The Canadian public continues its demands for governmental action regarding institutionalized racism within law enforcement.
Calls for decreasing police authority and jurisdiction in addition to constricting their funds have significantly increased internationally since the untimely death of George Floyd, an American killed by an arresting police officer on May 25, 2020. Although this incident took place in the United States, people across the globe were reasonably outraged and organized rallies to call for change.
Canada Joins International Movements
Two days after Floyd’s death, Toronto resident Regis Korchinski-Paquet fell to her death from an apartment balcony on May 27, 2020. Her death was considered suspicious by multiple family members who then called for an investigation into the law enforcement officers present at the scene.
Although the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) reviewed the incident, they declared the officers involved to be innocent of any malpractice or misconduct. However, many citizens, including Korchinski-Paquet’s family, were unsatisfied with the investigation and multiple protests were organized across Canada.
On May 30, almost 4,000 Toronto residents came together in a rally coordinated by Not Another Black Life, a Canadian political organization. Following these events, Canada became one of the most active and forceful centres for protests against institutionalized racism in law enforcement.
Defunding Police Services
The movement, which calls for tightened law enforcement funds, has accumulated many different meanings and interpretations in the media. While some state it demands the decrease of taxpayer money allotted to police intuitions, others have argued the movement requires the complete discontinuation of government funds toward law enforcement.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM), has played an essential role in the discussions surrounding Canadian law enforcement and the oppression of black and indigenous citizens.
With most of his work focused on criminal justice, policing, and race, Owusu-Bempah is the go-to expert for media outlets and independent researchers. In an interview with The Londoner, following a rally outside of London city hall, Owusu-Bempah provided a much-needed analysis of what it meant to defund the police.
“The mainstream definition [of defunding the police is] reassigning some of the roles, responsibilities, functions that we currently assign to the police to other organizations, agencies, or institutions that are better equipped and resourced to fulfil those roles,” he stated. “Relatedly, reallocating the funds we currently give the police to do those things.”
Black Lives Matter and the Police Operating Budget
Black Lives Matter (BLM), an international organization targeting acts of discrimination and brutality by law enforcement officials, aims to bring an end to the oppression of black and indigenous communities.
“There is no Black Liberation without Indigenous Liberation,” states the Canadian chapter of BLM.
BLM Canada addresses the main concerns of the ‘defund police’ movement and expands its demand to four core principles. They request that the government defund, demilitarize, disarm, and dismantle law enforcement.
The 2020 operating budget for law enforcement in Toronto alone is $1.22 billion, making up almost 10 per cent of the city’s entire annual budget.
On June 8, 2020, councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Josh Matlow put forward a motion to the Toronto city council requesting a 10 per cent decrease in law enforcement funds. They stated that the money retained from this cut, adding up to $122 million, could be spent on strengthening and supporting local communities.
Although Wong-Tam and Matlow’s motion was denied, the city council approved the proposal on law enforcement reform presented by Toronto mayor John Tory on June 29. The council’s approach to the issue paralleled the stance of Mark Saunders, the Toronto police chief at that time.
Saunders had stated that he was entirely against the initial motion to reduce funding but was supportive of the proposal to improve Toronto police services. However, he believed there were no current feasible alternatives to officers’ practices .
Moreover, the Toronto police’s 2020 budget request, as published on their website, states that it is appealing for a net four per cent increase over the 2019 budget, with more than half of it dedicated to increasing salaries and benefits.
Toronto Police of Chief Resigns Unexpectedly
Shortly after the tragic events which ignited the call to defund the police and the council’s decisions, Saunders, who had been the police chief since 2015, resigned on July 31, eight months sooner than outlined in his contract without providing an official explanation. This act was considered by many Toronto residents to be sudden and highly unusual as Saunders was one of the two officers in his position who was ever elected to serve a second term in the past four decades.
Mayor Tory’s reform proposal to the council requested that police services provide the council with an in-depth account of their budget and have it reviewed by the auditor general. This request raised some questions about the city’s law enforcement’s transparency and accountability before 2020. The council’s decision also stated that by January 2021, all officers will be supplied with body cameras, a policy which has been opposed by local police unions for many years.
Canadian Police Boards Fight for Budget Increases
Similar motions were presented in other cities and provinces. On May 13, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart and the city council approved a motion to decrease the Vancouver police services’ 2020 operating budget by one per cent.
It is important to note that the budget dedicated to police services in Vancouver constitutes 20 per cent of the city’sannual budget. However, Barj Dhahan, the chair of the Vancouver police board finance committee, responded to the council’s decision via a letter, which was later acquired by CTV News, and requested that they retract their approval of the motion.
“The board has carefully considered the implications of council’s motion and remains firm that protecting the wellbeing of the community through adequate resourcing of our police department is paramount, in particular during these uncertain times,” stated Dhahan, speaking on behalf of the Vancouver police board.
Much like the attitude of the Toronto police, the Vancouver police board’s main concern regarding a potential funding cut was staffing and the integrity of their ongoing operations.
