Chris Selley: ‘Defund’ the police, sure — but reform is the key

Canadian departments haven’t been begging quite as hard, however, and too many Canadians take false solace in that. When it comes to police-involved fatalities, we fare quite poorly against Western nations other than the one next door. Our accountability mechanisms are, generally speaking, a sick joke; indeed, it seems considerably easier to fireflamboyantlyterrible cops in the United States than it does here.

James Forcillo, the Toronto officer who was caught on tape fatally unloading nine shots at 18-year-old Sammy Yatim for no good reason, was on the payroll for two-and-a-half years until his criminal conviction. He was at least suspended. Simon Seguin, the Alberta RCMP officer caught on camera in March rugby-tackling, punching and choking Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam in a dispute over an expired vehicle registration, was at the time awaiting trial for assault!

It was really unfortunate, in this potentially golden moment for police reform, to see a movement solidify against body cameras

Still, even moderate reforms struggle for purchase. Here in Toronto it’s like sumo-wrestling a massive, entrenched and politically powerful bureaucracy that often seems to answer to no one. And that’s why focusing on the budget was really beside the point — certainly if you’re just futzing around in 10 per cent territory. If the police don’t do what you want them to do with $1.22 billion, what makes you think they’ll do what you want them to do with $1.1 billion?

Over-policing is what’s quite rightly in the news nowadays, but there are plenty of concerns in Toronto about under-policing as well: from the department’s almost total abandonment of traffic enforcement, even amidst rising pedestrian carnage, to its refusal to answer shoplifting calls. (One of Bill Blair’s most infamous moments as chief, surely, was the prosecution of Chinatown grocer David Chen for making a citizen’s arrest instead of allowing himself to be robbed blind.)

Plenty of worthy ideas got a hearing at council: alternatives to 911 for mental health-related incidents, school discipline issues and neighbourhood disputes (it was voted down); “review and overhaul” of use-of-force regulations (also voted down); “a rigorous community consultation process to inform the criteria for the selection of the next chief of police,” Mark Saunders having announced his forthcoming departure on July 31 (passed); equipping all officers with body cameras (passed); and more direct democratic oversight by city council over the police budget (passed).

But that last one, which would require provincial approval, might be the most crucial of all: To read police-related motions at Toronto City Council, you would think the Police Services Board (the nominally independent civilian oversight body), or the police themselves were parallel elected bodies. It’s all “we request this” and “we request that.” The correct and very important principle that politicians shouldn’t be ordering cops around has been taken much, much too far, to the point where some departments decide, unchecked, which laws to enforce and which not to. It’s time democratic bodies stopped requesting priorities from police and started dictating them.

Mull that over for a second: Imagine a police officer who’s about to do something illegal, unnecessarily violent or against procedure, and he doesn’t care that he’s literally recording himself doing it. That’s an argument against the cameras … how? Combined with First World accountability mechanisms, it should be the most efficient way to fire that officer — and in the long run, a way of building trust.

If it weren’t for video footage of police misconduct, we wouldn’t be where we are right now. Who doesn’t wish we had footage of the police encounter with Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell from a 24th-floor balcony in Toronto on May 27, or of any other contentious and disputed event? Especially in places where mistrust of police is historically and very understandably entrenched in certain communities — which is true of both the U.S. and Canada — properly administered body camera programs are a no-brainer.

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On Monday, Toronto City Council debated and passed a variety of proposed police reforms, the newsiest of which had been asking the department to table a 10-per-cent budget cut for 2021. That idea was voted down 16-8. Further proposed changes included asking the Toronto Police Service for a line-item budget, and subjecting police to the municipal auditor-general’s oversight — utterly revolutionary concepts, you will agree. (Both passed.)

The budget cut might at least have been a useful exercise: It would be interesting to know what the police would and wouldn’t do with $1.1 billion instead of $1.22 billion. If I had been a consensus-seeking councillor on the virtual floor, I might have moved a motion asking the police to table line-item budgets for both — and maybe push for 20 or 30 per cent, too. But the question of the budget sucked up too much oxygen.

That’s certainly understandable. The “defund the police” movement in all its permutations is having a moment. There are North American police departments and police unions that might as well be begging to be disbanded, as much with their banal and petulant misbehaviour as with their needless use of lethal force. A few might even get their wish.

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