The Elephant in the Room – Defunding the Police

elephant in the room

Defunding the Police – Community Impact & Influence

By Quintin Johnstone, Founder & CEO of Samsonshield Inc. / Riskboss Inc.

As described by Wikipedia, “Elephant in the Room” is an American English metaphorical idiom for an obvious problem or risk that no one wants to discuss.” Controversial yes; however, very necessary conversation(s) here at Riskboss Magazine. In every publication, Riskboss Magazine will address the latest Elephant in the Room to clearly answer hard asked questions.

This article is probably the toughest we have published so far but an important one. The goal in writing this article is not to advocate for or against the police but moreover to highlight the past, present and likely future of policing throughout urban settings particularly in Ontario. It is also to possibly put to rest some of the urban myths about what policing has been, what it is now and is not and also, provide a different perspective on what it should and should not be.

As this magazine is designed to analyze and report on risk, there is no better topic to weigh the risk vs reward analysis of pundits who advocate the wholesale defunding of police and how it will impact all citizens wherever they live. The article will focus primarily on Toronto as it is the largest city in Canada (fourth largest in North America and is Canada’s largest municipal police service. However, the impact on this issue is nation-wide.

Since police amalgamation of the thirteen borough police forces in Toronto in 1957 and during the following sixty-four years, Torontonians have witnessed the steady and sustained annual examination of police budgets, greater police accountability efforts, changing methods for police to engage better with society and more recently, a move from traditional policing systems to more integrated mediation and early intervention models. All of this is well documented in City budgets, royal commissions, public inquiries, coroner’s jury inquests, independent studies, the media and in the court of public opinion.

The Old Order of Things

Toronto the Good they called our city in reference to very strict moral codes that included the Lord’s Day Act prohibiting shopping on Sundays and other laws that prohibited people from purchasing alcohol off open shelves until 1969. Some areas in Toronto were known as ‘Dry Areas’ where no alcohol could be sold well until the 1990s. Intolerance of anything not already well established by the masses was a death knell for change advocates.

In 1978 when I joined The Toronto Police Service, the Police Chief at the time Harold Adamson, (1970 to 1980, had a policy that was stringently enforced. His philosophy was that when a citizen called, a police officer would attend in person no matter what the call was for. Police officers attended all alarm calls even for residential home alarms, accidents, noise complaints and reports of bicycle thefts. It was a community expectation then that the police alone could solve all community issues.

Community leaders routinely asked police to take on one initiative and new expectation after another and the police responded by taking on these responsibilities with little complaint. Heavily burdened with bureaucracy, police eventually became more like report writers and statistics collectors than crime fighters or community-based problem solvers, particularly as the community grew and grew rapidly. Unrealistic expectations coupled with a lack of time for front line community involvement began to take their toll on police resources.

Today’s favour became tomorrow’s duty for police. Year by year, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, police resources were burdened with additional duties often not found in many other countries. This coupled with increased mandatory training obligations, greater court disclosure burdens and expanded regulatory compliance took away front line uniform resources from the growing demand for police service.

This may be shocking to some, but the controversial Young Offenders Act (YOA (1984 to 2003 was enacted just two years after the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and ushered in a new era of incarcerating more youth than most other counties in the world (more than double the rate than that of the United States, according to the federal Standing Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs. This burdened local police resources Canada-wide with additional duties never previously envisioned, and was something that front line police officers had no say in yet were forced to operationalize and administer. The YOA was dramatically reformed, but not before an entire generation of Canadian youth had been stigmatized.

Capacity to perform the old ways of policing in Toronto was at its end.

“The Times They Are A-Changin”

If there is one constant in policing it is that change is inevitable.

First and foremost, most in policing circles past and present believe strongly that policing should not be defunded in the way some would like to have it. In fact and surprising to many, most police insiders agree that policing should be de-tasked coinciding with any defunding efforts. In short, front line police want out of non-police work and never wanted the add-ons that were clearly out of police scope in the first place.

Advocates for police reform rightfully claim that crime rates are down so police strength should be reduced because increased policing costs are unsustainable. It is interesting to note that through my early years in policing, the Litmus Test for justifying more police resources was always crime stats being higher. Arguments that violent crime is higher is now proposed as justification to maintain police budgets.

