Outrage over brutality, racism in U.S. casts new light on Toronto's police budget|BCI CANADA

© CBCAs protests over police brutality and racism erupt across the United States and beyond, sparked by the case of George Floyd, one refrain is growing louder and louder: 'Defund the police.'

Would Regis Korchinski-Paquet still be alive if a mental health nurse had turned up when her family called 911, instead of just police officers?

What about D'Andre Campbell or Andrew Loku? Or Sammy Yatim?

The answer to that might never be known.

But as protests over police brutality and racism erupt across the United States and beyond, sparked by the case of George Floyd — an unarmed black man whose final moments were spent with an officer's knee pressed into his neck — one refrain is growing louder and louder: "Defund the police."

Exactly what that means can differ somewhat depending on who you ask. While some have called for an outright abolition of police forces, many others favour reducing police budgets so that their work focuses more squarely on violent crime. But the sentiments behind it stem from a singular question when it comes to dealing with people in mental distress: 

"Is that armed, highly-paid officer the right resource for that function?" asked Alok Mukherjee, who spent a decade as the chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. 

Defunding the police, for Mukherjee, begins with asking, "What percentage of the police officers' work involves drawing the gun? Dealing with violent crime? And what percentage of the work involves social issues?

"I think the pressure right now around defunding creates an opportunity for people to be seriously thinking about these issues," said Mukherjee, who first wrote a paper asking those very questions about a decade ago.

Single-biggest line item in Toronto's budget

In Toronto, the police service is the single-biggest line item in the city's $13.5-billion operating budget. Out of an average property tax bill of $3,020, the largest share — about $700 — is allocated to police. That's followed by about $520 for transit. Shelters and housing take up about $150, while about $60 goes to paramedic services.

Over the past several years, the police budget has risen past the $1-billion mark. It first hit that mark in 2015, with Mayor John Tory saying at the time, "We can't afford to keep the cost going up."

There was talk of reducing the size of the force, with the mayor suggesting the service might need to shed some of its 5,400 officers.

Still, the budget increased by nearly $41 million last year, with nearly 90 per cent going toward salaries. 

Toronto has seen police officers stationed in schools, called on to respond to mental health crises and embedded in neighbourhoods to foster community ties. 

© CBCAkwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, believes the key to improving police-community relations is to change police culture.

Those, according to University of Toronto sociology professor Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, are just some of the ways in which police have been asked to do more and more over the course of the last few decades.

"In much of the West in the 1980s and 1990s, when we saw the defunding of a variety of very important social services, the police were often left to pick up the slack and their budgets reflect that," said Owusu-Bempah.

"We've seen a proliferation of gang-intervention and prevention programs that include funding for the police ... rather than simply providing after-school services, education services, extracurricular activities and sports activities for young people in disadvantaged neighbourhoods," he said.

About 30,000 mental health calls each year

Owusu-Bempah says he's not a "police abolitionist," but thinks a serious distinction has to be drawn between what the police are and are not.

"They're not educators, they're not social support workers," he said

"I want the police to keep my community safe, and unfortunately the reality for many people is... the police are ill-equipped to do many of those things."