According to two leaders of northern Ontario cities, increased funding is needed for mental health and addictions — but not if those sorely needed increases come at the expense of police budgets.
Sault Ste. Marie Mayor Christian Provenzano noted a police funding discussion had taken place during Tuesday's virtual meeting of the Northern Ontario Large Urban Mayors (NOLUM).
"I don't know how we would reduce the City of Sault Ste. Marie's police services budget without significantly impairing its ability to provide safe policing to our community at the time the demands on it are the most significant," Provenzano said.
"I can see a point in the future," he continued, "if you address the root causes and root problems properly and you take pressure off the system — then I can see a point in the future where you could have that discussion."
North Bay Mayor Al McDonald — who like Provenzano also serves on his respective city's police board — weighed in on the police funding matter, Thursday.
"I'm not supportive of defunding the police, I never have been," McDonald offered, adding he was impressed by Mayor Provenzano's take on the subject. "I've never had one citizen say we need less police. If anything, they tell me we need more."
McDonald tells BayToday he backs the police service and its budget, observing its members work around the clock and are the ones dealing with social disturbance calls in the middle of the night.
"Do I think there has to be more attention and more funding for mental health, addictions, the criminal element?" McDonald asks. "Absolutely. The police are doing what they can and the situation is not getting any better. As you've heard, it's not just North Bay, it's everywhere."
McDonald acknowledges the police budget grew again this year, as it consistently has with growing demands. The North Bay Police Service recently added four new officers and officially launched its Community Response Team with more funding in this year's budget.
See related: NBPS: New unit can make a difference downtown and beyond
"We don't want to turn a blind eye to it," McDonald says of the social upheaval in the city, "we want to be a part of the solution."
As for the calls to move homeless encampments and methadone clinics? He says it's not so simple. "You just can't do that."
"There is a fundamental issue with the defund the police movement," Provenzano advised during Tuesday's media availability. "I understand and agree with the principle that funding needs to be provided to address the root problems. Police services are addressing the symptoms of the problems. I agree with that, that's true. The reality is you can't take resources away from the service that is required to address the symptoms until you've actually put proper resources into addressing the cause."
In a quest to receive the needed funding to address those root causes, the five NOLUM leaders agreed this week to an advocacy campaign proposing face-to-face meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Doug Ford, in the hopes of establishing a national strategy on the opioid crisis.
"The reality is, our police service is tired," added Provenzano. "There are significant demands on their time. It is very stressful to be a police officer and the calls for services are significantly up. And, a lot of the calls are for social disturbances, mental health and distress calls or calls that relate to drugs and the trafficking of narcotics."
The term "defund the police," has gained traction in popular vernacular, especially recently with the increase in protest movements addressing social issues and occurrences of police brutality in North America.
How do experts in the field define defunding the police?
According to University of Maryland sociologist and professor Rashawn Ray, defunding the police "means reallocating or redirecting funding away from the police department to other government agencies funded by the local municipality."
He also writes in his Brookings piece, "Defund does not mean abolish policing. And, even some who say abolish, do not necessarily mean to do away with law enforcement altogether. Rather, they want to see the rotten trees of policing chopped down and fresh roots replanted anew."
In the New Trail, a University of Alberta alumni publication featuring researchers and academics, political scientist Malinda S. Smith states defunding the police can mean a range of ideas "from people who are calling to reduce budgets and reallocate funds to social services to others who are calling for the abolition of the institution itself."
Smith adds the role and purpose of police must be examined, especially "how they emerged into an institution that is more generative of fear and anxiety rather than safety, and where people, especially racialized and Indigenous peoples, feel terrorized by the police."
Smith also notes social problems have become criminalized.
"Mental illness is not a crime. Addiction is not a crime. These require public investments in social, rehabilitative and restorative institutions," Smith writes. "And that’s a social benefit — not only to the people they’re restoring but to families and communities."
More Ray from academic publication Brookings: "Throwing more police on the street to solve a structural problem is one of the reasons why people are protesting in the streets. Defunding police — reallocating funding away from police departments to other sectors of government — may be more beneficial for reducing crime and police violence."