Amid protests against police violence and growing demands across North America to rethink policing in daily life, Toronto city council debated several motions related to reforms on June 29.
Council ultimately sided with Mayor John Tory over a spate of reforms, voting in favour of a report looking into alternative models for community-safety response, as well as the use of body-worn cameras by police. Cameras have been a contentious issue. Critics, such as Councillor Josh Matlow, say they would just add an extra cost to the more than billion-dollar police budget without tackling the underlying fears and concerns people have about their safety during police interactions.
One of the most intensely debated items involved the request from Matlow and Ward 13 councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam to cut the police budget by 10 per cent. During the break, after facing pushback from councillors siding with the mayor, Matlow tweeted, “The status quo has many friends.” The vote failed: eight councillors voted yes and 16 no.
The police-budget vote emphasizes divisions within Toronto — both geographic and demographic — and sparks questions about representation and civic engagement.
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All but one of the eight votes in favour of the budget cut came from councillors in the central part of the city. All but one of the councillors in Etobicoke, Scarborough, and North York voted no.
There’s another contrast in vote breakdown: the outlying wards, which largely voted no, also tend to be home to a higher percentage of Black Torontonians.
“Defund the police” has been a rallying cry for protesters: it was written in pink, street-sized letters outside police headquarters during the Juneteenth sit-in organized by Not Another Black Life. That day, Black Lives Matter Toronto also released a list of police-reform demands, including the immediate redirection of 50 per cent of the police budget toward community services.
It should go without saying that there’s diversity of opinion in the city’s Black community about the role of police — Councillor Michael Thompson voted against the budget cut. But Black Torontonians have a long history of advocating for changes in policing, be it budgets or removing police officers from city classrooms. A 2018 report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission also found a number of disturbing stats about police brutality. Despite making up less than 9 per cent of the city’s population, Black people made up 30 per cent of police use-of-force cases that resulted in serious injury or death, 60 per cent of deadly encounters with Toronto police, and 70 per cent of fatal police shootings.
Indigenous people, the LGBTQ community, and mental-health and poverty advocates have also demanded changes. But, given the data available and the central role Black activists have played in calls to defund the police, this analysis will focus largely on the city’s Black community.
Looking at the 10 wards with the highest percentage of Black Torontonians in the last available census numbers, eight of the 10 councillors voted against the police budget cut.
“Intuitively, you might have expected areas with a higher proportion of the Black population would be more inclined to vote in accord with the rallying call and advocacy coming from, in particular, the Black community, although we know it's certainly not only the Black community that is calling for the transfer of municipal funding from policing,” says Myer Siemiatycki, a professor emeritus in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University. “It is kind of striking that it's not the areas of largest Black concentration of population that voted to defund — it's the central city, which, generally speaking, is whiter and has less of an immigrant population.”
Raven Wings, of Black Lives Matter Toronto, doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that these wards voted no. “Throughout history, we've been told that Black people are inherently more violent," she says. “But what we understand is that enslaved Africans were brought here against their will and forced to work for free in a country that never took care of us, that never supported us.”
Jamilla Mohamud, a master’s student in Environmental Studies at York University whose research focuses on urban livability and Black communities, says, “I think the tragedy of this council vote … is that those councillors who voted against that watered-down motion are the same councillors who opposed public investment in the inner suburbs, which are large parts of Toronto where the Black community resides.”
Days after the June 29 policing votes, council rejected a motion to eliminate TTC special constables. Mohamud says it’s important to tie this and the failed budget cut together: “It’s clear that council seems to be only interested in prioritizing cruel approaches to community safety that render the city as unlivable for Black, Indigenous, and other racialized people.”
Siemiatycki says that a number of factors might have contributed to the suburban-urban contrast — for example, a lack of diversity on city council and Premier Doug Ford’s decision, months before the last election, to cut the size of council from 47 members to 25. If the 2018 vote had involved 47 councillors, as originally intended, he says, it would have had the potential to be a “once-in-a-lifetime” election, given that the highest proportion ever of Toronto councillors were not running for re-election. “We know the major factor that prevents new blood coming onto city council is the power of incumbency,” he says. “Had we stayed with the original plan for a 47-member city council, it would have given us the most diverse council in our history, because we know who was running in the council races.”
Mohamud also points to the premier’s decision to cut council seats. She says it “not only disadvantages the more progressive motions that may come out of the downtown wards but also keeps the status quo, which has been to support increases in policing budgets instead of redirecting the financial resources towards housing or accessible and free transit services across the city.”
Siemiatycki says there are political differences between the suburbs and the city centre, which, he says, can be seen not only in Toronto but also in the U.S. and around the world: downtown councillors tend to be, in terms of values and outlook, more oriented toward equity and social-justice issues, while suburban politicians tend to focus on issues such as property taxes and safety. “The fact that there are more racialized minorities and immigrants in the suburbs, often living in high-rise apartments — many politicians consciously or unconsciously think they're not as significant a political force,” he says.
When asked about the suburban-urban divide, Councillor Michael Ford, who represents Etobicoke North and sits on the Toronto Police Services Board, says he doesn’t “agree with putting the political lens on this discussion,” adding, “You could take that away [from the vote], but I don't really have any comments on that split.”
Ford voted against the 10 per cent budget cut. “I think the approach that's been taken is let's consult with the community, let's reach out to them, let's understand what we see as effective policing for the current times, and then we fund it. And, if that means we move funding away from Toronto police to something else, then we have that conversation with the facts in front of us at that time. Monday, we didn't have any of that.”
In terms of his constituents, Ford says he received many communications about abolishing the police and defunding the police in the lead-up to the vote. “I reached out to a lot of people who called my office to have a conversation about what that would actually look like if we did it. And once they had an understanding of what we were trying to do on Monday — to review everything, fund certain priorities and to reallocate once we looked at that — people understood and agreed with that.”
According to demographic data, Black Torontonians make up about 23.4 per cent of Ford’s ward — one of the highest percentages in the city. Etobicoke North is home to a number of Torononians who are of South Asian, Jamaican, Italian, and Somali descent. About 24 per cent of the ward’s population is white, compared to about 49 per cent in the city.
“We are literally fighting for our lives and asking the people who are supposed to represent us to have our best interests,” Wings says. “They think that in order for us, Black people, to exist in this society in a safe way, we need more police in our neighbourhoods. And we don't.”
Toronto council voted on a number of motions — and amendments to motions — on Monday, coming out in favour of a report to look into a crisis-response system similar to the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon. For crisis calls, a medic and a crisis worker with mental-health experience are dispatched instead of police. Council also voted in favour of a line-by-line summary of the 2020 police budget.
But the votes for body cameras and against the budget cut had many watching the online council meeting talking about the next election.
“I think that councillors who voted against the police budget cut should be held accountable in the next election cycle for their inability to hear loud and clear the call for unprecedented changes in Toronto from Torontians in the streets,” Mohamud says.
Torontonians won’t head back to the polls until 2022, but, Siemiatycki says, policing has the potential to become a municipal-election issue. “When an issue becomes super-charged and gets a lot of attention, it is possible that organizing can happen to try to change the composition of council.”
Geography, he says, shapes things, but “geography isn’t destiny.”
The election may be two years away, but the conversation on policing continues. The Toronto Police Services Board will be holding a virtual town hall on July 9.