Move to “defund” Toronto police faces epic battle from cop union

Mike McCormack takes a deep sigh. Actually, it sounds more like exasperation over the phone. It’s been a tense few weeks for the Toronto police union president.

Between the racially charged police-custody death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet (and all the questions about the decades-long failure of policing reforms that has exposed), the resignation of Chief Mark Saunders and now a motion set to go before council later this month to cut $122 million out of the police budget, the Toronto police, too, find themselves in the crosshairs of a continent-wide movement to “defund” departments. 

McCormack has been through a few battles in his more than a decade as police union boss. His media savvy has allowed him to win most of those. But he knows that this one is different. “You can feel it,” he says. 

The pendulum of power has swung. And the winds of change are blowing through city hall like never before. The pressure is on council to do something now or risk raising the anger witnessed in protests stateside over the death of George Floyd – not to mention following Korchinski-Paquet’s death. The message from racialized and priority communities couldn’t be clearer: it’s us or the cops. It’s shaping up to be a battle of wills and right now no one on either side is willing to blink.

Toronto’s untouchable police 

Attempts have been made in the past to rein in the police budget and re-evaluate policing priorities. And each time they’ve been met with harsh resistance from the police union – and proved personally treacherous for politicians who dared to take up the cause.

The lobbying behind the scenes from the police this time around has been so intense that the co-authors of the motion to cut the police budget, councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam, are half-joking about needing to wear a bulletproof vest.

Sacred cow. Untouchable. Take your pick. The police budget has been all of that. The truth is that the city really has no control over the police budget. And there’s the rub. It’s set by the police services board, which is governed by provincial statute. City council is basically a rubber stamp when it comes to the police budget. It only gets to say yea or nay on the total amount requested by the board. But it has little control over specific line items, save for debate that may take place at the budget committee stage before it gets to council.

Even if city council wanted to say no to the board’s overall police budget request, the police union or board has the right to appeal that decision to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, a quasi-judicial agency that adjudicates, among other things, on budget disputes. And right now that’s controlled by Doug Ford, who has already said he does not support any effort to cut the police budget.

Some on council are looking to Mayor John Tory to use his political leverage and relationship with the police union to broker a deal. Tory finds himself in a tough spot. Unlike the U.S., where mayors can essentially dictate wholesale changes in police departments (see Camden, see Minneapolis), we don’t have that system here. And so far Tory is sending out conflicting signals.

He said during his regularly scheduled COVID-19 briefing on June 8 that he’s willing to look at the Matlow/Wong-Tam proposal. On the other hand, he’s also been quoted as saying that he opposes what he terms “arbitrary” cuts.

The mayor has noted that the police budget was “flatlined” in both 2017 and 2018. But it’s also true that it resulted in the department making decisions to stop, for example, enforcing traffic violations. It’s a script that’s been followed before by the department. Every time council tries to tighten the screws, it’s the cops who dictate how money is spent and some core services seem to fall by the wayside as a result.

“Show me the metrics.”

McCormack says in an interview that he doesn’t disagree in principle that more money needs to go to combat the social determinants of health that lead to violence, like education and housing. As a former beat cop in Regent Park, McCormack will tell you he knows something about the challenges faced in priority neighbourhoods. But he’s not willing to accept that the money should come out of the city’s $1 billion-plus police budget.

He points to a growing city and number of calls for service and says that if those calling for cuts can point to where they should be made, he’s willing to listen. “Show me the metrics,” he says.

And therein lies the dilemma. The fact is that more than 90 per cent of the police budget goes to cover the salaries and benefits of the 5,600 sworn officers and 2,230 civilian members of the force. Which is to say that any substantial cuts will mean moving bodies – or packaging them out altogether – which is a non-starter as far as McCormack is concerned. 

It used to be a non-starter for Matlow, too. The midtown councillor told me he’s always assumed when police said they needed more funds, that there was a good reason for it. “I didn’t fully understand the demands for taking money from the police budget.” He says he’s been doing a lot of active listening to those in his own community who’ve been affected by anti-Black racism.

He says there has been a lot of “fear-mongering and rhetoric,” from defenders of the police budget. And as far as McCormack’s “show me the metrics” goes, Matlow says emergency calls for people in health crises could be better provided by social workers and other health professionals, to name one area that requires reform. It’s a big one. The recommendations of the Iacobucci report into police responses to people in crisis following the police shooting death of Sammy Yatim continue to collect dust. Emergency personnel are only dispatched to the scene after police are done.

But rather than ask council where cuts could be made in the police budget, Matlow says it should be up to the police as well as community development and anti-Black racism unit, to offer advice on where those cuts could best be made.

He says too much emphasis is being placed on what’s being described as an effort to “defund” the police, when really what his motion is talking about is rebalancing the city budget and redirecting resources to underfunded social services.

“There’s an imbalance. If the budget is supposed to include everyone as a whole in the city, I’m not seeing it.”

