Pink Paint and Politics: Reforming Police Governance in Canada

By Maanvi Dhillon 

Standing in front of a statue dripping with pink paint, Ravyn Wngz looked into a dozen television cameras and explained why Black Lives Matter activists felt they had no other choice but to turn to dramatic tactics. In a speech that quickly went viral online, she softly described her frustration. “We’ve tried many different ways to get the attention and the conversation of those in leadership roles and positions.  It took us having to do this, to get you all to show up” she said, pointing at the pink statue. 

Ten days later, she further expanded on those thoughts, writing “I needed people to understand that we had tried everything—that we had appealed to every aspect of white humanity through books, essays, TED talks, plays, music and protests. Still, we are murdered, while sleeping like Breonna Taylor or while out buying Skittles like Trayvon Martin.”

Ravyn’s frustration raises an important question: why is policing so resistant to public critique?  During the past year, many institutions acknowledged structural racism and reflected on how they needed to change. From sports leagues to school boards to awards shows, there were swift responses to the dialogue and protests that followed the murder of George Floyd and others by police, such as Ejaz Choudry in Canada. Yet police forces, despite the wave of protests from coast to coast in Canadian cities, refuse to budge.  

Over the last twelve months, as more people became aware of the ways policing harms minority and marginalized communities, they turned to their city councils to voice their criticisms. Councillors and mayors across the country heard from constituents requesting to defund their police force––a service that tends to take the biggest chunk of Canadian city funds, ranging “from one-10th to nearly a third of total budgets”––and to channel that money towards under-funded social services like public housing and mental health support. In Hamilton, residents sent dozens of video delegations to a council committee and hundreds of letters to the council and police board. More than 200 people attended a town hall on changes to policing in Toronto and in Calgary, hundreds spoke at the council’s public hearings on systemic racism. 

In short, citizens came out, wrote letters, spoke up, and made clear that they have issues with the current systems of policing in their cities. It was inspiring to see people put in the work that the public is always told to do if they want political change. And yet … little came from it. Canadian cities have not made major, or even minor, cuts to their police budgets. The lacklustre acknowledgement of popular, grassroots, citizen-driven, organized calls to defund the police in Canadian municipalities should concern us all. Why is a movement that has checked the boxes of invested democratic and civic behaviour, that is led by Black people and marginalized communities, being ignored?

One explanation lies in the democratic structures we use to regulate police budgets in Canada. The truth is, our elected city councils have very limited control over local police forces.  Instead, our police are regulated by “police services boards”, which are not elected and are virtually unknown to the average person.  These boards are usually composed of a few members of council and several citizens, who are appointed.  

This structure of police oversight in our cities has proven to be a barrier.  An elected city council can accept or reject proposed police budgets as a whole, but in most cases, they cannot really influence the details of where that money is spent. This division of power was on display last June, when Toronto’s council had to form motions responding to public critiques of policing as polite requests to the police board rather than forceful directions.

The separation between councils and police oversight bodies is based on the principle that police services should be independent from political forces. This is to ensure that police are not inappropriately controlled or directed by politicians. However, as a Globe and Mail article observed last summer, if oversight bodies don’t provide sufficient scrutiny to police forces, then the current structure serves to insulate the police and their governance from the accountability and responsiveness built into our democratic systems.

There are lots of reasons to doubt these boards’ openness to widely demanded changes in policing, or their capacity for oversight at all. Ontario alone has experienced multiple severe instances of police services boards falling short: the Toronto board was found to have failed to prevent policing issues at the 2010 G20 summit and the Thunder Bay board was disbanded in 2018 after a report found that they failed to respond to documented systemic racism against Indigenous people. Some attribute issues to the unclear role of police boards: in Ontario they are technically meant to focus on broader policy and cannot intervene in daily operations of the force, but this distinction can be blurred and confusing. Others have found that the boards are underfunded and under-resourced, and that members do not receive sufficient, non-biased training to adequately serve their role. Social diversity is also important to note here: one analysis found that Ontario’s five largest boards were “overwhelmingly male and white”. Lacking representation of diverse and marginalized social groups may relate to the boards’ lukewarm attitude to defunding proposals, given that privileged members of society are less exposed to the harms of policing.

The weakened responsiveness of this system was made clear in Vancouver over the past year. Their city council passed motions to end street checks and decriminalize poverty last summer after hearing from constituents, but the police force and board did not comply. The Vancouver police actually created a new Neighbourhood Response Team for low priority “street disorder issues” that directly contradicts the council’s motion to reduce policing of vulnerable populations. When this was pointed out, the police department emphasized that they are not bound to council’s directions. Local advocacy groups joined to criticize the VPD’s response, noting how their police board ignored the priorities set by the elected council. The board also rejected a 1% cut to the police budget that city staff recommended to them and many other departments, instead approving an increased budget. Overall, some advocacy organizations have questioned that board’s independence from the police force and its chief.

Jumping back to Ontario, the decision to make a significant change like defunding is not solely left to cities and police boards to sort out. If those groups can’t reach an agreement on a budget, the dispute is taken to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC), which is a provincial civilian oversight body. Again, while the independence of the civilian commission has a purpose, the bite to their scrutiny has been questioned. Martin Schoots-McAlpine, an organizer and PhD candidate at York University, wrote an article examining the OCPC. He pointed out that the group’s members are appointed by the provincial government and are predominantly lawyers, who tend to be professional and managerial-class people. He also notes that their framework and structure are friendly to the police; members are encouraged to build relationships with stakeholders like police chiefs, and their budget decisions are made on the basis of maintaining “adequate” police service, precluding the possibility for broader critiques that aim to abolish the police and implement other community safety models. Drawing from cases in Niagara and London, Schoots-McAlpine identifies a trend: in the few cases that city councils have tried to challenge police boards on their budgets, “police services boards frequently use the threat of an OCPC intervention to get their budget proposals approved.” Thus, the system is not equipped to fairly process requests that challenge the legitimacy of policing at large, so our civilian oversight bodies may actually be preventing meaningful democratic oversight rather than enabling it. 

What does all of this mean? At a broad level, whether you agree with the calls for abolition of police or not, there is still cause for concern in the situation. Many Canadians––led by members of oppressed and disenfranchised groups––have invested time and energy to express their legitimate frustrations with our policing system and demand changes. Ignoring them and perpetuating the status quo may seem convenient, but it will not make their critiques disappear. Instead, that exclusion fuels distrust in our institutions and political system amongst communities who have been disappointed by them time after time.

A democracy must be accountable and responsive to all of its members. People should feel welcome for voicing their opinions and suggestions on issues like public safety, not shut out. Failures in our police oversight and governance institutions cannot be tolerated––they warrant urgent, fulsome attention. 

Proposals for meaningful reform include mandatory training for all board members, regular public evaluations of board performance, expanding the oversight powers of the Special Investigative Unit and reducing the number of former officers on its investigative teams, strengthening the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, and perhaps replacing our appointed police boards with democratically elected bodies.

Groups like the various defunding advocates and the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition are working to highlight issues and lay the foundation for stronger, more diverse, more critical public oversight of Canadian police forces.  Listening and responding to these activists and groups is essential if we intend to ensure real, inclusive, and equitable public safety in our cities and provinces.

Maanvi Dhillon is board member of Unlock Democracy Canada

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