WATERLOO REGION — Black activists who led thousands of people in Wednesday’s march say the protest is not over and the work to end anti-Black racism needs to continue, and that starts with defunding the police.
The African, Caribbean and Black Network of Waterloo Region wants to see funding reallocated — to the tune of $29.3 million — from Waterloo Regional Police Services and put into social service programs that help impoverished and racialized communities.
“When we invest in police, we invest away from housing, mental health supports,” said Ruth Cameron, a member of the network’s steering committee who helped organize Wednesday’s march.
“People are not inherently criminal. Crime is the result of people not being able to meet their basic needs?
Cameron said racialized youth can thrive if their parents are given more resources and supports. She said police funds should be repurposed to help communities instead of policing those communities.
“I think there is a lot of wisdom in communities about how to become more inclusive,” she said.
She cited Los Angeles, where on Thursday the city’s mayor slashed the police department’s budget by $150 million. It was an unprecedented move made in response to calls to defund police departments across the USA as protests continue in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
The mayor said he will direct funds to youth jobs, health initiatives and “peace centers” to heal trauma, and will allow those who have suffered discrimination to collect damages, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
“It is not a radical idea,” said Teneile Warren, another member of the group’s steering committee. “In fact, it can happen very quickly.”
In the Region of Waterloo’s 2020 budget, $180 million went to Waterloo Regional Police from the region’s tax base. Half of a homeowner’s property taxes go to the region, while the other half is distributed to the local municipality they reside in and schools.
Almost one-third of the taxes paid to the region — $663 per average household — goes directly to policing.
Waterloo Regional Police Chief Bryan Larkin said he agrees that more money needs to be spent on mental health services and addiction services, as well as ways to decrease poverty. He said he thinks there is a lot of money within the system that could be reallocated to improve other services, but not necessarily from the police budget.
“There is a lot of proactive policing we’re struggling to keep up with such as child exploitation, sexual assault,” he said.
“I recognize we are expensive.”
Police budgets are determined by the police board and then given final approval by regional council. The police board is made up of three elected members from regional council, three members appointed by the province and one community-at-large member who is also appointed by regional council.
She said she didn’t think defunding the police is the place to go, but instead said investing in social supports and having a conversation about how policing is done is a good place to start.
“It doesn’t have to be an either or proposition,” she said.
She said the province and region have a cost-sharing agreement for social services, but the police budget is paid for entirely through local taxes.
Local activists including Cameron and Warren marched on Wednesday to protest police brutality against Black individuals. The march was held in solidarity with others across North America.
At the march, activists told thousands of protesters that they want to see an end to systemic discrimination against Black communities in Canada, including communities in Waterloo Region.
“The Waterloo Region is not exempt from police mistreatment and violence toward poor, Black, and racialized people,” the group said in a public statement.
It cited a 2016 analysis by The Record in which is was found that Black individuals are four times more likely to be stopped by Waterloo Regional Police officers.
“I believe there is systemic discrimination within policing. It is something we have been working very hard toward,” Larkin said.
He said the service is in the middle of subconscious bias training for its officers. It has anti-Black racism education and Indigenous training on the docket next.
“We are not perfect. We do not always get it right,” he said.
Larkin said he is open to having a discussion with the ACB Network about its concerns with policing in the region.
“We are committed to positive change, we are committed to dialogue.”
The network said the police targets Black youth and students in impoverished communities and schools through two specific programs they want to see scrapped.
The first is the city of Kitchener’s Community Outreach Program, a voluntary program for youth between 11 and 15 who live in the Centreville-Chicopee, Kingsdale and Mill-Courtland neighbourhoods. It involves activities with first responders such as skiing in the winter and summer camp.
“This program is targeting marginalized communities,” said Warren. She said these specific neighbourhoods have higher percentages of poor residents, as well as those who are Black and brown.
“We have this idea that interaction with first responders is the Holy Grail of interactions. This program is a path to incarceration.”
Fitsum Areguy, a local activist and member of the group’s steering committee, said this program is a form of police surveillance on youth who are considered “at risk.”
“The most disturbing aspect of this is we don’t know how much information is being collected on these youth (by police).”
Kitchener Mayor Berry Vrbanovic was one of the program’s co-founders. He said it was created in response to community concerns around youth crime at the Centreville-Chicopee Community Centre.
“It all sort of culminated with some of the kids bringing a loaded handgun into the community centre, which back in 1998 was a big deal in Kitchener.”
The city started to brainstorm different ideas on how it could create a program to engage youth in that neighbourhood, Vrbanovic explained, it was built around ideas of mentoring based on similar programs across North America.
“The program is constantly evolving based on feedback from participants and parents,” Vrbanovic said, adding that city staff and community volunteers also act as mentors in the program.
“The response to youth bringing a handgun into the community was met with: ‘we need to be building bridges with the police,’” Areguy said, adding that another approach involving social workers or youth workers should have been considered instead.
“It opens up contact between youth and police, why is that happening?”
Vrbanovic said the community outreach program is one he cares about a lot. The program sees about 50 to 100 youth between the ages of 11 and 15 participate in the seasonal activities, including a three-day overnight camp experience.
He said he is concerned by the ACB Network’s demand to dismantle the program, because he said he hears positive feedback from participants about their experience.
“One of the things that, in my view, could be really unfortunate is for the kids who otherwise do not have an opportunity to go to summer camp and so on to not have those opportunities anymore.”
“For me, what we need to do is to sit down and look at what the issues are,” Vrbanovic said.
Police officers volunteer to take part in the program along with other first responders like firefighters and paramedics.
Areguy said school resource officers are another example of how marginalized youth are placed in police presence.
Each city has three school resource officers who support schools through presentations on road safety, stranger danger, healthy lifestyles, and other topics. There is also one for rural schools.
Larkin said these police officers work in partnership with school boards and are invited into schools to give presentations on a variety of topics.
“School resource officers can act as a role model,” Larkin said.
School resource officers also deal with service calls to schools, such as if there is an altercation on school property.
Cameron said she was perplexed by the idea of having police officers do this type of work in schools. It creates another opportunity for interaction between racialized youth and police officers.
“Why on earth would we bring in police instead of nurses and social workers?”
Areguy said he has heard from Black student unions in some area high schools who said they feel unsafe when they see police officers in the hallways of their schools.
Chief Larkin said he is open to talking to the group as well as other stakeholders to discuss concerns about both youth programs.
“It’s an opportunity to evaluate the program, discuss concerns, look at the evidence-based data,” he said.
Larkin said he is also open to having conversations about how policing can be done differently in Waterloo Region.
The Waterloo Region District School Board said in an emailed statement: “We thank the African Caribbean Black Network of Waterloo Region for sharing this information with us. We look forward to having conversations with them and other community partners about this important topic in the near future.”
Local municipalities and police services issued statements to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
“There is no place for racism in our community,” Redman said.
“This has been a teachable moment. It’s got everybody’s attention, and I do believe that it will lead to change. It’s really important that we listen to these voices. We need to continue to improve.”