920 words; 4 minutes to read
By Emily Stewart, Associate Editor
A new Toronto report confirms what many communities have known for a long time: police often do not improve community safety and may instead deepen systemic injustices. Not only are Black and Indigenous communities more likely to be confronted by police but they are more likely to face negative outcomes from those interactions. They are more likely than white people to be arrested, jailed, subjected to use-of-force, and even killed because of a police interaction.
The Toronto Neighbourhood Centres (TNC), a non-profit organization that supports community development in the city of Toronto, released the report last year on the role of police and community safety, making progress in the ongoing effort to rethink community safety.
The negative impact of police is even more common among those who also identify as part of overpoliced communities, such as youth, those experiencing homelessness, and people with mental health challenges.
Replace police with other services
The TNC calls for more community and civilian-led strategies. The report describes ways in which this can be achieved and how it has been implemented in other communities. Some main points in the report follow.
Most 911 calls do not involve crime. Instead, many are for minor offences related to quality-of-life issues such as homelessness, mental health challenges, and substance misuse. Many studies note that police culture tend to emphasize forceful responses that quickly assert and maintain control which often prevents the potential for de-escalation. It is important to stop expecting police to perform social work responsibilities and instead deploy trained professionals to respond to these instances.
Civilian-led strategies: homelessness
Each year, the Toronto police engage in approximately 360,000 interactions with individuals experiencing homelessness. These interactions have resulted in the issuance of 16,000 tickets, as well as hundreds of court hearings and incarcerations. Not only are these approaches expensive, but they fail to address the underlying issues of homelessness.
The TNC stresses the importance of integrating more community focused initiatives, such as restorative justice and civilian-led programs. Some cities have started implementing community-focused programs that send outreach workers to 911 calls involving people experiencing homelessness rather than using police as their primary response.
These programs have shown success in moving people experiencing homelessness from the streets into stable housing, provide them with support, and helping them gain employment while also reducing arrest by 80% and incarceration time by 90%.
Civilian-led strategies: Mental health challenges
Currently, Toronto police respond to over 30,000 mental health calls each year, making up 3% of their total calls. More concerning is that these calls account for 11% of police use-of-force incidents, which is twice the rate of use-of-force used during robbery calls. 40% of all Taser use is on people in a mental health crisis.
Many cities have started to adopt more civilian-centered responses to mental health crises with very strong results. For instance, the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, uses mental-health outreach workers as first responders to any 911 calls that involve mental health concerns. They handle 20% of all police calls, and focus on de-escalation, offering service referrals, and providing general support.
Civilian first responders have a record of 99% of their calls being handled without police intervention or instances of harm and injury to anyone involved. While Toronto has civilian-led crisis responses in place, they are not called on as direct responders when a 911 call is made.
A cost-effective solution
Outreach efforts are only effective if people have somewhere to go or available programing to attend. While Toronto supports over 50 homeless drop-ins that give people a safe place to go and access support, that is often insufficient.
Doubling these support services cost barely a quarter of what Toronto now spends on policing people without homes. If Toronto were to integrate more civilian-led programs like CAHOOTS, this could free up over $150 million each year to provide services for people with mental health challenges or who are experiencing homelessness.
The same can be said for drug consumption sites. While Toronto provides a range of these services, increasing the number of sites and the type of services that are offered is essential. Not only is the cost of adding new safe consumption sites less than 4% of the cost of policing individuals, but it can also save more than $10,000 per person served by preventing expensive medical interventions. Not to mention the costs that comes with incarcerating people.
Youth are the most heavily policed aged group, with Black and Indigenous youth policed most frequently. The impact of this is significant, as evidence suggests that over-policing is more likely to increase crime than to reduce it.
Police led youth diversion programs have been shown to offer fewer positive outcomes than community-led efforts as they are often too broad in scope and fail to identify the most relevant intervention or provide long-term support.
While Toronto has various youth outreach workers, these programs often face funding challenges and are only available in a limited number of neighborhoods, leaving most of the city without access to them.
Community safety needs more than policing
The concept of community safety is often tied to policing and law enforcement. However, as evidence suggests, over-policing is more likely to increase crime rather than reduce it. Community safety is more than just policing; it involves addressing the root causes of crime and creating a safe and inclusive environment for all community members. Despite years of reform proposal, these issues are systemic and embedded so deeply into our system that the need to reconsider alternatives to policing to improve public safety is crucial.