Canada’s largest municipal police services board has unanimously passed 81 so-called “sweeping” recommendations aimed at police reform that critics say fail to address mounting calls to defund police or make the force accountable to Black and other communities of colour.
The recommendations by the Toronto Police Services Board span a broad range of issues including the expansion of mobile crisis teams, implementing a plan to equip officers with body-worn cameras, creating non-police alternatives for community safety, providing the city’s auditor general increased access to Toronto police force’s $ 1.2 billion budget as well as increasing training on anti-Black racism.
In announcing the recommendations last week, Mayor John Tory said the recommendations are “the most sweeping series of proposed changes to policing,” calling them “a recognition of the fact that we know we must do more because systemic racism in policing threatens the equal rights and opportunity and justice and wellbeing of Indigenous, Black and marginalized communities in our city.”
But the reforms, proposed amid a groundswell of anger over anti-Black racism in policing across North America, fall far short of what an increasing number of advocates have been calling for, says activist Desmond Cole.
“They are completely out of step with the public conversation around defunding and abolishing that’s been going on for months,” Cole told CBC News on Tuesday.
The report acknowledges growing calls to defund the police but says it “cannot impose any arbitrary cut in the police budget, or a cut that compromises the Service’s ability to deliver the host of policing services required by law.”
Report ‘flawed,’ says OHRC chief commissioner
For Cole and many others, the report also fails to address anti-Black racism in a meaningful way. He says yearly sensitivity training sessions will not correct years of abuse or fix stereotypes police hold toward people of colour, calling instead for the demilitarization of police.
The vote comes just days after a report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission showing Black people are much more likely to be arrested, shot or killed by police, making up some 32 per cent of those charged in Toronto, while only representing 8.8 per cent of the population.
In a statement issued Tuesday, the OHRC said it is “concerned that the Police Reform Report and its recommendations will amount to mere lip service – another report on the shelf that fails to result in substantive change.”
“As it stands, the OHRC cannot support this report and its recommendations, due to both procedural and substantive deficiencies,” it said. “The OHRC and racialized communities have seen how past recommendations and policies of the TPSB can appear transformative on paper, and yet fail to yield meaningful, tangible results.”
Also speaking at Tuesday’s meeting was former Toronto mayor and current coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition John Sewell, who called the recommendation for $ 35 million for body-worn cameras “a very bad investment.”
Despite the recommendations calling for the expansion of the force’s mobile crisis response program and the development of a new crisis response model with community services at the forefront, Sewell pointed out the report still doesn’t recommend that mobile crisis units be first responders in cases where people are in distress
In Toronto, mobile mental health teams consist of a registered nurse and police officer, but are mandated only to provide secondary responses. Currently, police officers alone remain the first responders, specifically in calls involving a weapon.
That was the case in the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year old Black woman who fell to her death in Toronto after police were called to her home for reports of an assault involving a knife.
In the days afterward, police chief Mark Saunders said: “There’s no way I would send a nurse into a knife fight.”
Advocates have pointed out that even in cases where people in crisis might have a weapon, trained mental health professionals handle such situations regularly and are trained in de-escalation — something they point out police are not primarily trained to do.
Among those speaking applauding the report was former board chair Norm Gardner, who was in the role from 1998-2003, who dismissed much of the criticism by members of the public at Tuesday’s meeting as “not reasonable.”
Asked about his thoughts on what needs to change, Gardner told the board, “Change has to be gradual.”