Wong-Tam offers more specifics on a whole range of duties currently carried out by police that could be done by civilians. Those include everything from administrative work to crime prevention and recreational programs.

She says the motion to cut 10 per cent from the police budget is not just about “reimagining policing” but investing in things like child care and anti-poverty measures and harm reduction to reduce the need for police in general.

In an interview, she says right now “police are being asked to do too much that they’re not trained to do. It’s literally everything from a marriage counsellor to settling neighbourhood disputes to being mediators. We don’t need someone in uniform and carrying a gun to do those things.”

Wong-Tam says talk about reforming the system is not enough. We’ve been there, done that. Police culture needs to change.

“There are so many things that have already been studied. Communities have already offered their opinions of what public safety means to them. Reports have been adopted and accepted. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s Mark Saunders or Bill Blair who is chief, those reports about moving away from this traditional policing model that everyone recognizes isn’t working have not been operationalized or funded.”

Wong-Tam stresses that defunding police is not about taking away the core functions of the police. “However, we need to recognize that one-size-fits-all across the city doesn’t work especially for those communities that have been experiencing disproportionate amounts of harm and that are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.”

And yes, that will mean reallocating officers as well as taking some out of uniform to engage in what she describes as “restorative justice”.

“This is not necessarily about eliminating officers. We haven’t gotten to that stage of the conversation. But if there are officers better suited to do other work then let’s give them that new responsibility in a new organizational structure that’s more community-oriented.”

Wong-Tam argues that police have “limited tools. Their job is basically to arrest people.” They can’t offer pathways to those who may need access to addiction services or are experiencing poverty. As a result, those folks “continue to be bantered around in the system. So right now we’re funding the problem, not the solution. There’s a business case to be made for all of this. When 50 to 80 per cent of calls to police are non-criminal then  we need to really understand why their budget is so disproportionately large.”

Reality check

Michael Thompson has been through this scenario before. As a member of the police services board, Thompson proposed a $24 million cut to the police budget back in 2016. That failed. “You may want to check the voting record, because some of those who are supporting these motions [to cut the police budget now] were not supportive of them,” he says in an interview.

Thompson, who also serves as a deputy mayor to Tory, says “We have to balance the objective with the reality,” And the reality is that, the police union or police services board could decide to appeal any cut directed by council to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission. If that happens, the commission could order that the city fund police more than at even the current $1 billion-plus level. And given the political climate at Queen’s Park, that’s not completely out of the realm of possibility, says Thompson. “You would have a huge fight.” 

Thompson says police have to be brought onside, otherwise council is doomed to repeat the scenario that we saw in 2016, and before that under Blair. The then chief made a commitment to work to try and find ways to reduce the budget, but Thompson says the police “found every excuse in the world not to.” The demands for cuts were met by a drop in revenue from tickets issued by police by some $30 million. “They were able to play the political games that they always do and sound the alarms around gun crimes and so on, and people became afraid.”

He notes that as much as there have been steady increases in funding for police, we continue to see gun crimes. Is there a happy medium? “Two or three per cent cut, maybe. Ten per cent, you’re never going to get it. It’s not going to happen.”

Thompson says the crime-prevention piece of the policing puzzle has to be emphasized. On that front, all levels of government are not doing enough.

Thompson says more must also be done on police accountability as well, so that officers who do cross the line understand that there are consequences. Right now, even officers who are charged and suspended continue to receive pay, in some cases for years without ever returning to the job.

“We have to have a mechanism that causes them to think about their actions,” he says.

Councillor Shelley Carroll, a former member of the police services board and former budget chief under David Miller, agrees that structural changes needs to happen along with financial change.

“We need an SIU that isn’t populated by cronies,” Carroll says in an interview, referring to the provincial police watchdog that investigates serious incidents involving police.

The selection of a new police chief will be an important part of the process for structural change, Carroll says. And she believes that the board must look without, not just within, for a replacement for Saunders, who announced last week that he will be leaving his post effective July 31.

Carroll says the process that ended up with Saunders being picked last time “was overshadowed by a massive media campaign around one candidate. This frenzy happens,” she says. “We’ve got to break out of that mould.” That includes the board directing the new chief on what their mandate should be, as opposed to relying on an incoming candidate to set the agenda.

Wong-Tam acknowledges that “We’re stuck in a difficult place when it comes to police reform. This is not going to be fixed with one motion. It’s going to take months and possibly years.”

But she says the economic reality is also that the city is facing a $1.5 to $2.8 billion hole in the budget because of COVID-19, and that it’s not reasonable to expect the police budget will not be touched when other city departments are strapped.

Morally speaking, council can’t risk doing nothing, adds Matlow.

“If council doesn’t listen to the communities it serves and isn’t willing to be open to making changes, then protests will get louder the thousands will become tens of thousands and the voices will become even stronger. It’s not going to go away the pain is already there, the anger is already there. It didn’t just appear. Those of us in power just weren’t paying attention. This is a moment that we have to rise to the occasion. We need to act on what we’ve learned.”


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