Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Thursday conceded to the presence of systemic racism in Ontario police forces, and cited a need for improvements from training to “awareness,” but doubled down on his opposition to taking away funds from police budgets.
Earlier this week, Ford told reporters that he didn’t and had never believed in cutting funds from police forces, after he was asked about calls to ‘defund’ police services cropping up across North America. One such call has come from within the City of Toronto, with some councillors pushing for a 10 per cent reduction of the police budget — with the funds saved as a result re-directed towards “community investments.”
Ford himself served as a councillor and vice-chair of Toronto’s budget committee in 2011, when then-Mayor Rob Ford put pressure on the police service and other city departments to find savings of 10 per cent. But asked by iPolitics about that effort Thursday, as well as his government’s lopping of approximately $46 million from the Ontario Provincial Police within their budget last year, Ford argued that those endeavours had been an attempt to weed out waste and that cuts were a separate matter. “Driving efficiencies doesn’t mean cutting,” Ford said during his daily press conference. “It just means making sure that we can reallocate money to people that need it and areas that are needed.”
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The Toronto city councillor who put forward the recent motion to defund the city’s police, meanwhile, argued that the premier was splitting hairs. “Whether you call it finding efficiencies, or defunding, or cuts — whatever parlance you choose — it’s about taking money from one place and finding those savings and then investing it into another place,” Councillor Josh Matlow told iPolitics in a phone call Thursday afternoon.
“Not only has Premier Ford supported finding efficiencies in every other area of Toronto’s budget in the past, he’s also supported reallocating funds from the police budget towards other priorities,” Matlow added. He then urged Ford to ensure policing wasn’t the only budget line rendered “untouchable,” arguing that every dollar is currently needed at the local level. Though Matlow cautioned to iPolitics that he was trying not to be “too prescriptive” about where any funds taken from the police budget could go, he pointed to ideas such as having social workers respond to some mental health crisis calls currently attended to by police officers, which he argued could assist with de-escalation.
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The movement to ‘defund’ police forces has been part of the ongoing unrest over the use of lethal force by police officers — propelled by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, after a police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes in the United States. Ford was asked directly by Global News whether he believed systemic racism existed in Ontario’s police services on Thursday afternoon, and replied in the affirmative.
“Yeah. There’s degrees of systemic racism everywhere,” Ford said, while cautioning that he didn’t want to paint anyone with a “broad brush.” (A similar question was posed to the prime minister on Thursday on the heels of comments from RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki yesterday that disputed the presence of systemic racism in the national police force.) “With any group, you can have good and bad,” Ford added.
Ford was quizzed specifically about defunding efforts earlier this week, and asked whether that was something he’d consider for Ontario Provincial Police’s billion dollar budget. “I don’t believe in that for a second,” the premier replied. “What we need to do is have higher standards, we need to focus more on training … but I just don’t believe in, you know, cutting police budgets. I just never believed in that.”
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On the matter of last year’s reduction to the OPP’s operating budget — which was cut by four per cent, from $1.17 billion to $1.12 billion, as reported at the time by iPolitics — Ford on Thursday pointed to other investments made in areas like infrastructure, specifically noting the construction of new detachments for the force and investments in a new communications system.
“There’s a lot of things that we can improve in every sector, including the police,” Ford told reporters. “Do we need improvement, maybe better training, more community policing, more awareness? Absolutely we do. But not to cut ‘em … You have an incident? Someone’s breaking into your house? You want to have the police there instantly. You don’t want to be waiting. And anyone who doesn’t believe that, well, I guess they haven’t faced an issue when they’re in desperate need of police.”
Ontario Green leader Mike Schreiner, meanwhile, urged Ford to be open to some of the potential changes being proposed. “Important conversations are happening right now about anti-racism and transformative changes to policing and community safety. The Premier should not be so quick to reject the call for change that is coming from the BIPOC community,” Schreiner said. “If Premier Ford truly believes that systemic racism within police institutions is a problem, then he should be open to the conversations and actions needed for change.”