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Op/Ed – Defunding police in Ontario: Mission impossible?

Signs collected in a makeshift memorial after the vigil in solidarity with Black Lives Matter in McBurney Park on Tuesday, Jun. 2, 2020. Photo by Tori Stafford.

The following is an Op/Ed submission from Councillor Jim Neill. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of The Kingstonist.

Across North America, in response to the very real and growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement, the cry has gone out to Defund Police. My fellow Councillors and I have received dozens of emails calling for the defunding of police in Kingston. Here are some facts. 

In the United States, Police Budgets are set solely by municipalities. So in Seattle or San Francisco, for instance, their elected Councils can make drastic changes to their policing methods and budgets, however revolutionary. 

Typically, historically in Canada, change comes about in a more evolutionary manner. In Ontario, for instance, policing is not governed solely by Municipalities, but by provincial legislation, such as the Community Safety and Police Services Act, enacted in 2019.  

Police Budgets are set by the Police Services Board, which is made up of provincially- and municipally-appointed members. It is then presented to the municipality for approval. If not approved, the Police Services Board has the power to seek provincial, binding arbitration; a potentially costly and futile process for the municipality. 

Many of the calls in Ontario to defund the police mirror directly those in the U.S. Does ‘one size fit all’ across North America?  

Here are just a few repeated requests from some Kingstonians worth reviewing: 

  1.  Defund police by 50 per cent and redistribute to Housing and Social Services.
  2. Never again increase the Police Services Budget. 
  3. Institute an immediate freeze of all police salaries. 
  4. Institute an immediate hiring freeze of all new police officers. 
  5. Disarm all police officers; guns, tasers, batons, etc. 
  6. Eliminate police patrols and vehicle and pedes 
  7. Remove School Resource Officers from all schools. 

Are any of these demands achievable or desirable in Kingston?  

There is first a ‘realpolitik’ reality. Drastic defunding by Council would make for an unwinnable and costly arbitration, as would demanding drastic staffing cuts.   

Requesting any level of government to “never again” do anything is not only beyond the powers of all levels of government, it ignores the reality of democratic decision making.  

Perhaps I have totalitarianism on my mind as I write this OpEd, while also following the U.S. election and listening to Trump responding to the results. I know people feel passionately about police reform, as I do. However, making demands that ignore the norms and rules of our democracy, and that disregard the real divisions of legislative powers in Canada, is troubling.  

Yes, your demands would be achievable in Seattle or San Francisco. As much as I love Seattle, I’m glad I live in Kingston. Ontario, indeed Canada, is far less fractured than our southern neighbours.  

Salaries are subject to a long and necessary Labour Act that protects collective bargaining. However eroded these protections may be, arbitration would again be a ‘slam dunk’ defeat for the City if we ignore provincial labour legislation. Many of the demands of Council above would clearly be “ultra vires” — well beyond our municipal powers in Ontario.          

First, unlike the United States, Education in Ontario is governed by the Education Act, cities by the Municipal Act. Kingston Council has no place in dictating educational policy to our schools.  

I’ve been a parent and a public educator for most of my adult life. I personally would never support outlawing police officers from schools. I would suggest that the role that they play in our schools is far different than that which police officers play in the United States, particularly in inner city schools.  

I’ve also been a City Councillor for 16 years. I doubt if many Kingstonians would endorse the outlawing of police officers in schools. 

Similarly, the call to end all traffic and pedestrian stops would never win the support of most of our constituents. Traffic calming through better traffic enforcement is one of the most frequent requests that Councillors receive. Clearly all stops must be based on clear legal reasons and never related to ethnicity, race, gender, etc., but shutting down all traffic stops would create chaos. 

There are demands for greater transparency, which are desirable and achievable. Open governance and transparency in every aspect of all our publicly funded bodies is definitely needed. There has been a legitimate demand for greater transparency of the Police Services Board decisions, particularly as related to budgets.  

Better funding of affordable housing and social services would and could address many of the real problems many face in Kingston that impact policing. There is a place for Police Services to continue to work collaboratively with these City departments. The Police Services Act encourages this. It’s up to us in Kingston to make it happen.        

A quick review of the new Community Safety and Police Services Act of 2019 shows some improvements and addresses some of the expressed concerns of critics. It calls for a need to prepare and approve a diversity plan that identifies members of under-represented groups. It also allows enlarging the size of the Board to achieve this. Board composition must reflect the diversity of areas served. There is now mandatory training of the Board that focuses on human rights, systemic racism, and cultural diversity. Anything acknowledging and naming systemic racism is a positive. 

In the name of transparency, all Board directions to the Chief must now be published on the internet. Greater clarity is defined regarding the responsibilities of Board and those of the Chief. 

There is a recommendation for a greater emphasis on community based policing. This is something that our constituents have lobbied for. It’s now up to the Board and the City to make it happen.  

Time will tell, but there is an opportunity to achieve meaningful police reform in Kingston. The Act continues the same frustrating budgeting format with binding arbitration. That will demand a greater collaboration between the Police Services Board and City Council.

Using the same defunding demands proposed in the United States ignores the reality of our democratic institutions and our democratic norms. That shouldn’t dissuade us from seeking reforms that can address concerns expressed, which will give all our residents greater confidence.

For those wanting to know more about this matter, Councillor Neill suggests perusing the following links from Ontario-based law firms:

https://filion.on.ca/insights/comprehensive-ontario-police-services-act-2019-changes-ontario-s-policing-landscape-again/

https://hicksmorley.com/2019/04/03/important-changes-in-policing-in-ontario/


Jim Neill is currently serving his sixteenth year on Kingston City Council, representing the Williamsville District. Neill is a recently retired public school teacher, a position he dedicated 30 years to. Neill was also a member of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), serving as OSSTF Vice-President for the Upper Canada Board.

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