include engaging with Black, Indigenous and other communities to understand the data and discuss a path forward, implementing a mandatory review of body-worn camera footage for all use-of-force incidents, and requiring officers on probation during their first year of service to debrief with supervisors after use of force incidents.
Mayor ‘does not support’ defunding
Tory’s office said Thursday that he believes in “investing in eliminating systemic racism in the Toronto Police Service.”
“But the mayor has been very clear that he believes that we cannot shortchange public safety given that we hear from communities across the city which are in fact asking for additional investment in police resources.”
The idea that policing can be trusted to reform themselves — it has not proven to be the case. So why would we believe them now?– Sam Tecle
“The mayor will continue to strongly support policing reforms which will rebuild trust…. And while he will continue to oversee prudent financial management of all resources allocated for policing, he does not support the significant, often arbitrary, reductions advocated by some.”
Still, many say the path forward requires more imagination.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, faculty member at department of sociology at the University of Toronto, says while he favours the term “detasking” to “defunding,” the bottom line is: “We need to consider the fact that if we had police intervening less in the lives of individuals, there would be less opportunity for force to be used, less opportunity for them to be strip-searched.”
As for whether police forces can be relied on to carry out that change, Owusu-Bempah said, “Absolutely not.”
“Police have no interest in the kind of reform that we would want to see under a defunding or a detasking mandate.”
Police can play a role in that process, but it’s a job he says needs to be in the hands of the public and politicians.
Indeed, says Sam Tecle, professor of sociology at Toronto Metropolitan University, “For many communities, police literally do not introduce safety.”
“The idea that policing can be trusted to reform themselves — it has not proven to be the case. So why would we believe them now?”
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