Expectations vs Ability to Perform – Do More with Less

Defunding the police is nothing new. Police and community leaders have been at this for decades. Police in most jurisdictions throughout North America are either planning or actually engaged in, ‘restructuring’ police resources to include more civilian (lower paying roles and privatization to take on non-critical responsibilities from front line police officers.

For example, police officers used to write parking tickets. That was replaced by civilianizing this role and centralizing it into the more effective Toronto Police Parking Enforcement Unit. Similar initiatives with respect to prisoner transportation and centralized accident reporting were created to unburden front line uniformed police officers. Lower priority calls for service are now serviced through online and call-taker resources.

More recently, Toronto By-Law Enforcement Officers have expanded their mandate to include taking on more responsibilities that police officers formally did (e.g. noise complaints, homeless people). The courts wrongfully used to be the first point of entry for people with obvious mental health challenges that inevitably continued the process-driven stigmatization of those in dire need of help. This thankfully has changed to a much better model of early identification, referral and intervention, but there is still much more work to be done on this front. Changes to laws are also moving from a court-driven punitive system to more civil mediation remedies.

Expectations Are Changing

Andy Code Access Program Toronto Police

There is an old police culture saying that, “Society will get the police that they deserve” which begs the question, “What kind of police service does society really want?” Ask ten people and you are likely to get ten different answers depending on their age, political preference and where they live. Community and police leaders had and will always have to weigh annual budgets against community expectations of the day in order to get that balance correct.

Marihuana possession, for example, was criminalized in 1923 by the Liberal government under William Lyon McKenzie King, making Canada one of the first countries in the world to charge and incarcerate offenders for possession and smoking marihuana. The United States followed suit some fourteen years later.

In October of 2018, Canada became the second country in the world to legalize marihuana.

For just under one hundred years people have been charged and sometimes incarcerated, but now in Canada laws have changed to eliminate the associated criminal stigmatization with smoking pot. Yes a job police no longer have to do, but this has also increased the vigilance required to ensure safe roadways through increased police sobriety (RIDE) checks and balances.

If you or your company has been violated for lower priority crimes such as theft or fraud, simply put, police will take the report, but basically you are on your own for any semblance of public sector justice or recourse. Those with the means hire private investigators to conduct their own investigations that are then forwarded to a local court for consideration. Some with the means go straight to civil litigation as a way to replace the lack of formalized public justice.

Communities have seen and will continue to see a move to non-police and private resources for policing and remedies for lower priority crimes.

Even now, commercial towers and residential communities are taking on more private security and private investigation services.

In urban settings throughout North America, citizens have become numb to the fact that for many years petty crimes and irritating social disorders such as noise complaints have been left unresolved. The police are powerless to act due to a lack of personnel. More often than not, front line police officers and detectives will not show up at your door when called, and likely may not even call you back. This has been the new normal for policing in many jurisdictions for years. Lower priority calls for service take a back seat to more serious calls due to capacity levels.

Insurance companies continue to broadly hire their own investigators to combat vehicle theft for example. Banks have increased their compliment of often retired police detectives to combat bank theft and fraud. Technology is also stepping to fill the gap, replacing human resources. The contentious, “Paid Duty” or off duty police officer at construction sites is being changed to private security firms nation-wide responding to the question, “Why do you need an armed police officer to direct traffic? Is this the best use of our police resources?”

Police leaders have long held the view that they can no longer “Do it alone”, as were the days of Toronto the Good.

Community leaders have thankfully caught up to that reality and are in agreement. In the view of many, police should have a much clearer mandate with clearly defined roles, expectations that meet their capacity to perform and to focus their energies on what police do best. If that is “Defunding the Police”, then it is welcomed by most in policing circles, especially the front line.

The downsizing of front line resources through attrition compared to population increases will continue to have a dramatic impact to police response times in urban settings. This means that citizens will have much longer waiting times for non-emergency responses. Proactive community-based patrols by uniformed officers will become less frequent. Making communities as self-reliant as possible for minor incidents such as noise complaints, is a reality that people must prepare for.

