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Demonstrators calling for the defunding of police march down Bloor St. from Christie Pits to Toronto Police headquarters on Aug. 29, 2020.Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

When he kicked off his bid for Toronto mayor last month, the city’s former police chief Mark Saunders made a strong statement about the high-profile acts of violence that had been making headlines.

“This election is a choice between crime and chaos versus law and order,” he said in a campaign video. He pledged to beef up the ranks of the Special Constables who patrol the transit system, saying they were the best bet to “enforce the rules that exist to protect people.”

For those who had closely watched his career as chief, it was a drastic departure from the language he used just five years ago.

In 2018, he was asked about whether the Toronto Police Service’s move to stop carding (when police would ask individuals to provide identifying information about themselves even when they weren’t suspected of a crime) and disband TAVIS (a controversial program designed to tackle gun violence) had led to an increase in violent crime in the city.

In response, he said, “To think we can arrest our way out of this is a falsehood.”

In many ways, Mr. Saunders’s trajectory shows the ways in which the defund-the-police movement, which captured the imagination of so many in 2020 after the police murder of George Floyd, has languished – not only in Toronto, but in most major cities across North America.

This spring, Toronto council passed a budget that allocated $1.16-billion to police – an increase of $48.3-million from the previous year. In recent months, both elected officials and aspiring ones – including Mr. Saunders – have championed the idea that safety must be restored in cities such as Toronto, where the crises of homelessness, poverty and mental illness have spilled into public spaces, including the transit system.

So how did we get here just a few years after those calls to radically rethink policing? Even those eager to see police powers reined in understood it was a mighty ask – both in terms of logistics and public buy-in.

Some of the lost momentum can be blamed on how little consensus there was on what “defund the police” even meant, says Jeffrey Monaghan, an associate professor in criminology at Carleton University. There was an enormous gap between some who called for the abolition of police and others looking for more incremental changes.

Elected officials who supported cutting police budgets to fund housing and other social services found themselves in the minority when this was being debated in city council, and accused of being soft on crime, said Julius Haag, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Reassigning mental-health wellness checks to civilians is one initiative that has been implemented in some Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Victoria, Hamilton and Toronto. But even that hasn’t really taken police out of the equation. In some cities, these calls make up more than one-third of total calls to police. The civilian-led teams deployed in B.C. and Ontario still work with officers if there are concerns about public safety or violence.

By early 2023, it was clear the complications associated with defunding had made it unpalatable at Toronto city council. Support from the public was also waning.

In June, 2020, thousands took to the streets of Toronto as part of an “I can’t breathe” rally, just weeks after George Floyd’s murder. By January, 2023, only a few hundred showed up to protest the city’s proposed police budget increase – which passed a few weeks later. From 2020 to 2021, donations to Black Lives Matter Canada soared from $417,840 to $8.18-million. By 2022, they’d dropped down to $451,413.

As the crises of homelessness, substance use and poverty became more visible during the pandemic, police found a perfect opportunity to assert how essential they were to keep the social fabric intact, said Prof. Monaghan, and they could often use data to justify their case.

Statistics Canada’s release last summer of its annual crime severity index – which has compiled rates of police-reported crimes from 1998 to 2021 – has shown that overall, crime severity across the country has dropped significantly – 31 per cent – since 2000. But on a year-by-year basis across the country, sexual assault, hate-motivated crimes and opioid-related offences increased in 2021 compared to the previous year. That trend, as well as a series of random violent attacks in Toronto in the last year, have been used by the city’s police service in its requests for more funding.

“When you talk about defunding or diminishing the police entity, it emboldens the criminal element,” Mr. Saunders said in an interview.

Yet many experts say more police still won’t solve the underlying problems that may be behind some of these attacks.

“For the most part, we’ve defunded every other social service,” said Prof. Monaghan, listing shelters, disability support programs and legal aid as examples. “When we talk about community safety, we end up talking about police. … We’ve just kind of run out of other ways to address social insecurity.”

In March, 16-year-old Gabriel Magalhaes was fatally stabbed by a stranger at a Toronto subway station. The 22-year-old man who has been charged in his death had a history of mental-health issues and run-ins with the justice system for violent offences.

In a tearful interview days after her son’s murder, Andrea Magalhaes told CBC that more needed to be done to help people in crisis. “We need more social services. We need more investment into physical and mental health. We need more support for housing. I feel like if things keep going the way they are going right now, so many people are going to be suffering the horrible pain that I’m going through right now,” she said.

Maymun Abukar, a community advocate, first encountered police as a toddler in her predominantly racialized, working-class neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end. Ms. Abukar, former co-ordinator with the Jane Finch Initiative (a city-funded and resident-run project meant to plan for the future of the neighbourhood) has watched with skepticism as Mr. Saunders releases his tough-on-crime platform – which he described as “smart on crime” in an interview.

“Who is that safe for?” she asked. “I come from a community that’s over-policed. If I go on the TTC and I see a Special Constable, I’m thinking this guy is going to ask me for some kind of transfer or ID to see that I paid for my fare. Not here to make me feel safe from an attacker,” she said.

She’s noticed the more affluent residents of her city are feeling an unease and sense of heightened public disorder in their downtown and inner suburban neighbourhoods. It’s similar to the one she’s felt her whole life as a Black woman in the city’s west end and she said she hopes they can look beyond police for answers.

Prof. Haag agrees.

“Criminalized activities don’t happen in a vacuum,” he said. “As long as we continue to not comprehensively address those problems with the same zeal and same types of sustained funding that people are eager to give to the police, it’s hard to realize a future that can see those problems being addressed comprehensively.”

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