Photo courtesy of Flickr.
By Lauren Atmore
With a city as dense and diverse as Toronto, it’s important that our police services are able to handle a wide range of community issues with tact and sensitivity while continuing to maintain order. While there is no doubt that our men and women in blue are a crucial force, several problems have arisen since the last election.
There is no better time to learn your candidates’ stance on these matters than now. With approximately 9,150 officers in the Toronto, York and Peel forces and a budget close to $1 billion dollars annually for Toronto’s agency alone, every candidate should have something to say about this municipal service.
1. Where does your candidate stand on the increased access to and use of tasers by Toronto police?
Toronto Police Service (TPS) Chief Bill Blair has openly supported the idea that more use of tasers amongst his force “has the potential to save lives.” Looking back on the death of Sammy Yatim, an 18-year-old killed in a struggle with Toronto Police in 2013, access to a taser could have made all the difference. The officer who shot and killed Yatim was a constable. At this rank, he wasn’t allowed to have and use a taser. Some argue, however, that an increase in de-escalation training would be sufficient to complement the existing force police offers currently have. “What we’re worried about is that tasers will be used when police wouldn’t have used guns in the first place,” explains Sakura Saunders of Disarm Toronto Police. “We’re not suggesting that all police don’t have arms, but that specially trained officers have guns that can be called in.”
2. Mental distress calls to emergency services are increasing. Does your candidate have a plan to handle the costs associated with these special demands while remaining sensitive to the range of needs of those with mental illness?
With over 20,000 calls coming in annually “directly related to mental health”, tactics must be put in place to ensure the safety of the public as well as the individual involved. Arrests under Provision 28, which allows TPS to apprehend an individual believed to be mentally ill, have increased 16 per cent from 2010 to 2012. A renewed effort has taken place to partner with national mental health groups to combat the increase in these confrontations, but are the right steps being taken? Does your candidate support a long-term plan for deep-rooted change?
3. What does your candidate think of measures like carding and strip searches? Are they an undue burden, evidence of systemic bias, or a helpful tool in cleaning up our streets?
With almost one third of all arrests leading to a strip search, there has been concern for several years that this tactic is overused. It has been suggested by the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition that the Level 3 search rate should be closer to 5 per cent of all arrests, and that new technology such as scanners similar to those in airports can help fill in the gap. While those tools would certainly be less invasive, it could lead to more people being searched without grounds while bumping up general TPS budget costs.
Carding, the practise of police asking to see identification from just about anyone they choose to ask is a method designed to keep our communities safe. Whether this technique works in apprehending individuals carrying out crimes or in reminding people that at any moment they could be asked to identify themselves, there is no doubt that this request is not carried out equally among Toronto’s residents. For instance, though Black Canadians comprise about 8 percent of Toronto’s population, they represent 23 per cent of all random cardings – about three times that of white people. Though recent regulations have come into place regarding carding, including officers being required to let the targeted individual know their rights, it’s hard to know what measures are effective in preventing racial profiling. Does your candidate have any ideas to contribute to this debate?
4. Does your candidate have a stance on the TPS budget? Does their stance include specific areas to spend on and others to save on?
In 2013, Toronto Police Services had a net budget of $927,740.50–almost one billion dollars–which also includes lifeguard and crossing guard programs across the city. To some, there is never enough funding available to those on our city’s front line. To others, TPS represents a force that obstructs individual liberties while adding little to community safety. Having to pay such high amounts adds insult to injury.
Whichever way you look at it, Toronto’s population is increasing year over year and as such, there are more people to keep an eye on and more situations to respond to. Could there be a better way to handle add-on costs, such as lifeguard and crossing guard services? Should wages be frozen to help cover growing costs of technology, or should the budget be expanded to cover the needs of both officers and citizens? When costs are spread out to the community as in the case of paid duty services, there appears to be a decrease in use when the costs go up. Is there any way this can be mitigated so events can properly supervised?
Finding a balance when it comes to community safety and those who enforce it can be difficult. It’s easy to say that you can’t put a price on health and safety but each year, requests are made to increase budgets, to increase benefits, to increase technologies designed to streamline procedures, and each year many of those requests are denied. The City doesn’t have infinite funds to cover all of the needs of this essential service. The candidates we elect, however, are the ones who decide what to spend on and where to save.