Recent Plans by Toronto Community & Police Leaders

In August of 2020, the Toronto Police Services Board adopted eighty-one recommendations for police reform on, “Systemic racism, alternative community safety and crisis response models and building new confidence in public safety.” This backs on a 2017 program called, “The Way Forward. Modernizing Safety in Toronto. Transformational Task Force.” In essence, this model is based on neighbourhood policing focusing police uniform resources on what they do best. Eliminating smaller police divisions also features prominently in this plan through the recommendation to close or merge six police divisions in Toronto.

Police Population Ratios

Being by far the single largest budget item in most jurisdictions, policing burdens taxpayers more than any other service offered to citizens. A 2019 report from Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research highlighted that Toronto and the surrounding region (GTA) are the fastest growing metropolitan populations in North America, even surpassing the United States title holder, Dallas-Fort Worth- Arlington. Urban centers have been growing rapidly for decades. Are police resources keeping up with that challenge? Do we have enough police in Toronto? Some argue too much, while others contend that we do not have enough and have never had enough.

Police population ratios in Canada have always been vastly lower than comparative jurisdictions in the United States.

The population of Toronto proper in the year 2000 was 2.5 million and the compliment of uniformed police resources servicing Toronto was 5,149. Fast forward twenty years later and the Toronto 2020 population is 2.9 million policed by a compliment of 5,400 uniformed police officers. This is up from a low of 4,824 in 2018, which was a steady decline from the all-time high of 5,561 in 2009.

Juxtapose 2020 police resources in Toronto with that of the 8.7 million people who live in Manhattan where police resources are plentiful at a staggering 36,000 uniformed police officers supported by 19,000 support personnel and another 4,000 transit police officers.

Toronto is very often compared to one of our sister cities: Chicago, Illinois that is similar to Toronto in that it has a population of 2.7 million people.

In 2020, the uniformed Chicago police compliment is 12,138 officers. Compared to Toronto, Chicago has 56% more uniformed front line police officers with a relatively similar population density. Mind you, comparatively speaking Toronto has incredibly low homicide and shooting rates compared to Chicago. Toronto’s 2020 homicides were at 66. Reported shooting incidents were at 455. Chicago, on the other hand, has a 2020 homicide rate of 774. That is more than a 50% increase over 2019. 3,237 people have been shot in Chicago. That is a 53% increase year-over-year from 2019.

A Great Paying Job But Not Without Risk

With a 2020 operating police budget of 1.21 billion dollars, Toronto is very well known for paying their police well. In fact, a first-class constable makes just over $100,000 per year base salary.

Comparing that to both the NYPD, where similar front line officers make up to $110,000 annually (CAD conversion) and Chicago $105,000 annually (CAD conversion) puts Toronto pay rates on par with other major jurisdictions in North America.

Compare that also to other very important societal roles in Ontario such as teachers who make a rage of $85,000 to over $100,000 per year and fire fighters who make on average between $80,000 to $110,000 per year (2020).

Not without risk and by virtue of the roles, most police, fire and EMS responders are subjected to witnessing things that they see over and over again that most people shouldn’t see even once in a lifetime. The long-term effect of what responders witness leads to a higher rate of divorce, drug/alcohol abuse, depression and suicide. It is well above the national average compared to other vocations.

Better Times Ahead

After the dust settles, the ongoing debate between defunding the Police vs de-tasking the Police will eventually lead to better policing. Simply put, and to be frank, front line police officers in all jurisdictions want and realize fully that they have to be held to a higher standard of accountability given the immense powers they have been entrusted with.

Front line police officers are creatures of their training and the laws and processes built by community and police leaders that front line officers must follow. Front line police officers often have to suffer unfair push back on bad laws, poorly designed policies, a lack of capacity to perform, and mediocre and out of scope processes. Finally, the realization that the police cannot be all things to all people has taken hold.

It was Sir Robert Peel, often referred to as the father of modern policing, who in 1829 in Metropolitan London, England cited nine core elements of effective policing. One of the most quoted is,

“To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.” [Emphasis added]

Next time you see a police officer or for that matter a nurse, fire fighter, or EMS personnel, please thank them for their service. It will mean the world to them. While you are sleeping, they are working and available 24/7/365. Remember, when you are in need, not only are these people that are trained and willing to help regardless of circumstance, but they are also your neighbours.