A compromise motion by Mayor John Tory promising “alternative models for community safety response” was passed instead, but critics worry it’s a rehash of past failed reforms
“The status quo has many friends.” That’s what councillor Josh Matlow tweeted as city council broke for lunch Monday during a debate over his proposal to “defund” police.
A number of motions before council, including one from Matlow and councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to cut 10 per cent from the $1-billion-plus police budget in 2021 and reallocate those funds to social services, were debated Monday.
Matlow mustered a passionate argument for the need to send Black communities a clear message that policing needs to change after the death of George Floyd in the U.S. and a number of police-involved deaths in Toronto and the GTA. He talked about his own education on the issue of anti-Black racism in his address to council.
“I’ve been through quite a journey,” he said. “These communities are telling us that they want us to make changes – not tinkering not slight reforms – but changing the status quo.
“Somehow the idea that we’re going to be called on the floor by voters who want more police… the evidence demonstrates that helping kids to stop them from picking up a gun in the first place is a better way to make our communities safer.”
But in the end it wasn’t enough. The motion failed in a 8-16 vote.
A compromise motion by Mayor John Tory, which contains a number of proposals, including to “develop alternative models for community safety response,” was passed without a budget cut.
Tory’s motion also calls for future city budgets to prioritize “a robust system of social supports and services, including in Black, Indigenous and marginalized communities.”
Tory acknowledged the existence of anti-Black racism in his address to council. “Our own police chief will go into a store and within minutes will be followed in that store because he is a Black man.”
He said his motion, “Isn’t meant to be the ultimate answer, but to bring about the change that is needed. But you can’t solve that with a number,” he said, referring to the proposed cut.
Tory’s 18-point motion, formulated with deputy mayor Michael Thompson and councillor Shelley Carroll, also reiterated the need for the police to implement recommendations in a number of past reports calling for, among other things, the deployment of management crisis teams across the city to respond to people experiencing mental health crises.
While there was broad support for Tory’s motion, other councillors argued that the recommendations are reaching back to reforms that haven’t worked in the past. Indeed, for many in Black communities, Matlow’s 10 per cent proposal doesn’t go far enough.
Wong-Tam blamed “misinformation” for creating confusion around the effort to cut the police budget. The effort to “defund”, she said, in fact, is seeking to “de-task” the police.
She noted that the Toronto Police Service’s 2016 Way Forward action plan included some 24 key recommendations, including reducing the police budget by $100 million.
“This has been a very difficult debate and there has been a lot of misinformation to create a sleight of hand,” she said. “The defund movement is really asking us to reimagine what public safety looks like. It’s not an either/or proposition. There are some glaring statistics that cannot be ignored. You are more likely to be shot if you are a person of colour. There is a system that we need to address, and it is not just in Toronto police.”
A motion by Matlow to create a non-police-led response to people experiencing mental health crises also failed. As did a motion to create a non-police response to non-violent calls involving homeless people, drug overdoses and traffic offences. A motion to disarm police also failed. However, a motion to invite the city Auditor General to review the Toronto police budget did pass unanimously. As did a motion to ask the province to broaden instances when a police officer can be suspended without pay.
Arguably, the die was cast on the motion to cut the police budget before the debate even took place. A heavy behind-the-scenes lobbying effort by the mayor’s office and police union – and the fact the city has very little control over the police budget in provincial law – proved the linchpin. On that front, Premier Doug Ford cast a shadow over the proceedings by reiterating to media as the meeting was going on that he does not support a cut in the police budget. That fact was brought up at the meeting.
Councillor Joe Cressy noted that the call for transformation is coming not just from Black communities, but CAMH and a host of organizations.
“It’s not just about anti-Black racism in the police department, but throughout government institutions” that needs to be addressed, he said, noting rates of poverty in Black communities. He called the council vote “a singular moment for transformation.”
“Institutional change is required. Not reform. It’s time for transformation. Whether that means the use of force, budgetary requirements or mental health.”
Several councillors raised the irony of council calling for reform on the police budget at the same time as it was being asked to support a motion to spend $50 million on body-worn cameras over the next 10 years, a technology which the most recent studies suggest has no effect in changing police behaviour or improving transparency and accountability. That motion passed.
A motion by councillor Gord Perks to reallocate those funds to the city’s social development finance and administration that houses anti-Black racism work and Indigenous advisory committees also failed.
Perks noted that much has been done to reallocate and reorient city funding in response to the pandemic. “Saying you can’t do the same thing in six months says that you don’t think anti-Black racism is an emergency.”
“The reform approach,” Perks offered, “is saying ‘Let’s dump more money in that and maybe we’ll get better outcomes.’”
Thompson, as the only Black member of council and co-author of mayor’s motion, said if council decided to go the route of 10 per cent “we would be arguing about this for the next 10 years.”
“You only have to be in the skin I’m in to understand what’s going on in this city.” Thompson argued that transformation is not going to happen by defunding the police.
Councillor Mike Layton recalled that nine months ago, the city’s budget committee was asked mid-year to increase the police budget. “By giving more money to the police we are actually contributing to the very thing that they are afraid of,” he argued.
Layton quoted Sandy Hudson of Black Lives Matter–Toronto on the need to send a signal to over-policed communities. “Let’s not be constrained by an inability to imagine a system beyond the one that currently exists. We can do far better than the institution of policing to create safety for all of us.”
Councillor Anthony Perruzza added a note of caution. “The reality is people fear the police, and who is it that are on the street protesting? There are a lot of young people out there and it’s their city it’s their future and we have a duty to involve them in whatever the outcomes are. All they want is to create a better world. Who are we to have all the answers?”