In light of recent anti-racism protests, police reform is a global conversation that has made its way to Barrie. However, at the municipal level, opinions vary.
At the beginning of June, Coun. Keenan Aylwin sent a letter to the Barrie Police Services Board in which he requested they have a discussion about their budget and find ways to reduce spending and re-allocate the money toward front-line social services as part of the 2021 budget process.
On Thursday morning, the board discussed the letter, in the end coming to a consensus that more communication is needed leading into budget discussions in the fall to make the public aware of all the social service supports the Barrie police department already provides.
However, after watching the discussion, Aylwin expressed disappointment with the outcome.
“Over the past few weeks, there has been a movement to defund the police,” Barrie Police Chief Kimberley Greenwood said during the meeting. “As the chief of police, I do not support a sweeping defunding of police. But I do, as do other members of our service, support and thoughtful, constructive discussion on public safety systems.
“Investing in social services and assessing the role of police in our community cannot be accomplished by simply cutting the existing police budget,” the chief added. “It isn’t an either/or situation.”
Greenwood read a prepared statement that reiterated many points made in a release she sent out after the first Justice for Black Lives protest that took place in Barrie on June 4.
She acknowledged there are gaps in services, but that the police act as the 24/7 last line of defence. She also mentioned new training would be looked at this fall for officers that includes racial bias training.
Greenwood also took the opportunity to highlight social programs that already exist within the Barrie police purview that aim to address social issues, such as the COAST program.
The COAST (Crisis Outreach and Support Team) program matches a plainclothes police officer and crisis intervention specialist in an unmarked police car to provide intervention, support, and assistance to 911 calls in the community.
Mayor Jeff Lehman said the conversation around the Barrie police budget should remain a part of the budget process in the fall.
“I think we should take the time now to design a budget process for the Barrie Police Services Board that allows us to hear some of the voices that are being raised in our community around investment in social supports,” Lehman said.
“My concern about defunding is that calls for service in our community continue to rise. When I look at the defunding movement, the core idea is one that I believe in passionately and we have been working on as a service for several years,” he said. “The core idea is, we need to address the root causes of crime.
“I don’t think we, as a service, have done anywhere near enough," the mayor added. "I think the response to that starts with information. This conversation hasn’t occurred."
Lehman pointed out that 89 per cent of calls to Barrie police are concerning non-criminal matters.
“This has been a major source of frustration, I think, for the service and for many community members for years,” he said. “These could be addressed by investment in social services or the assistance of other agencies. However, until we do that, we have to be there for the community, and that would be my concern around the sweeping defunding approach.”
Arif Khan, the provincial appointee on the city's police services board, echoed some of Lehman’s comments.
“Even if we think or know that we’re doing a good job in collaborating with service providers and experts in their field, perhaps we haven’t done a good enough job in ensuring the public knows,” said Khan. “I think that has to be our focus.”
Khan, a former city councillor, also suggested the possibility of providing a deputation to council on the use of funding in a different way that doesn’t just go through line items.
“While on council, I would sometimes wonder if going through the status quo with a 10-slide presentation or a document that’s full of acronyms or information that would only make sense to people who were deeply involved in the conversation. ... Maybe we need to make sure we do a really good job at sharing in greater detail what we’re doing,” he said.
After watching the discussion, Aylwin told BarrieToday that, while he was thankful the board took the time to discuss his request, he thought it fell short.
“I am a little disappointed in how the conversation took place. It seems there was a consensus that all they need to do is improve their communications about what they’re already doing," he said. "To me, that is not addressing the concerns in the community, or addressing the view of overfunding police and underfunding social services.
"I would really like to see them take a leadership role on this issue and, in good faith, actually look at their budget and decide what a 10 per cent reduction would look like and how it could be done," Aylwin added. “These issues shouldn’t always be falling on the backs of the police."
Aylwin said he’s concerned that, based on the discussion, the police board seems to see this as more of a communications issue rather than something that needs to fundamentally change.
“I don’t think we need to be increasing the police budget so they can continue to do work they shouldn’t be doing. Social services should be taking the lead on these issues, and we have agencies that do that work,” he said.
“Part of communication is listening, not just doing a better job of explaining what you’re already doing. So I hope they’ll do that,” Aylwin said.
While no official actions were taken at the meeting, police services board chair Angela Lockridge recommended to Greenwood that, moving forward, enhanced communication of existing programs be implemented into a more public and transparent process around budget development. Lockridge asked the plan be developed prior to the 2020-21 budget process this fall.
Lehman also mentioned that he and Coun. Jim Harris would be bringing a proposal forward to council, tentatively scheduled for the June 29 meeting, addressing concerns he has heard from the Black community in Barrie over the past few weeks.