Pair of Calgary Police cruisers Pair of Calgary Police cruisers. Source: Can Pac Swire - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC 2.0

Bloated police budgets are being used to suppress social problems arising from austerity, argues John Clarke

The impacts of the cost-of-living crisis and the accumulating effects of austerity measures are being felt sharply all across Canada. Rising food prices are straining the ability of food banks to deal with the growing numbers who are unable to cope. Public healthcare systems are buckling and are at risk of breaking down.

In this situation of social and economic crisis, in place of effective measures to address the hardship that is being created, the priority of the political decision-makers is to pour even more resources into strengthening police forces. Police will be used, to an even greater degree than has been the case up until now, as enforcers for a political agenda of austerity and social abandonment.

Law and order scare

The turn to intensified policing becomes clear if we consider the situation in each of Canada’s three largest cities. Toronto’s Police Services Board has approved $50 million in the police budget, bringing it to $1.1 billion. The Board took this move ‘despite outcry from critics who said the money would be better invested in underfunded community services.’

Toronto Mayor, John Tory, enthusiastically supported the increase and stated that the additional resources would lead to the hiring of an additional 200 cops and an ability to effectively target ‘youth violence’. Leaving no doubt that the measure is part of a very calculated political focus on law and order, Tory asserted that the diversion of resources to policing would help ‘remedy the issues that matter to the people of Toronto’.

Dr. Suzanne Shoush told the media: ‘There is real harm in this proposal. Every dollar that the TPS takes is a dollar drained from our communities, our social supports, and our families … As a physician, I see every day that the safest communities are not the communities with the most police. They are the communities with the most resources.’

Community outrage is well placed when it comes to the share of resources that are devoted to policing in Toronto. The police budget has shot up over recent years and, even as the city faces an $857 million shortfall, it now consumes 8% of the budget. This compares to the less than 0.5% that is devoted to community development.

The Vancouver Police Board has approved a request from the police for a $383 million increase in their budget. This represents an 11% hike that a police spokesperson claims is necessary in order ‘to meet the emerging challenges in public safety’. One member of the city council, Pete Fry, says that the increased funding for the police will lead to reductions in some public services. ‘I don’t think we can afford it … the cuts are going to have to come from somewhere else.’

In Montreal, the police will receive an additional $63 million, an 8.3% hike that represents ‘the largest budget increase for the police in the history of Montreal’. Once again, the priority placed on funding the police is being justified on the basis of a law and order scare. The Montreal Police issued a report last year that claimed that: ‘Violent crime involving guns and gangs has increased in Montreal in recent years.’ Community advocates have countered with suggestions that most situations that the police are called in to deal with could be better handled by civilian responders.

Increased spending on police is consistently being presented as a necessary response to the threat of ‘violent crime’. The public transport system that is operated by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has seen a significant increase in violent incidents over the last year. Politicians, media, and the police themselves have all worked to play up a sense that the system is now thoroughly dangerous. It has been announced that dozens of officers will be deployed to beef up patrols on the TTC so as ‘to reduce victimization, prevent crimes of opportunity and enhance public safety’.

The union that represents TTC workers, ATU Local 113, has responded to this initiative by calling on ‘all levels of government to work with the TTC at tackling the root causes including housing affordability and mental health as part of the broader issue of safety on public transit.’ This comment drives home the point that other commentators have stressed that police patrols may respond to incidents that have occurred, but they will do nothing whatsoever to address the economic hardship and social tensions that underlie the problem.

Beyond this, it has been pointed out that there are many people in Toronto who will have little reason to feel that enhanced policing on the TTC will make them any safer. As one advocate for homeless people put it, ‘(Unhoused individuals) automatically see police as unfriendly, as people who are going to escalate a situation, as people who are going to criminalize them oftentimes for doing the most basic things to survive in this hostile environment.’

Police function

The question of the nature of the police function is a decisive one in assessing the validity of the claim that they will protect ‘public safety’. During the pandemic, with homeless shelters both unsafe and hopelessly overcrowded, encampments in Toronto parks proliferated. Millions of dollars were used to set in motion a series of brutal police operations that drove out homeless people with nowhere to go. As one city councillor commented: ‘The same price for the security and the policing and staffing could have actually provided stable housing to virtually everyone in the encampments.’

Intensified forms of policing will only undermine the safety of communities that are confronted by police racism. One report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission, in 2020, found ‘that between 2013 and 2017, a Black person in Toronto was 20 times more likely to be shot and killed by police than a white person.’ The Commission concluded that Black people are more likely to be ‘arrested, charged, over-charged, struck, shot or killed by Toronto police.

On a countrywide basis, it has also been found that: ‘An Indigenous person in Canada is more than 10 times more likely to have been shot and killed by a police officer in Canada since 2017 than a white person in Canada.’ Moreover, the increased resort to police methods in the face of mounting social tensions is clearly making things worse; 2022 saw an almost 25% increase in police shootings across Canada.

In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter protests and calls to defund the police played out in a number of Canadian cities. In 2020, Toronto City Council debated a motion to cut the police budget by 10% and, while it was defeated, this was an indication of the pressure that political decision-makers were facing at that time. In 2023, those in power feel more confident and able to move in a different direction.

As resources are taken from the services that could address the needs of communities and are poured into policing, ensuring another round of social cutbacks, a major cost-of-living crisis is unfolding. Yet this approach will only intensify the social tensions and lay the basis for renewed and intensified efforts to challenge bloated police budgets. The funding of social housing, public healthcare, and other vital services, instead of ever greater spending on policing will become a very major and important site of struggle in Canada in the period that lies ahead.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.