TORONTO, Ontario (CTV Network) — A year after the death of George Floyd, one expert says Canadian cities have made little progress in addressing calls to defund the police.
Julius Haag, a sociology and criminology professor at the University of Toronto, told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday that no Canadian cities have successfully defunded their police force to date. However, he says there continues to be some momentum to potentially do so in certain regions.
“Many of our city councils have debated measures to defund the police, but we haven’t actually seen any substantial cuts,” Haag said.
“We have seen measures though to study the issue, and we have seen measures put forward towards alternative measures in terms of police accountability, but not substantial financial deductions,” he added.
Floyd, who was Black, died on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis after then-police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck, pinning him to the ground for about 9 1/2 minutes. Chauvin, who is white, was convicted in April 2021 of murder and faces sentencing on June 25. Three other fired officers involved in the incident still face trial.
Floyd’s death sparked anti-Black racism protests across the world and calls to defund the police.
Supporters say defunding the police isn’t about eliminating police departments or gutting police budgets. They say it is about addressing systemic problems in policing and redistributing some of their funding to other areas of communities, including mental health supports, housing and education.
While the idea of defunding the police is not a new one, Haag said Floyd’s death gave it a focus and audience it had yet to see, including in Canada.
However, he says defunding the police here is going to be a “somewhat long-term process” compared to cities in the United States.
“It’s something that’s probably going to inevitably involve study in terms of what it is the police do, what types of calls for service they receive, how they respond to those calls, what agencies that exists can respond to alternative calls… [and] what agencies need to be created to initiate those responses,” Haag explained.
STEPS CANADIAN CITIES HAVE TAKEN
While some Canadian cities have taken steps toward looking at these issues, Haag said there hasn’t been enough progress.
“I think progress is slow, I but I expected it to be slow. I think that there’s still much to be done,” he said.
In March 2021, the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners passed a motion to accept the terms of reference for the committee to define defunding police.
According to the board, the committee will review research relevant to policing and engage with the public to get their thoughts on what defunding the police means.
In April 2021, Projet Montreal, the political party governing Montreal, adopted a motion during the municipal party’s convention calling on the city to “review the need for all police officers to carry a firearm, and set in motion a pilot project for this purpose.”
The same month in Edmonton, city council voted unanimously in favour of having city administration work with police to review and develop a strategy for implementing recommendations from the city’s Community Safety and Well-Being Task Force.
The report included 14 recommendations, including a freeze to police funding, changing the composition of the police commission to better reflect the community, increasing transparency and examining ways of preventing unnecessary use of force.
The Vancouver Police Board rejected a request from city hall in June 2020 to cut one per cent of its budget, which would have amounted to an $8.5-million cut from its $340-million budget.
The same month, Toronto city council also rejected a motion to cut 10 per cent from the Toronto Police Service’s budget, which would have amounted to a $107-million reduction.
Haag said one of the major challenges that come with defunding the police is that police budgets are “wrapped up” in long-term collective bargaining agreements.
“For example in Toronto, upwards of 90 per cent of our police budget [is] going towards salaries and benefits, so to cut large portions of that budget would require dealing with the overall strength and composition of the force, and that’s tied up to those collective bargaining agreements,” Haag said.
He added that the public, politicians and police units are divided on what defunding the police would actually look like, as it is a “highly polarizing, highly contentious issue.”
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE
While police are necessary in some situations, Haag said alternative agencies should be established for emergencies where police might not be needed, including mental health crises.
However, he said, the “long-term objective” of defunding the police needs to address “social and structural issues” within forces related to criminalization including systemic racism, homelessness, community resources and educational attainment, among others.
When compared to steps made in the U.S, Haag said Canada still has a “long way to go” toward defunding the police.
“We don’t think that the issues that we deal with here in Canada are of a similar severity as they are to the U.S.,” he said.
Haag explained that progress may be slower in Canada because issues of racial profiling and police brutality are primarily seen as “American-focused issues.”
However, he noted that there are also “very real issues” of police misconduct and police violence against people of colour in Canada.
“But because of those comparisons, we often are made to believe or are often made to think that those issues are not as severe… or that the extensive those issues are not as harmful in Canada,” Haag said.
Despite this, Haag said he expects the push to defund the police to continue.
“Because it’s a highly contentious political issue, [it] will still take a long time to realize full-term objectives and outcomes, but… now it’s an issue that has a broad base of public support so I don’t see it being something that’s going to go away,” Haag said.
With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press
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