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Image Courtesy of the Peterborough Police Service (PPS)

Defund Canadian Cops, Too

Written by
July 8, 2020
Defund Canadian Cops, Too
Image Courtesy of the Peterborough Police Service (PPS)

On June 2, while approximately 1000 community members came together in Confederation Park to protest anti-Black racism and police brutality, the Peterborough Police Service (PPS) released a “Statement of Solidarity.” This is a brilliant exercise in co-opting the language of a movement, and borders on the oxymoronic; the statement itself does not amount to much. The PPS states that they wish to “reaffirm [their] commitment to bias free policing and the right for people to gather in peaceful protest” and then goes on to list their values: integrity, loyalty, empathy, fairness, respect, civility, courage and leadership. It says nothing about tangible commitments to any kind of reform or retraining. It does not acknowledge past wrongdoing, or instances of racism.

During the June 2 rally, PPS Chief Scott Gilbert, and a small number of his fellow officers were photographed taking a knee. The article published by the Peterborough Examiner about the protest is entitled “Peterborough Police chief takes a knee to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter rally participants.” The article itself makes mention of Chief Gilbert before it makes mention of any of the event’s organizers.

On June 15, PPS released a statement detailing their recent acquisition of a light armoured vehicle (LAV), noting that the vehicle will be used “for training purposes and in a variety of high-risk situations bringing an elevated level of safety to members as well as provide added safety and security in emergent situations to the community.” PPS have also been careful to note that this was a donation from an anonymous donor.

Local Global News coverage of this story features an interview with Chief Gilbert, during which he suggests that an editorial published in the Examiner is misinformed, and puts a negative spin on the story. Global News goes on to note that “crime is up 20% over this time last year” and that Peterborough Police say “they are dealing with more and more firearms on a regular basis.”

The coverage goes on to detail two instances in the past five years wherein the LAV might have been used by PPS, before mentioning – in the last 40 seconds of the video – that the timing of the LAV announcement “is less than ideal” insofar as it came “at the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests.”

The coverage does not feature any commentary from anyone except Chief Gilbert. It also fails to provide any context as to why exactly the Black Lives Matter movement might take issue with the acquisition of a LAV; that perhaps it would blatantly disregard one of the primary demands of the movement: to defund and disarm the police.

Many letters to the editors, editorials, and numerous letters to the PPS Board calling for the LAV to be returned to the donor and to decrease police funding have accumulated since Chief Gilbert's Global News appearance.

Chief Gilbert has responded to this public outrage by asking residents to “quit treating [the PPS] like U.S. police” and assuring residents that the LAV “is not armed. It is not a military vehicle,” comments that have done little to address residents’ concerns, or to quell public outrage.

More recently, on June 23, the PPS released a statement responding to the ongoing discussion around the LAV taking place on social media. The statement is framed as “An Invitation to Community Discussion” about the LAV, despite the fact that consultation usually takes place before decisions are made.

The statement outlines the measures that the PPS have taken since the rally: a Q & A sheet, plans for a webinar discussion, as well as a series of livestreamed conversations between the PPS and Angela Connors of the Community Race Relations Committee (CRRC) in Peterborough.

The statement goes on to respond to the recent editorial – that same one from the Global News coverage – claiming that “the author was misinformed and the editorial misleading.” They identify recurring themes in recent conversations being had in local papers and on social media: “systemic racism, defunding/reforming police, whether or not Peterborough needs an LAV.”

The OshKosh Sancat Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV). Image Courtesy of OshKosh.

In a baffling demonstration of a lack of self-awareness, PPS claims that “this is not about defending police or police resourcing” before going onto invoke the words of 19th-century British MP and long-time supporter of the slave trade, Robert Peel, who said: “The police are the public and the public are the police.”

No, Mr. Peel, and no, PPS: some of us are actually not cops.

PPS goes on to defend their decision, writing that the LAV donation has been in the works for months, and that their current resources do not meet the needs of the community. They explain that the vehicle will be used for “high risk rescue situations” and will also be used by Peterborough Fire Services and Peterborough County-City Paramedics, as well as “in scenarios where the threat of violence is an imminent concern.”

The PPS continues, listing the kinds of situations that might require the use of the LAV: “high- risk barricaded person calls, gang activity, suicidal situations where there is threat to public safety and more.”

The statement even touches on the role of the police more broadly, reminding residents that “Much of what [PPS does] doesn’t make the headlines. The calls for mental health. The suicides. The family disputes. It is done quietly by [PPS officers], often during the night when the City is sleeping.”

