Barbara Hall is the former Mayor of Toronto and a former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission
Alok Mukherjee is the former chair of the Toronto Police Services Board and co-author of Excessive Force: Toronto’s Fight to Reform City Policing.
Torontonians have long expressed deep concerns about policing in the city, including incidents of systemic racism, use of excessive force and differential treatment of marginalized communities. The demand for a new model of community safety and well-being has yet to produce a comprehensive plan of action by the City. We are at a critical juncture globally when decisions can no longer be delayed.
Unfortunately, proposals approved by the city’s executive committee on Jan. 27 reveal the same old approach of delay and deferral. The proposed pilot project on nonpolice response to mental health, though important, is not the comprehensive response that city council promised last June.
We do have a road map to move us forward: “Rethinking Community Safety,” a recent study by more than 20 community service organizations that directly support Toronto’s most vulnerable. It lays out concrete, proven strategies to meet the pressing need.
We wholeheartedly support the study and its recommendations, and encourage council to adopt the practical path it proposes. The proposals that passed the executive committee are not enough.
The study focuses on the four critical areas where progress is needed if we are to do the best job of keeping Toronto safe.
First, it proposes a multidisciplinary approach to public safety.
In our former roles as mayor and chair of the Police Services Board, we learned that police can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do it all.
In North America, governments have often equated policing with safety. If we are unsafe, we add more police officers, or more police equipment or more types of police.
But policing cannot meet all our safety needs. People who are in a mental health crisis need support for those issues, women facing domestic violence need a safe place to live, young people need opportunity, people struggling with addictions need health care and people who are homeless need a place to stay. Police aren’t the best qualified or able to meet these needs. And they don’t have to be. We have other people in Toronto in a host of community services, who are. We can send the right person, with the right skills and training to deal with the wide range of safety issues, but we must first agree that police aren’t the only option and sometimes aren’t the best one.
Second, there are some serious problems with policing that we can’t ignore.
Early on, when each of us was working as a youth worker, a race relations advisor, a criminal lawyer or a city councillor, we saw the side of policing that has been in the news a lot lately, including, unnecessary use of force, applied more often to Black, Indigenous and racialized groups, young people, marginalized people and people with mental health issues; escalating tensions when de-escalation was called for; people trained to assert control over situations sent to places where support and diffusion were needed; as well as systemic racism and culturally inappropriate responses. Action to remedy these real, quantifiable and unacceptable problems is long overdue.
Third, the study allows us to learn from how others have solved problems. In Vancouver, the police were vocal advocates for getting policing out of managing the mental health crises in the Downtown Eastside. In B.C., the municipalities work together to run 911. In Oregon, Colorado and Washington State, outreach workers connect to homeless people in distress and link them to services. In Dallas, folks who support women in crisis have the lead on domestic violence. These are proven approaches. They can work here too if we move to implement them rather than continuing to tinker, defer and review.
Fourth, and finally, the study calls for sustained action now.
With almost a century of public service between us, we have seen countless promises of action, assurances to change and commitments to do better. Those that were attached to immediate steps and long term plans proved most fruitful. Over the years we have seen plenty of reviews and commissions that defer action indefinitely, as well as pilot programs and ad hoc initiatives that do a little now and nothing over the long term. We don’t need more of those. What is before council now is, sadly, typical: no real action until 2022 and no clear plan after 2025.
Last June, city council acknowledged the problem. Later this week, it will vote on what to do about it. Rather than persist with pilot projects, no matter how worthy, council should draw on this study for a solid plan, reallocate the funds to implement it and set a clear timeline for progress. That’s what real change requires.
James Baldwin, the African-American writer, said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” The time to face the challenge of Toronto’s policing is now.
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