Why ACTRA Toronto is Supporting the Notion to Defund the Police

With the entire world paused due to the impact of coronavirus, we witnessed one of the largest civil rights movements in modern-day history, with the surge of #BlackLivesMatter protests last summer. While companies and individuals pledged their support to the Black Lives Matter movement on social media, many wondered how and if this performative act would create any concrete change. The initial call to end police brutality and the disproportionate targeting of racialized folks segued into many questions.

“Why do police disproportionately target and kill Black and Indigenous folks?” “Why is there a lack of BIPOC representation on boards?” “Why do Black Women fear for their lives in the delivery room?” “Why are Black neighbourhoods in Toronto being hit hardest by COVID-19?”

In the screened entertainment industry, questions folks have been asking for several years also picked up steam.  “Why are white actors voicing BIPOC characters?”, “Why do Black performers need to take care of their own hair and makeup on set?” “Why are Canadian TV shows so white?”

Our industry continues to grapple with many of these tough questions.

ACTRA Toronto recently issued a statement in support of Defunding the Police, which was unanimously passed at the April 2021 ACTRA Toronto Council meeting. This post aims to answer questions you might have about what this means and why ACTRA Toronto is supporting this notion.

What does it mean to “defund the police”?

The Toronto Police Service is currently the single largest net expense item in Toronto’s budget: $1.076B in 2020 – more than Toronto Community Housing, shelters, support and housing services, employment and social services and libraries combined.

Defunding the police means divesting from police in schools, the criminalizing of mental health and the unhoused, the use of military-grade weapons against citizens, and instead investing in community resources.

One of the challenges in the current system is that we call the police for a plethora of social problems. But when the only tools we have at our disposal are jail cells and guns, every problem turns into an inmate or a target. We do not have adequate solutions for the challenges of poverty, addiction and mental illness – so, these issues have become criminalized.

By moving resources away from police and towards the community, we all benefit.

Think of Defunding the Police as actually “de-tasking the police.” By redirecting funds towards social-based initiatives that can prevent crime, such as affordable housing, disability supports, childcare, food security initiatives, mental health resources, harm reduction sites, local jobs, restorative justice and community support – everyone benefits.

Why don’t we recommend police reform instead?

In the U.S., investing in police reform has not stopped abuse. Despite moves to adopt body cameras, implement racial bias training, and amend use-of-force guidelines, we have not seen the results many hoped for.

Police officers are often not held accountable for misconduct. In 2020, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), Ontario’s police watchdog, laid charges in eight out of 312 closed cases, amounting to a 2.5 per cent charge rate.

But not all police are bad! Why should everything change over a few bad apples?

There are many wonderful police officers. But the conversation surrounding Defunding the Police is not about “bad apples” – it’s about a poisoned orchard grown through racism and systemic structural issues.

The origins of police work in the Southern U.S. stem from white patrolmen watching, catching and beating Black people who were enslaved. Although slave patrols ended during the Civil War when slavery was abolished, many Southern Police departments continued to carry over aspects of the patrols, including systemic surveillance, the enforcement of curfews, and the notions of who could become a police officer.

Isn’t this more of an American issue?

Canadian policing also has its roots in racism. The RCMP was formed to control Indigenous people and assert sovereignty over their lands. Created as the North-West Mounted Police in 1873, they advanced the agenda of the newly established Dominion of Canada by stopping any opposition to its vision of a successful colonial state. They enforced the residential school system, which abused and killed thousands of children and physically destroyed communities. In more recent years they have failed to respond effectively to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The racism embedded in their policing continues to this day, with Indigenous Peoples making up more than 30 per cent of the inmates in federal custody (as of January 2020), despite representing only five per cent of the overall population. The RCMP also has the highest number of lethal police encounters by a police service in Canada from 2000 to 2020, followed by the Toronto Police Service.

Unfortunately, it appears that police violence against racialized civilians is only getting worse. According to research conducted by CBC, there were 30 people killed in Canada after police used force in the first half of 2020, which is the full-year average for such deaths over the past 10 years.

CBC’s research showed that Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately represented amongst victims compared to their share of the overall population and that 68 per cent of those killed in police encounters suffered from mental illness or substance abuse.

In August of 2020, The Ontario Human Rights Commission released their second interim report on the inquiry into racial profiling and racial discrimination of Black persons by the Toronto Police Services, which confirmed that Black people are more likely to be arrested, charged, over-charged, struck, shot, or killed by the Toronto Police Service, and that “they are subjected to a disproportionate burden of law enforcement in a way that is consistent with systemic racism and anti-Black racial bias.”

What is the Toronto Police Service doing to address these issues?

The 2021 TPS budget will not change, but Toronto Police Chief James Ramer acknowledged that “Torontonians want to see a reformed, efficient service, and we intend to deliver on that…” The City of Toronto has announced plans for a pilot project that would stop police from responding to certain non-emergency mental health calls in select areas of the city, with a report from the city manager acknowledging that “using law enforcement to respond to health-related issues creates barriers and risks for many Torontonians, particularly Indigenous, Black, and equity-deserving communities,” and “Systemic discrimination in Toronto has negatively impacted how these communities experience community safety.”

What does this have to do with the film and television industry?

The 2021 proposed Toronto Police Budget cites $24.6M dollars allotted for Paid Duty Officers. PDOs are used by churches, licensed premises, funeral homes, retail stores, special events, sporting events, construction – and film and television production.

The presence of police officers on film and television sets can be triggering for cast and crew. We acknowledge and appreciate that our film and television partners consciously seek out alternatives to hiring PDOs whenever it is safe to do so, for example by submitting requests to use Book 7 compliant Traffic Services as an alternative.

This sounds very political and perhaps even anti-union. Why would ACTRA Toronto support something like this?

It’s important to know that the Toronto Police Association is a non-profit organization, and, in fact, police in Ontario are prohibited by law from forming a union. Although the Toronto Police Association fulfills most of the functions of a union, including collective bargaining contract negotiations, it is not a part of the Canadian Labour Congress or the Ontario Federation of Labour. Furthermore, the OFL has declared support for defunding the police to divert funds to community needs.

The work of a union is political in nature, whether we like it or not. Last summer, when George Floyd was murdered, ACTRA Toronto made a commitment to confront the injustices in our industry and work towards building a more equitable industry for all. The work of increasing representation on screen, creating more respectful working conditions and decreasing the wage gap continues. However, we must continue to centre the protection of Black and Indigenous lives alongside all of our other efforts.

What can I do to show my support?

ACTRA Toronto members who would like to learn more and get involved are invited to go to www.defund.ca. There, you will find many educational resources, petitions, and an email tool that will help you send a message to your local councillor to let them know where you stand on this issue.

Additional resources:

Defund the police: defundthepolice.org
Ontario Labour Federation: Defund the Police FAQ
Black Lives Matter Toronto: www.blacklivesmatter.ca
Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Toronto: Defund Toronto Police Campaign

Jenn Paul is the Industry Relations Specialist for Anti-Black Racism, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at ACTRA Toronto. She strives to find creative, empathetic, and strategic solutions to solve challenges faced by historically marginalized members of the arts and entertainment community.