I will leave it up to the reader to decide whether such a depiction of police work comes across as an emotional appeal, or a romanticization of their role in our community. However, I am definitively calling bullshit on the claim that this statement is not about defending police, that it is nothing less than an exercise in public relations, and an awful one at that.

There is a great deal to cover in the 1800-word statement. It goes on to note that the PPS do not see themselves as “experts in addictions or mental health,” as well as a lengthy list of “examples of how [the PPS] have tried to enhance community capacity through collaboration and/or funding.”

The statement mentions the word “racism” just once. It mentions the word “safety” six times and the word “community” 31 times.

Upon reading the statement, one might find themselves feeling dumbfounded at the complete and utter lack of understanding demonstrated by such a statement. Perhaps this disconnect can be owed to the staggering whiteness of this organization. A study conducted in 2019 by two Trent students, Samantha Groulx and Raquel Maset, found that “96 percent of the PPS demographic who completed the survey identify as white.”

Comparative bar graph of the Ethnicities as ‘White’ vs. ‘Visible Minority’ for City of Peterborough and the Peterborough Police Service demographics (2019). Research conducted by Samantha Groulx & Raquel Maset

We are at a cultural and political moment where the police are under the microscope. They are being watched closely, and documented with care. This is how the Peterborough Police Service behaves when they know everyone is watching. Imagine how they’ve behaved when the public is not hyper aware of how the police conduct themselves.

Here are some examples to consider.

In July 2019, a Peterborough police officer shot and killed 27-year-old Billy Shea during a standoff on the Parkway. The SIU investigated and ultimately cleared the officer of culpability.

In 2017, the Globe and Mail published “Unfounded,” a project by Robyn Doolittle that accumulated data from 2010 to 2014 on sexual assault cases from 873 police jurisdictions across Canada. She found that 19 percent of sexual assault cases are deemed “unfounded” by the police, meaning that they do not believe these crimes even happened. In Peterborough this figure was 12 points above the national average, coming in at 31 percent.

Some crimes like sexual assault go underreported because of survivors' fear of rejection or retaliation, so of course mere complaints against the police themselves would also go underreported.

There have also been allegations of misconduct, corruption, and dysfunction amongst PPS higher-ups, and the Police Board itself.

Former Mayor Daryl Bennett was found guilty of misconduct that took place when he served on the Police Board in 2011, and had to be removed from the Board. It is worth noting that during his mayorship, Bennett had a fraught relationship with PPS, and often called into question the amount of municipal funding the police receive – and rightfully so.

In 2015, when the Peterborough-Lakefield Police Service dissolved, Police Chief Murray Rodd and Deputy Chief Tim Farquharson were given a severance package that totalled $460,000. The City would go on to sue Rodd and Farquharson, but would later strike a deal with the City behind closed doors. The details of this deal have never been made available to the public.

In the same year, the Chair of the Police Board, Garth Wedlock, had to be removed amidst an investigation by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission. Two months later, the interim chair Andrea Maxie, and member Dr. Tom Phillips, resigned citing a “dysfunctional atmosphere and an inability to conduct board business in good faith."

But Chief Gilbert wants us to stop treating PPS like American cops. So let’s talk about Canadian police.

And before we begin any conversation about policing in Canada, we have to acknowledge that from the outset, we are operating with very limited knowledge. Since the 90s, criminologists have been warning us of two things: that our governments need to support independent criminal justice research, and that this research needs to inform policy around policing in Canada. The overwhelming lack of funding for this kind of research is no mistake. Since neoliberalism took hold in Canada, successive governments have defunded and dismantled this system while continuing to offer robust funding for police forces. This, coupled with rampant and systemic cuts to almost every sector of public spending, has led to the police doing frontline work around mental health and addictions that they are not qualified to carry out.

And we know how this ends: since April, four people of colour have been killed by police during “wellness checks” in Canada alone.  And while substantive research in the national context may be lacking, we need not look further than the headlines to understand that there is injustice all around us here in settler-colonial Canada.

It is in this sense – the colonial sense – that we can know some things about the police prior to research, prior to police brutality. As Brooks Arcand-Paul, a Cree lawyer, said in a recent interview with The Guardian, “[The RCMP] was created to protect white settlers from Indigenous folks – while suppressing our ceremonies and implementing laws that sought to decimate us.”

In provincial prisons, “First Nations peoples are incarcerated at rates that are 6-7 times the overall provincial rate.” In federal prisons, Black folks are over-represented by over 300 percent relative to their population while Indigenous peoples are over-represented by over 500 percent.  

In Toronto, a study by the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that between 2013 and 2017, “a Black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police Service (TPS).”

