Toronto city council has voted in favour of a series of reforms that could alter the future of policing in Toronto, including the creation of a non-police response team for mental health calls, but the changes do not include a targeted reduction of the policing budget.
Coun. Josh Matlow’s motion called for a 2021 budget request at least 10 per cent lower than the current budget, and to put the savings toward community services. The motion failed by a vote of eight to 16.
Several councillors had called for a 10 per cent reduction amid growing calls from the public to defund the police.
Mayor John Tory said the changes, which he 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,” Tory 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.”
This story has been updated. The original story appears below.
Toronto city council has been debating the future of its police service, including the possibility of a 10 per cent budget reduction and the creation of a new non-police mental health response team.
Council is meeting virtually on Monday and Tuesday, starting at 9:30 a.m. ET. You can see the agenda here and watch the entire meeting online.
Councillors Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam are calling for a 10 per cent cut of the police budget. They argue the money could be put to better use by investing in community programs.
Mayor John Tory, meanwhile, has laid out his own plan to reform the force while avoiding an outright budget cut.
Tory’s proposal includes several initiatives intended to eliminate systemic racism in policing and would stop police from responding to mental health calls that do not involve weapons or violence.
Demands for that change 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.
WATCH | You can see Monday’s Toronto city council meeting here:
When asked about relinquishing responsibility for responding to people in crisis, police chief Mark Saunders warned that no other organization appears ready to take on that 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?”
Mental health calls make up about 30,000 of the nearly one million calls police respond to every year.
City staff confirmed during Monday’s meeting that a 10 per cent cut would amount to about $150 million.
‘Absolutely’ would jeopardize safety
Saunders said a cut of that magnitude would mean the loss of some 1,000 officers and civilian employees, though he said “it would take quite some time” before those jobs would disappear due to collective agreements and other legal hurdles.
Asked if the cut would jeopardize community safety, Saunders said it “absolutely” would.
“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. 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 helpful to 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 has 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 means Matlow and Wong-Tam’s proposals stand 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 the proposed budget cut would be reinvested into “community-led alternatives to policing,” 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, adding that 10 per cent is seen a conservative figure by many people calling for 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.
Protesters and health experts have called for police to stop responding to mental health calls.
Both Tory and Matlow are calling for the force to provide council with a line-by-line breakdown of spending. 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 general public.
The mayor’s motion also calls for the police to equip all officers with body-worn cameras by the beginning of 2021. Saunders said that project would cost between $2 and $3 million to start, and up to $50 million over 10 years.
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, has a motion calling for Toronto police to make more of its information available on the city’s open data portal.