Toronto Police Chief Urges ‘Meaningful’ Reform Amid Calls to Defund Police

Toronto’s police chief says he does not support “arbitrary cuts” to the force’s budget, but does support overhauling how the force deals with those in crisis, in the wake of calls by protesters to defund the police. 

Chief Mark Saunders cautions that there is currently no alternative system in place for handling mental health-related calls and says there must be a new plan in place before any reforms take effect. 

“I don’t support arbitrary cuts. If something is put in place that enhances community safety I would definitely consider that but I, certainly as a police chief, would like to see what it was, to ensure that it either meets the standard or exceeds the standard as to where it is present-day,” Saunders said at a council meeting debating police reform on June 29.

“I’m fine with any type of reform as long as it’s done in a meaningful way, and as long as all stakeholders at the table have input towards it. I think one of the largest gaps is that things sometimes are rushed ahead and not really paced out and put together properly.” 

Saunders made the comments at a city council meeting June 29 that debated a motion on police reform put forward by Toronto Mayor John Tory. The motion proposed a suite of changes to policing that also includes anti-racism measures and the implementation of body-worn cameras. 

Calls to defund police were sparked in the wake of the police killing of a Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, as well as the death in Toronto of 29-year-old Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman who fell from her balcony while police were in her home.

Toronto city councillor Josh Matlow had also put forth a motion to cut the police budget by 10 percent, but withdrew that motion after the mayor put forward his motion.

The mayor is seeking the “creation of non-police led response to calls which do not involve weapons or violence, such as those involving individuals experiencing mental health crises and where a police response is not necessary.”

The mayor is also seeking the cost savings to the police budget that change would make. And the city is looking to equip all officers with body cameras by Jan. 1, 2021, which Saunders said would cost about $5 million per year.

As part of overhauling the response to mental health calls, the motion seeks to have police notify crisis units for every call for someone experiencing a crisis.

There are currently eight mobile crisis intervention teams that involve a police officer and nurse trained in dealing with those in the throes of a mental health crisis, Saunders said. They do not operate 24 hours per day.

Police respond to more than 30,000 mental health calls per year, or about 82 calls per day. The teams are not primary responders—they are dispatched once patrol officers have arrived and evaluated the situation.

Saunders said mental health calls are complex.

“We’re talking about calls where machetes are involved, axes are involved, and whenever we do have these calls, it’s mandatory two officers respond,” he said.

“I’d rather have the sit-down and all educate ourselves a little more on what we do and what the public wants done.”

Black Lives Matter’s Canada chapter, one of the main organizers of anti-racism protests across Canada, has called for “abolition of the police” and “a reinvestment into Black, Indigenous, racialized, impoverished, & other targeted communities.”

“We are working toward the abolition of the police and toward a society where we can all be safe. While this is focused on law enforcement, we are also calling to defund jails, prisons, immigration detention centres, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and the Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA),” says the Black Lives Matter Canada website. 

With files from The Canadian Press