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Alok Mukherjee was chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015. He is the author, with Tim Harper, of Excessive Force: Toronto’s Fight to Reform City Policing.

I called it the “budget dance.” It’s an annual ritual that plays out yearly between municipalities and police across Canada: City hall sets the year’s target and timetable for its budget process, and the police service submits a budget request to its board or commission, invariably asking for a substantial increase usually in excess of the city’s target. The oversight body reviews the request, conducts a bit of public consultation, negotiates with city hall and approves a final budget.

Rarely does the city demand a reduction in police budget. And as Statistics Canada has found, these budgets have grown year after year across Canada.

Now, protesters, activists and experts are talking about the idea of defunding the police – perhaps the first time that such broad-based efforts toward fundamental reform in policing are being sought through a reconsideration of police agencies’ pocketbooks.

These calls – a reflection of the anger among Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities and other critics over police treatment of marginalized and vulnerable people across North America – stem from at least two concerns: police conduct, and the seemingly endless rise in how much policing absorbs city budgets.

Outrage over the first has recently been brought to a boiling point by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer while three of his colleagues stood by. Here in Canada, there has been anger around the as-yet unexplained circumstances in which Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a young woman who was Black and Indigenous, died in Toronto while the police were responding to a call.

Meanwhile, according to Statistics Canada’s most recent data on police expenditures, Canada spent $15.1-billion on policing in 2017-18, part of a trend that has “generally been on the increase” over the previous two decades. The year before, in 2016-17 – the last time spending breakdowns by jurisdiction were published – approximately 53 per cent of the $14.7-billion annual operating expenditures were devoted to municipal policing, while the rest went to the RCMP and the provincial police forces. And on average, 80 per cent of police budgets go to salaries and benefits. At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is decimating cities’ finances, the impact of further increases in approved police spending feels even more enormous and worthy of closer scrutiny.

There has been a long-standing demand to control, if not reverse, this escalating cost of policing to ensure the proper funding of child care, recreation, social and public-health programs, housing and so on. It has been argued that investment in these areas would reduce the need for expensive reactive policing – which too often produces severe consequences for marginalized and vulnerable populations – while fostering true community safety and well-being.

However, as dramatic as the call for defunding is, there are statutory and political barriers to doing so in Canada. Provincial police-services acts require municipalities to have “adequate and effective policing” and pay for it. In Ontario, failure or refusal to do so can result in the province deploying the provincial police and recovering the cost.

Then there is the wider pro-police political culture. As proof of their concern for public safety, federal and provincial politicians have, from time to time, funded the addition of thousands of police officers to municipal police forces, with no demonstrated need.

Governments have given money for so-called community safety programs, such as Toronto’s infamous and highly militarized anti-violence intervention strategy (TAVIS). Routinely, they enact legislation but leave the responsibility for its implementation to the police. The best example of the failures of this approach can be seen in how mental-health crises are handled. These political choices have only pumped air into the ballooning costs of police services.

About a decade ago, in response to growing public concern, a national consensus appeared to emerge among police boards and commissions and their respective municipalities – that the current model of using a highly paid, uniformed and armed police officer for all functions was obsolete, expensive and too often produced dire consequences.

In 2013, Ottawa convened a national summit on the economics of policing. Provinces such as Ontario followed up with their own initiatives on the future of policing. Governments and organizations undertook efforts to find alternative, more community-responsive approaches to public safety.

It was widely understood then, as it is now, that a multidisciplinary, integrated model based on an accurate assessment of a community’s actual needs – a model that relies significantly less on the armed uniformed police officer as the virtually exclusive provider of all services – is a preferable choice. Many police boards and commissions across Canada began their own reforms, adding more civilian participation and oversight as well as technology.

However, even this limited promise of change proved to be short-lived. The years since have marked a return to business as usual. Toronto, for instance, is hiring hundreds of police officers every year, and the police service is more militarized than before.

The call for defunding is a worthy one, even if it’s not new. It opens the door to a serious, urgently needed conversation about alternative models of community safety and well-being. The question now is the same as it has ever been: Is there the political will?

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