London

Time to 'be bold' about changing policing, London board chair says

London's police services board is listening carefully to calls to take funds away from policing and put them into resources for mental health and crisis management for racialized communities and vulnerable groups. 

Calls to 'defund police' have been growing amid anger over police brutality

Some are calling for some of the money spent on policing to be moved to support mental health workers and other resources. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC News)

The head of London's police services board says he is listening carefully to calls to take funds away from policing and put them into resources for mental health and crisis management for racialized communities and vulnerable groups.

"I'll tell you very explicitly that our board is not interested in lip service, we're not interested in small 's' solutions that might look politically convenient, that are part of a superficial salve to the deep wounds within this community," said London Police Services Board Chair Javeed Sukhera. 

"We want to be thoughtful and engaged. We want to go deep. We want to get this right and that's going to mean that we have to dig deep and engage deeply in conversations."

In London, about 18 per cent of property taxes go toward policing. The annual police operating budget is about $123-million, more than 90 per cent of which goes to personnel costs. 

"There has been years, decades, generations that have called for reform in the way that policing disproportionately impacts communities of colour, particularly black communities," Sukhera said.

"The truth is, there is trauma that Black communities experienced because of policing as we know it. We have an opportunity to learn and to be bold in how we reimagine the way to do things better."

Black Lives Matter London organizers released a list of demands after Saturday's peaceful rally, which saw 10,000 Londoners come together in Victoria Park. 

Among other demands, the list includes a call for the city to defund the police and reallocated money to mental health programs. 

In London, police have been criticized for their response to a highrise building for a young man in distress who ended up falling from a balcony. 

Caleb Tubila Njoko's mother said the 27-year-old was afraid of police because of previous encounters with them. 

What would defunding the police look like? Chair of the London Police Services board Javeed Sukhera tells London Morning what that means to him and what he hopes to achieve for Londoners. 9:51

'Systemic problem'

But while there's a sense of urgency to the Black Lives Matter movement and the sense that politicians and others officials are finally listening to communities who have been asking for a different model of policing for years, change will take time, Sukhera admitted. 

"When you do things too quickly without engaging sufficiently, the solutions aren't going to cut to the core," he said.

"What we're dealing with is a systemic problem so we need to work in partnership — and that requires all players to be working together and engaging with one another so that we can listen and learn and then think about what the next steps might be." 

Officials say about 10,000 people came out to the Black Lives Matter protest in London, Ont. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC News)

Sukhera is a psychiatrist and admits that police arriving at the scene of mental health calls sometimes escalates situations. 

"The very symbol of what a police officer is can be triggering and traumatic for certain members of our community," he said. 

"Police have been tasked to pick up on providing frontline mental health supports because of a complete failure to adequately fund community mental health." 

That's meant that police officers respond to calls that have little to do with crime or law enforcement: they estimate up to 60 per cent of the calls officers are called to are non-criminal matters, such as issues with drug addiction, homelessness or mental health crises. 

Dr. Javeed Sukhera is the chair of the London police services board. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Rick Robson, president of the London Police Association, the union which represents officers, said officers have become de-facto mental health crisis workers. 

"We are now doing jobs that none of us ever signed up to do, none of us were ever trained to do. We signed up to, ostensibly, deal with crime and the criminals that commit those crimes," Robson said. 

Police have become mental health crisis workers

"But we are de facto social service workers, mental health experts, dealing with the homeless and addictions, administering life-saving intervention like Naloxone. Nobody ever put that in the job description."

Robson supports a model of policing that would see police officers working closely with psychiatrists, psychologists and others who specialize in mental health crisis intervention. But, he said, calls for someone in distress often need an officer because weapons are involved and safety is paramount. 

"How often do you hear a union say, 'Take these jobs away from us'? We don't want them anymore. We've been saying that for a long, long time," Robson said. 

Robson and Sukhera both say calls to 'defund police' might seem radical, but actually get at something that many in the policing community agree with. 

"When when we hear the calls to defund the police, I think there's a fair bit in common in terms of what we're trying to achieve. We're trying to achieve things like housing, health care, treatment for addictions and mental health supports, things like a living wage," Robson said. 

"But my position is if you simply take money from a municipal sector, there's no guarantee where that money goes. There's no guarantee that that money is sustained and there's no guarantee that whatever program takes its place has been tested with data and it will actually achieve the results you're looking for."

Taking money away from policing could increase the chronic stress and burnout officers experience, he added.

About the Author

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.

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