Green Button, Red Button

Dear Friends,

My desk in Council has two buttons: green for Yes, red for No. On major issues, you push these buttons many times, moving through multiple motions and amendments before reaching a single vote on the final package. If you see merit in parts of competing arguments, there is no button for that.

Which brings me to an upcoming vote at which members of Council will grapple with the convergence of multiple issues in a way that does not easily lend itself to a green button/red button approach. Racism, mental health, a billion dollar budget, police accountability that is stifled by legislation from a different level of government, and a pent up anger that has burst wide open after decades of unfulfilled promises and intransigence from those who had the power to act but didn’t want to listen.

Josh Matlow and Kristyn Wong-Tam, two well-respected councillors who often take us where others fear to tread, have authored a motion to “defund” 10% of the Toronto Police budget and redirect the funds to a variety of social programs and alternative ways of responding to some 911 calls.

The motion has already succeeded in focusing attention on the need for action. I have received more emails and phone calls on this than on any other issue – ever. The call for change comes from residents across the city, but there have also been many personal ones from members of the Willowdale community.

One resident wrote about the need to address the deeper systemic issues of racism before real change can happen. Another spoke of the urgency for more investment in community mental health supports and alternative methods for dealing with 911 calls related to psychiatric illness. The one that’s stayed with me the most is a very personal letter from a couple who described the need to be conscious of their skin colour every time they step out the front door.

Heading into the debate, I believe that much is self-evident:

  1. More resources are needed to proactively address the roots of crime related to issues such as poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity.

  2. Systemic racism exists throughout our society. Anyone doubting that must not know anyone of colour who can tell them about the prejudice they experienced in the schoolyard, in the workplace, in having their car pulled over.

  3. City Council should have greater control over the Toronto Police Service budget, its largest area of spending, at currently more than $1 billion.

  4. Non-police professionals could, in many instances, be more effective in dealing with situations currently being handled by uniformed police officers.  For example, those trained in defusing mental health-related emergencies would be better equipped to deal with psychiatric-related 911 calls, perhaps in tandem with a police officer.

  5. Calls for dramatic reform on issues around race and policing are coming from multiple segments of society. We have reached an historic moment when transformational change seems very possible.

  6. Decades of incremental improvements through reports, studies, and promises to usher in change have not produced the necessary results, particularly with regard to policing, race and mental health.

  7. Telling ourselves that racism is less prevalent in Canada than in the United States, or that racist conduct among police officers is confined to “a few bad apples” misses the mark. Bad apples, however few or many there may be, should not be police officers. There should be no disagreement on that among the very large number of officers in the good apple barrel.

Beyond that, for me, the discussion becomes less straightforward. Which is more important, to make a strong political statement that speaks to how people are feeling, or to use the moment to build a consensus for lasting change among those who have the power to actually make it happen? The former feels better, including for me. But is it the most strategic way to leverage this historic moment? Can we do both?

Most people don’t realize what little power Council actually has over the Toronto Police budget, policing priorities, or the ability to discipline bad behavior. When finalizing our budget next winter, we can set the level of funding. That can be appealed. More to the point, Council currently has no direct say in where the budget is spent. Even the Police Services Board, which provides civilian oversight, struggles to exercise any real budget control.

Add to that the politics of policing, the power of the Chief, and the role of an extremely powerful police union – issues I know well from my experience on the Police Services Board. When I left the board 15 years ago, after two years of bumping heads with a very old-school police chief and helping bring in someone with a new vision, I naively thought we were well along the right road. I underestimated the strength of the organization’s resistance to doing anything differently.

To change the current system in any meaningful and permanent way, the provincial government needs to agree to structural change the city can only request. What would lead them to do that? I suspect that will only happen if there is a broad public consensus on the way forward, in addition to a high degree of buy-in from the Chief of Police, the Police Services Board, and the police rank and file.

With the June 29 Council meeting still 10 days out, there will be ongoing discussion among councillors about the best way forward. Council will no doubt have before it other motions and sets of motions, in addition to the ones from Councillors Matlow and Wong-Tam.

At this point, here are some of the components I’d like to see in whatever Council adopts:

  1. Think in terms of Community Safety rather than policing. Speak in terms of redirecting 10% of the budget rather than “defunding” it. Give the Police Service and the Police Services Board until the fall to work with Council on a plan to redirect 10% of its budget to provide community safety in non-traditional ways that do not compromise public safety. Act on the defunding option only if they are unwilling to work together to achieve that. The police budget won’t actually be before Council until next winter.

  2. Create awareness that, without changes in provincial legislation, Council can do very little.  Engage the public in pushing for that change alongside us. Some specifics on what the city can’t do without changes to provincial legislation: line by line transparency of the Toronto Police budget; allowing the Police Services Board and Council to have more control over areas of spending; allowing the Police Services Board, or another independent body, to deal with areas of identified misconduct currently handled by the Chief.

  3. Get the Province to allow the City’s Auditor General to proactively investigate parts of the police operations – as she now does for all city departments. Within the city, she has uncovered an astonishing amount of inefficiency, waste and misconduct; to the city’s credit, we have given her carte blanche to investigate as she sees fit and to report the often-embarrassing findings in public reports. She should be able do the same with the city’s largest budget, as her federal and provincial counterparts are able to do with the RCMP and OPP respectively.

Some argue that you create the change you want by demanding it, and that we only got to where we are now because hundreds of thousands took to the streets. That’s hard to disagree with. The best route to change is seldom a clear path. At the moment, I’m hoping that by the end of the day June 29 there will be something before me I can comfortably push green on.

— John