JUNE 10, 2020
Waterloo Regional Police Chief Bryan Larkin was asked to stay away from last week’s massive protest in downtown Kitchener against racism in law enforcement across North America.
Out of respect for the organizers, he did.
But now he is eager to start the sensitive conversations and difficult decisions that must follow.
For Larkin personally, there has been anger, sadness and frustration since the brutal murder of an African-American man, George Floyd, by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Since then, protests across North America, both peaceful and violent, have demanded deep changes in policing.
“At some point, we’ll move forward as a community,” Larkin said in an interview this week.
There’s a “tremendous opportunity” for positive change.
Waterloo Region is not Minneapolis, or Louisville, or New York, or Ferguson, or any of the other communities in the United States where unarmed Black people have been senselessly killed by police.
But there is systemic racism here too, so closely woven into the fabric of everyday life that it feels like the air we breathe.
As activists across North America demand the “defunding” of police services, including in Waterloo Region, he agrees it is time for the discussion.
“Defunding” means removing all or part of a police budget in order to rebuild or reform the way public safety is ensured.
In Minneapolis, city council has pledged to disband the police department. In Toronto, a proposal will be put before city council later this month to remove 10 per cent of the police budget and reallocate that money to community services.
In Waterloo Region, organizers of the Black Lives Matter protest have said $29.3 million — 16 per cent of the region’s $180-million police budget — should be removed from police services and reallocated to other programs that help impoverished and racialized communities.
“When we invest in police, we invest away from housing, mental health supports, “ said Ruth Cameron, a Black activist who helped organize the march.
“Defunding” is not a new concept for Larkin. Over the years, there has been plenty of talk about what really should be police work and what should be the job of others.
Of about 300,000 calls a year to police, he said, 3,500 are related to someone in a crisis involving mental health, and another 7,800 are related to homelessness, including calls about trespassing and “unwanted” people.
Police respond to these calls, but that’s not necessarily because they’re the right people to be there. Often it’s because they’re the only people that are available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Who else are you going to call when your teenager locks himself in his room at 2 a.m. and you’re afraid he’s going to take his own life?
Police have their hands full with other issues: organized crime, human trafficking, child pornography, cybercrime and an escalation of gun violence, with 25 shootings in 2019-20.
Some mental health and homelessness issues might be better handled by social workers. Possession of drugs and addictions also are better handled as a public health issue, not a crime issue, said Larkin, who is a solid supporter of the drug consumption and treatment site in downtown Kitchener.
Defunding one service goes hand in hand with refunding another. “I want to challenge all levels of government. Let’s look at appropriate funding,” he said.
“My intention is to have a larger discussion” on these issues, and “absolutely” to include the leaders of last week’s protest in that discussion.
The road toward change will be filled with obstacles. The problems are complicated.
One reason police respond to mental health calls is that, unlike nurses and social workers, they have the power to apprehend someone if it is necessary.
But many of these calls involve volatile situations that are the product of underfunded mental health systems. (A CBC survey in 2018 found that across Canada, at least 70 per cent of people killed by police since 2000 suffered with mental health problems, drug abuse, or both.)
Another issue: Provincial law severely restricts the ability of people who are not police officers to do law enforcement. That, too, would need to change before these kinds of reforms can be considered.
Even the decision on funding police services is not made by the people you might think.
For the past week, Waterloo regional councillors have received hundreds of messages from the public asking that the police be defunded.
But although the money for the police budget comes from municipal taxes, elected municipal councillors have absolutely no control over that budget.
The budget is set by the Waterloo Regional Police Services Board, which includes three regional councillors and four members who are appointed.
If the municipality paying the bill thinks the police budget is too high, it can appeal to a provincial tribunal. But a municipality has never won an appeal.
So we need to ask for change, not only from local police but also from our representatives in the provincial government.
Still, there are plenty of things that can happen now to start meaningful change locally. They include:
- Speeding up plans to start using body cameras worn by police, so that there is full accountability for both the public and the officer when a confrontation happens. Police services board member Karl Kiefer, a regional councillor from Cambridge, has already called for this.
- Lobbying the province to appoint a local Black community leader to the vacant position now on the police board, so that this perspective is part of every decision around the table.
- Starting to collect data on the racial identities of both the police and the people with whom officers interact. This initiative is already underway and will help police address any imbalance.
- Studying two local programs that bring police officers together with young people, which the African, Caribbean and Black Network of Waterloo Region wants to see ended. Network members are concerned that the programs may be a form of police surveillance.
Both the programs were created with the intention to build relationships. One of the programs has police officers volunteer with youth from disadvantaged neighbourhoods. They coach sports, and take the youth skating, skiing and camping.
The other has police officers spending time in schools, making themselves available as a resource in and out of classrooms. Public school board trustee Scott Piatkowski plans to ask for a review of the school program at the next board meeting.
Larkin is willing for these programs, and the police service in general, to be reviewed.
“We can only police the community with the consent of the community,” he said.