Toronto city council votes against cut to police budget, for body-worn cameras by 2021

Toronto city council has voted in favour of a series of reforms that could alter the future of policing in the city, including the creation of a non-police response team for mental health calls and a mandate to require all officers to have body-worn cameras by 2021.

However, the changes do not include a targeted reduction of the policing budget.

Coun. Josh Matlow’s motion, backed by Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam, called for a 2021 police budget at least 10 per cent lower than what was approved this year and a reallocation of the savings toward community services. The motion failed by a vote of eight to 16.

Toronto Mayor John Tory’s motion requiring all officers to have body-worn cameras by Jan. 1 passed by a vote of 17-7. According to the Toronto Police Service, the project would cost between $2 and $3 million to start and up to $50 million over 10 years to implement.

Several councillors had asked for a 10 per cent reduction amid growing calls from the public to defund the police.

Tory said his proposed changes, introduced last week, will reduce systemic racism within the force. He said cutting the service by an “arbitrary” number was misguided.

“It is not the right way to go about getting real change, effective change, fair change, good change,” the mayor said. “I don’t want us to be focused on a number; I want us to be focused on making change that needs to be made.”

Council met from 9:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. ET on Monday. The meeting continues on Tuesday. You can see the agenda here and watch the entire meeting online.

Calls to defund Toronto police, and other forces around the world, have grown louder after protests in recent weeks. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Matlow and Wong-Tam had been calling for a 10 per cent cut of the police budget. They argued — and city staff confirmed — that a 10 per cent cut would amount to about $150 million and could be put to better use by investing in community programs.

Council heard that such a cut would mean the loss of about 1,000 officers and could take years to implement because of collective bargaining agreements with the police union.

Crisis units for mental health calls

The mayor, meanwhile, had laid out his own plan to reform the force in a report, but it did not include an outright budget cut.

He said while his plan is not “the ultimate answer,” it will “set in motion a process that should bring about the kind of change at the pace of change that is needed in response to the people that have marched in the street.”

Council approved the report, introduced by Tory, that proposes the development of alternative service delivery models for community safety response and increased accountability.

Members of Black Lives Matter painted a pink ‘defund the police’ message on the street in front of Toronto police headquarters in a June 19 march marking Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Among other measures, the mayor is seeking the “creation of non-police led response to calls which do not involve weapons or violence, such as those involving individuals experiencing mental health crises and where a police response is not necessary.”

His motion also wants a line-by-line police budget breakdown, an auditor general review of the budget to identify savings and investment in community services. 

The police board suggested that information could be available immediately, though a representative said it would take more time to make it more digestible for the public.

The city is also looking for strategies to address anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism.

As part of the overhaul of the police response to mental health calls, Tory’s motion would require police to notify crisis units for such calls.

There are currently eight mobile crisis intervention teams, which include a police officer and a nurse trained in dealing with those in the throes of a mental health emergency, according to Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders. They do not operate 24 hours per day and are not the primary responders — they are dispatched once patrol officers have arrived and evaluated the situation.

Mental health calls make up about 30,000 of the nearly one million calls police respond to every year, or about 82 calls a day. 

Several recent deaths during police calls in the Toronto area have increased demands for change, including that of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from her balcony after police responded to a call at her home. (Rozenn Nicolle/CBC)

Demands for change to how police in Toronto respond to emergencies that may involve someone experiencing a mental health crisis come after the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from her balcony after police responded to a call at her home. 

Police in Peel Region are also facing scrutiny after the death of Ejaz Choudry, who was fatally shot by officers while experiencing a mental health crisis.

When asked about relinquishing responsibility for such calls, Saunders warned that no other organization appears ready to take on the complex task.

“We’d all be naive if we said that this is not a glaring issue,” he said of mental health calls. “But the question is, who’s stepping up to the plate other than law enforcement at this point in time?”

Saunders says officer reduction won’t happen quickly

Saunders said mental health calls are complex and can poses risks.

“We’re talking about calls where machetes are involved, axes are involved, and whenever we do have these calls, it’s mandatory two officers respond,” he said.

Saunders said “it would take quite some time” before the jobs of officers replaced by mental health crisis responders would disappear because collective agreements and other legal hurdles.

“Right now, there are a lot of things that need to be done first in order to start reducing what our roles and responsibilities need to be,” Saunders said.

“I’d rather have the sit-down and all educate ourselves a little more on what we do and what the public wants done.”

He later noted that Toronto already has fewer police officers per 100,000 residents than many other large cities, including Montreal, Vancouver, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

Still, Toronto’s policing budget has grown steadily over the past several years, outpacing investments in areas that some say would be more effective at reducing crime and improving quality of life.

Since 2013, Toronto’s police budget has increased by 19.4 per cent while the city’s investments in social services have grown by 13 per cent, staff confirmed to council.

Councillors want millions spent elsewhere

At the start of Monday’s council meeting, Matlow withdrew his motion and signalled a plan to amend Tory’s motion with his proposed changes, including the 10 per cent budget cut.

The last-minute change meant Matlow and Wong-Tam’s proposals stood a better chance of being debated. If their proposals had remained in the original member motion, two-thirds of council would have had to vote to hear the plan.

The money saved in their proposed budget cut would be reinvested into “community-led alternatives to policing,” Matlow and Wong-Tam said, which includes everything from youth programs to skills training to food security programs to child care. 

“Investing in our communities and alternatives to policing make our communities safer. It costs less money. It saves lives,” Matlow said.

He said 10 per cent is seen as a conservative figure by some of the people calling for police reform.

Black Lives Matter Toronto and a group of more than 50 Toronto doctors have both called for the police budget to be cut by half.

Tory’s motion does not set a target for reducing Toronto’s police budget, but if passed, Tory said it would lead to “greater scrutiny” of how the force spends taxpayer money and an eventual reduction of the budget.

Ford opposes cuts but says he won’t intervene

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has voiced vehement opposition to the idea of reducing police budgets, which he reiterated Monday.

“I think it’s absolutely critical we keep as many police on the streets,” Ford said during a news conference. “When people call 911, they expect police to be there.”

However, Ford said he would not use his provincial powers to stop a municipality from defunding a local police service. 

“We’d never step in,” he said. “That’s their jurisdiction.”

Scarborough Coun. Paul Ainslie, meanwhile, had a motion calling for Toronto police to make more of its information available on the city’s open data portal.

Read more at CBC.ca

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