People like Chief Gilbert, who like to draw this cross-border-cop-dichotomy often say things like American police are more militant, more armed. However, it is worth noting that in recent years, police in Canada have become increasingly militant – most notably by introducing submachine guns to the RCMP following the Capital Hill Terrorist Attack in 2014.

Of course, we know that these issues lie at the foundation of our nationhood, and that racism and colonialism are pervasive throughout every facet of the criminal justice system in Canada. Black and Indigenous People of Colour have been telling us this for decades. Only now, in the wake of repeated, well-documented instances of police brutality against racialized folks have abolition and calls to defund the police made their way into mainstream discourse.

To further this momentum and transform it into actual policy – into actual municipal budgets – we have to answer some important questions about police funding in the local context.

The City Budget for 2020 allotted $26.4 million for the Peterborough Police Service, a number noticeably higher than the allotments for Peterborough Public Health ($1.5 million) or Primary Health Care Services Peterborough ($21,000). As citizens have become increasingly aware about the proportion of their tax dollars that go to the PPS, more information has been made available about how exactly that money is spent.

Recently, in a statement shared in the BLM Nogojiwanong Facebook group, Mayor Diane Therrien explained that roughly 90 percent of this 26 million dollar figure goes towards salaries, which are not controlled by the City, but through collective bargaining processes with the PPS union, the Peterborough Police Association. It is important to note that Peterborough cops are well-compensated for the work they do “while the city is sleeping”: 109 of PPS’s 140 officers can be found on the 2019 Sunshine List, Ontario’s list of public sector employee salaries over $100,000 annually.

The Mayor has been careful to point out that the process of negotiating salaries often enters a stage of arbitration, which is a provincial matter. And with Doug Ford in office, it is unlikely that we will see any substantive police reform, let alone defunding, in Ontario. In fact, Premier Ford approved a two-percent raise for OPP officers in 2019.

However, there is still room for the City to act in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and take steps toward defunding the police.

For example, at a City Council meeting on June 22, Bob Hall, former City Councillor (Northcrest ward) and member of the PPS Board, presented a request that PPS keep the entirety of its approximately $500,000 budget surplus from the year 2019. This is the seventh consecutive year that the PPS have finished the year in surplus. In years past, PPS and the City split the surplus 50-50.

While Hall claims this surplus exists due to the efficient and economical approach of the PPS, one has to wonder whether an organization that operates with a half a million dollar surplus might just be overfunded, especially in a city trying to bridge a budget deficit of $6.9 million.

This year, PPS asked for the entirety of the surplus with the intention of using a portion of it to buy body cameras and cruiser cameras. This left council divided, as many cited financial strains, while others pointed to the importance of the PPS using “21st-century technology.” Ultimately a compromise was reached around the motion which would divide the surplus evenly between the City and PPS.

Ultimately the motion failed, with its only supporters being Councillors Parnell (Otonabee ward), Zippel (Otonabee), Baldwin (Ashburnham), and the Mayor. PPS will receive 25 percent of the surplus ($124,109) with the City keeping the rest in preparation for COVID-19 related financial losses.

This left some constituents wondering where exactly the Mayor stands on defunding the police. As previously reported by Arthur, the mayor issued an initial statement in response to the BLM rally, writing about the difficult situation she finds herself in as someone who sits on the PPS board, but also “strives for equity, anti-racism, and social justice.”

Given the Mayor’s claims towards progressive values, it is unclear why the Mayor – particularly in the political moment we find ourselves in – would vote to give the PPS an additional $250,000 on top of the $25.1 million that they already spent in 2019. Of course, there remains the argument that the PPS should be using body cameras - an argument that is quite contentious and multi-faceted. If we are to give Mayor Therrien the benefit of the doubt and presume that this was indeed her rationale, there is surely still room to ask questions.

What does this tell constituents, community members and activists who have been making these calls to defund the police? Does such a motion take seriously the concerns of these constituents? What does a vote to give PPS $250,000 communicate to BIPOC in Peterborough? Do these decisions reflect Mayor Therrien’s commitments to “anti-racism” and “social justice”?

Of course, this decision is a microcosm of a much larger, often difficult conversation about defunding the police. It’s important to recognize that in having this conversation, we have already taken a great leap in widening our political imagination. Through this discussion, we have already learned a great deal about how police are funded in our own city, and what defunding and divestment could look like.

As City officials move forward in developing the 2021 budget, citizens will be watching closely to see if Council is listening. The 2021 budget won’t be voted on until November of this year, but the next Finance Committee Meeting will be on July 13 at 5 p.m.

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