Advocates make last-minute push to defund Toronto police during 2021 budget deliberations

·4 min read

Local activists and community groups pushing for the defunding of Toronto police are making a final appeal this week to slash the force's 2021 budget.

The calls to drastically reduce the proposed $1.076 billion police budget were made repeatedly during a Monday meeting of Toronto's budget committee, which is in the process of finalizing its 2021 spending plan.

"I think they're vulnerable," said Gary Kinsman, a member of No Pride in Policing, a queer and trans anti-racist organization. "This is the time that we think community organizations need to mobilize."

Kinsman's group is among those making formal deputations to the budget committee this week, demanding that Toronto immediately cut the police budget by 50 per cent, a demand first made by Black Lives Matter Toronto in 2020.

One Toronto city councillor, however, says it's important to note that a large chunk of this year's police budget is guaranteed in collective agreements, which run for several more years.

Kinsman said the momentum generated since last year's global protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality have created an opportunity for activist groups seeking an overhaul of policing.

Groups calling for a defunding of the police have argued that money currently spent on policing should be redirected to community organizations and front-line services that feature mental health experts and social workers.

"It's just amazing the type of city we could actually build, if we could just spend that money on what people actually need," Kinsman said.

People calling for a defunding of the police say that armed officers are ill-suited to respond to many types of calls, including those involving people of colour experiencing mental health issues.

"In a majority of settings, policing is the wrong tool for improving safety," said Brian De Matos, a board member at Pride Toronto, during his Monday deputation.

Pride Toronto is also now calling for a 50 per cent police budget reduction.

"We can no longer deny that policing often increases violence and harm," De Matos added.

At a sum of $1.076 billion, the Toronto police budget is the single largest expense in the city's $13.95 billion proposed budget for 2021.

Police say they will deliver a 'reformed' service

The proposed figure represents a zero per cent increase over the force's 2020 budget, marking the first time in several years that Toronto police have not requested a funding increase.

"This year, we're committed to doing more without asking for more," said police chief James Ramer in a statement earlier this month.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

"Torontonians want to see a reformed, efficient service, and we intend to deliver on that regardless of the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic."

The City of Toronto has also announced plans for a pilot project that would stop police from responding to certain non-emergency mental health calls in select areas of the city.

Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto-St, Paul's), the Toronto city councillor who spearheaded a failed proposal last year to cut the police budget by 10 per cent, said initiatives like the pilot project and the first-ever public release of a line-by-line police budget indicate that change is happening.

"I think there's an enormous amount of work to do, but I do believe that we're making progress," Matlow said in an interview.

Matlow went on to say a 50 per cent reduction is unrealistic since much of the 2021 budget is guaranteed in collective agreements that run for several more years.

"If we're not pragmatic about this and we don't do it responsibly, we're not going to make the changes that I think need to be made," he said.

While Kinsman acknowledged that a 50 per cent budget cut is unlikely, he predicted that pressure and calls for reform will continue.

"If they don't listen to the community in the context of city council meetings and hearings, they will be hearing from us in more powerful ways when people mobilize once again in the streets," he said.

Toronto's 2021 budget will go to city council for approval on Feb. 18.