Toronto Police Accountability Bulletin No. 131, July 13, 2021.

July 13th 2021

In this issue:
1. Rethinking Police seminar
2. Policing the homeless
3. Expanding the use of conducted energy weapons

Toronto Police Accountability Bulletin No. 131, July 13, 2021.
This Bulletin is published by the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition (TPAC), a group of individuals and organizations in Toronto interested in police policies and procedures, and in making police more accountable to the community they are committed to serving. Our website is http://www.tpac.ca
In this issue:
1. Rethinking Police seminar
2. Policing the homeless
3. Expanding the use of conducted energy weapons
4.Subscribe to the Bulletin
1. Rethinking police

`Rethinking Police: working together for community safety’ is an online seminar about proven alternatives to policing. It is presented by the same organizations which produced the excellent report `Rethinking Community Safety’, discussed in TPAC Bulletin No. 127, January 27, 2021.

This event is on July 28, 6.00 pm to 7.30 pm, and is free, but registration is necessary. Register, at https://rethink-policing.eventbrite.ca .

2. Policing homelessness

In mid-June, Toronto police attended at the Trinity Bellwoods Park to evict those living there in tents.

It was an unequal encounter. Two dozen officers were there on horses. Another 100 or two hundred officers – estimates vary widely – were there, many in riot gear. They had brought moveable fencing to surround the homeless and to prevent those demonstrating against their actions from interfering.

Everyone agrees that twenty three people were living there in tents.

By the end of the day the twenty three people had been removed from the park. Two weeks later the fencing remains so that no one else can use this section of the park, and city officials indicate it will stay until at least the end of July `so that clean up can take place and the grass can grow,’ but more probably to stop homeless people moving back.

Homelessness is a significant growing problem in Toronto, with current estimates at almost 8000 people who have no home. Shelters are available where people can live in cramped congregate settings with many rules. Some people have been offered temporary hotel rooms secured by the city, but these too have a bevy of rules. People decide to live outside in parks, in ravines and on the edge of or under expressways because they find the kinds of accommodation offered by the city so unsatisfactory, and because they fear close contact with others will subject them to illness from the pandemic.

What is hard to come by is permanent independent housing for the homeless, the kind of housing that the rest of us live in. Robust affordable housing programs existed between the early 1970s and the mid 1990s, but the federal and provincial governments cut that funding and the price of housing began to increase inexorably. As some ran into economic trouble they found there was no housing for them to live in and they were on the street. The problem was exacerbated as institutions for the mentally ill substantially reduced the amount of housing they provided.

The city has been unable to respond reasonably to the housing crisis: it simply does not have the tools to do so. Providing affordable housing requires significant funding, and of all the taxes collected in the city, more than 90 per cent of those taxes flow to the senior governments. The city can barely meet its ordinary expenditures on the funds available to it, and programs are constantly being cut back. As well, not all city politicians support the idea of building affordable housing in their own communities.

Even when the robust affordable housing programs existed, only the former City of Toronto took advantage of them: the other five municipalities in Metro Toronto – Etobicoke, York, North York, East York and Scarborough – had no vibrant programs to build affordable housing.

In the last year or two the federal government has offered new affordable housing programs, but the province has been reluctant to join in. The city has struggled to build a few hundred new affordable housing units a year, only some of which are affordable to the homeless. The number of new affordable units supplied is less than the number of affordable units lost to market forces, so the number of homeless continues to grow.

City staff had apparently met with those living in Trinity Bellwoods park in the weeks before the police encounter and had tried to convince them to move to a shelter or to a hotel room, but most had refused. Those offers continued on the fateful day, and it seems four or five individuals agreed. The rest refused, and threatened by the police, they simply moved on, probably to a tent in a ravine or somewhere else, ready for the next eviction.

It seems the police were called in by Mayor John Tory, who made a point about how unsafe it is to live in parks, something which few would disagree with but would add it is even more unsafe to live in a shelter. The cost of the police action has not been established, but in terms of the simple use of resources it must be considerable. Obviously, the police action has not solved or even addressed the problem of people sleeping rough in Toronto: it has simply moved it somewhere else, and ravines are even more unsafe than parks which have a large community of people living nearby.

As for the opportunity of the public to address the use of police resources to deal with a failure of social policy, that does not exist. The Toronto Police Services Board refuses to schedule this as an item of discussion at its monthly meetings. But treating the idea of homelessness as a crime, and using police resources to deal with it is surely not something that should be endorsed in Toronto.

3. Expanding the use of conducted energy weapons

On June 24 the Toronto Police Services Board considered a staff report recommending spending of $4.1 million over five years for new Conducted Energy Weapons. The purchase would allow the force to assign individual officers with their own CEW, (CEWS are now shared between shifts,) but it would also expand the number of on-duty officers with CEWs: currently 318 officers on front line duty are equipped with CEWs, but the intention is to expand that by one third to 428 officers.

TPAC argued at the Board that having more officers equipped with CEWs will mean that CEWs are used more often. That is the history of CEW use within the Toronto police service. In 2016, CEWs were used in 292 incidents, and the 2020 number is more than twice as high. The initial use of weapons by police seems to lead to an increased use of those weapons.

The report notes that CEWs were pulled from their holsters 688 times; 70 per cent of the time the CEW was displayed but not activated; the noted presence of the weapon was apparently enough to intimidate the subject into compliance. Only 165 CEWs were activated during the year.

TPAC noted that assuming 2020 was a standard year, then the cost of using each new CEW use will be about $5000. (Divide 165 into $800,000 which is the cost each year of the CEW purchase price.) TPAC argued that spending $5000 to subdue one person is a reckless way to spend public funds. This money should be used in more productive ways which do not involve the use of a weapon. Clearly the money could be spent on engaging community members to respond to calls involving those in mental crisis, the group of individuals against whom police too often use CEWs.

One might note that the same thinking is true of guns. The number of times a gun is fired by Toronto police officers is less than 20 times a year. There is no need for all officers to have guns, another unreasonable – and dangerous – way to spend public money.

The report notes that police respond each year to about 81,000 calls involving violence or a person in mental crisis. TPAC proposed that it is time that changes in the police approach are made to these calls without the use of CEWs and that the funds identified in the report be dedicated to the establishment of community based response to those in mental crisis.

The Board adopted the staff report and, as usual, ignored the recommendations by TPAC.

4. Subscribe to the Bulletin

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Toronto Police Accountability Coalition
E-mail: info@tpac.ca