“The result of the current budget has just now returned the department to 2009 staffing levels; any reduction in staffing or a set target of a one per cent reduction to the budget is not viable and would be detrimental to public safety,” argued Dhahan.
Before concluding the letter, Dhahan emphasized that the Vancouver police board, alongside the police department and the chief constable, is not obligated to follow the city council’s directions. This statement essentially dismisses the council’s decision and refutes any authority it may have over the police board.
“Given the unique characteristics of the policing function, legislation across Canada has placed a police board between the municipal council and the police department as an independent and autonomous authority,” Dhahan continued. “The police department takes its direction from the municipal police board and not the municipal council.”
Police Open to Reform (But Not Budget Cuts)
Law enforcement officials across Canada have expressed that they are against the restriction of their funds but are open to recommendations to help reform and enhance their practices.
On July 10, Blue Line, an independent law enforcement magazine whose readership is mostly officers, published an interview with Judith Andersen, an associate professor of psychology at UTM. Andersen discussed the current structure of the police force within law enforcement and how it can be improved.
Andersen is the professor leading the HART Lab at UTM with research programs such as evidence-based police training, the implicit racial bias associations test, and police lethal force behavior. Andersen’s research analyzes the Implicit Attitudes Test as a potential screening procedure for incoming officers and its effectiveness in identifying racial bias among law enforcement officers to prevent racially motivated shootings.
New Chief of Police
Following the resignation of Mark Saunders in Toronto, residents were left with unanswered questions, wondering who will take over the role of chief of police and, more importantly, who should. Owusu-Bempah addressed these concerns in an interview with The Toronto Star.
“We need a new chief that will recognize the gravity of the moment, and not waste the potential for meaningful progress that the current calls for reform provide,” said Owusu-Bempah.
He went on to state that he is hopeful of the police board’s ability to choose a qualified chief of police, but if they fail to address the public’s demands, “they’ll lose more support and respect from an already skeptical public.”
While members of the Toronto police board are selecting the new chief of police, James Ramer has temporarily taken over for Saunders. During his first press conference as interim chief of police, Ramer affirmed that police services wouldbe reporting to the SIU for each event officers are involved in, regardless if the incident took place on or off duty.
SIU Under Criticism
The SIU is also among the law enforcement bodies under criticism for discrimination and bias. According to the Canadian Press, of the 167 total members active in the SIU, 111 are former law enforcement officers, making up over 66 per cent of the unit. Additionally, the information provided by the provincial units themselves, excluding British Columbia, shows that only 20 individuals within the SIU identify as a person of colour, making up 11 per cent of all members.
Many institutions have expressed their support of the BLM movement and their calls to defund police services. Among them is the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, the nation’s leading mental health hospital.
In June, following police involvement in the deaths of three civilians experiencing psychiatric crises, CAMH officials expressed their position on law enforcement reform, supporting the movements which called for decreasing their funds.
One of the three individuals tragically killed by police officers was Mississauga resident and father of four, Ejaz Choudry. On June 20, police responded to a non-emergency call from Choudry’s family. They were worried about the 62-year-old’swell-being struggling with schizophrenia, as they were suspicious he had stopped taking his medication.
The family called the authorities in hopes that paramedics, not the police, would respond to the call, help him through his mental health crisis, and take him to the hospital if need be. However, instead of recognizing the fragility of any emergencies involving people struggling with mental health issues and approaching with caution, the police arrived at the scene by entering Choudry’s apartment through a balcony on the second floor.
According to his family, Choudry, who didn’t understand English, was in his apartment alone, suffering a mental breakdown, suicidal, and armed with a single pocketknife. The ensuing investigation revealed that the officers involved didn’t wait for the negotiator’s arrival before entering the apartment and tried to appease the crisis via rubber bullets and stun guns. But one officer was eventually compelled to fire his gun, killing the 62-year-old then and there.
Hassan Choudhary, Choudry’s nephew, stated that the officers should have at least waited for his family to arrive at the scene to talk to their uncle and try to calm him down.
“You have this man with all these medical conditions who can barely stand up, and instead of helping him and prevent him from killing himself, you go in and kill him?” Choudhary questioned in an interview with CBC News.
In a June 23 statement, CAMH emphasized the need for new policies surrounding crisis response. They stated that law enforcement officers should never be the first to respond to calls involving mental health crises and suggested an adaptation of successful international programs and procedures.
“For too long, the health care system has relied on police to respond to mental health crises in the community,” read the statement. “Transformative change is needed to support a new way forward. People with mental illness and their families deserve better.”
This sentiment was also upheld in local discussions. On July 9, the Peel Regional Council approved a motion that called for reducing officer presence in emergency calls involving mental health concerns.The motion was presented by Dipika Damerla, the councillor of Mississauga ward seven, who hopes that change is implemented soon and prevent tragedies like that of Ejaz Choudry. However, as detailed in the 1990 Mental Health Act of Ontario, only law enforcement officers have the authority to detain and escort an individual in crisis to the hospital. Damerla stated that she hopes the provincial government responds to her concerns, which are shared by many others, and re-evaluates the outdated Mental Health Act to bring on significant permanent change.