KITCHENER -- As anti-Black racism protests continue to sweep the world, a controversial mantra became an oft-repeated one: defund the police.

If you've never heard the term before, it might sound radical or cause your brow to furrow: defund the police? Then who will protect us?

The idea is not a new one. It calls for the reallocation of money spent on police budgets to crime prevention methods like education, income supports and mental health services.

"You've got people floating down a river drowning. The police keep pulling them out, but what we need to do is go upstream and see why people are falling into the river in the first place," explains former Regional Coun. Jane Mitchell, who last served on regional council in 2018.

Recently, Mitchell has begun to voice her support for defunding, so money normally spent on policing would be redistributed to other social services like housing or job programs.

Radical or not, the idea appears to be gaining steam: in the last week, a number of major U.S. cities committed to making changes.

In Minneapolis, Minn., for example, where George Floyd died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, the majority of council members backed a motion to disband the city's police force.

In Los Angeles, the mayor has vowed to cut up to $150 million that was earmarked for a planned police budget increase.

But what would changes to policing look like in Waterloo Region?

Defunding police in Waterloo Region

The Waterloo Regional Police Service operated on a budget of more than $189 million in 2019. This year, that budget rose by about six per cent to more than $200 million.

Of that, compensation and benefits accounted for more than $160 million.

By comparison, the region spent about a billion dollars last year on services like public health and transit—$1,003,847,000, the region's budget shows.

Mitchell wrote on her blog last week that the police budget has always presented a difficulty for the region.

"If we were at a 1 per cent (budget) increase, the police budget would add another 1 percent (even though the police budget might actually be going up 3 to 5 percent or more)," she wrote. "Half the Region's budget increase was policing."

READ MORE: The numbers behind calls to 'defund the police'

In the days leading up to the Black Lives Matter solidarity march in downtown Kitchener last week, the African Caribbean Black (ACB) Network of Waterloo Region issued three specific demands:

  • Defunding the police, by allocating resources to "upstream prevention and community initiatives" like healthcare, income support and education;
  • Ending the School Resource Officer and Community Outreach programs, which the ACB calls "the first steps in the school-to-prison pipeline"; and
  • Defunding campus police, using those resources instead to support marginalized and impoverished Black and Indigenous students

While those demands were made leading up to the march, the ACB says that people have been calling for these changes for years—they've just been laid bare by the pandemic.

"I think we need to eliminate the idea of, this is a new movement, this is a new moment. But we are continuing work, we are saying, 'we've been asking for this,'" says Teneile Warren, a member of the ACB Network.

"I think the pandemic has certainly put a lot of things into perspective, because suddenly there are white people experiencing daily Blackness: what it's like to feel isolated and treated differently and ostracized. So now they get it."

The ACB says that the idea of defunding police shouldn't be a radical one, because other services, like social, health and community-based services, have been defunded over time while police budgets have grown.

Kitchener Centre MPP Laura Mae Lindo says the pandemic has shed a light on a lot of the issues that racialized people already face.

"I think part of that is coming to light right now because it's also during this pandemic," says.

"So we're now more accustomed to talking about, people need access to high-quality health care, people need access to mental health supports, people need access to education, they need access to quality jobs that don't have them running from place to place to place."

In case you missed it: 'I know that there is hope for my five-year-old son,' Lindo said at BLM march in Kitchener

There's another reason that the call for defunding has caught on, Lindo says: it's punchier.

"The idea of defunding gets your attention because there is no other way to reallocate without defunding," she explains.

Could we really live in a world without policing?

Police Chief Bryan Larkin admits that police are responding to many calls that, fundamentally, they shouldn't be.

"Our goal was to never be the primary responder to mental health. Our goal was never to be the primary responder to the issue of homelessness and/or poverty. But we find ourselves in the middle of these challenges," he says.

He agrees that public health and social services should get more funding, but points to violent crime in the region as an example of why police need more funding, not less.

There were 25 shootings in Waterloo Region last year, the investigations into which require huge resources.

"All of these are complex investigations that require complexity, that require investigators and we want to focus on organized crime, we want to focus on victims of human trafficking," he says.

"We very much with the support of our community have enhanced our response to victim and survivors of sexual assaults. That's where we should be focusing our responsibilities."

But the ACB Network believes that, if people were having their core needs met, there would one day be no need for policing at all.

"People are not inherently criminal to their core. People who act or behave in ways that are mal-adaptive often do so because they need resources, they lack support," advisory committee member Fitsum Areguy explains.

"I don't think it's that radical to imagine a future where people have what they need and people take care of each other and our society has that safety net that prevents crime from happening and also invests back into those communities."

Fellow advisory committee member Lang Ncube agrees, saying that upstream prevention over time would allow people to seek the necessary help without the need for outside policing.

"As we have all of our needs met, all of our social needs, I think at that point that policing itself is not necessary. People are able to govern themselves as long as they have the resources they need, to access everything that they're lacking."

The ACB Network says that if anywhere could start to think beyond policing, it should be Waterloo Region.

"I think what we're seeing in this resistance to defunding is a failure of imagination. We're really asking people to think innovatively. Innovation is a word that's really, really dear to our regional identity, but in this case, we're not able to think about something beyond policing," Areguy says.

Can we reimagine, reform or reinvent policing instead?

Matt Torigian is the former police chief of Waterloo Region, a position he held just before Larkin.

Torigian says that he understands the reason for people calling for police defunding, but says that more money needs to be spent before any kind of defunding could begin.

"Are there dollars that can be better used elsewhere in the community with different service providers? That needs to be in place before you just turn the tap off somewhere else," he says.

He says that reallocation can lead to better outcomes, but the monetary shift needs to be a gradual one.

Torigian says it all comes down to thinking about policing differently, and looking at those programs as a way to mitigate the costs of policing, rather than shutting off police funding.

"We need to take a knee inside our police services and listen to the diverse voices right through our organizations," he acknowledges.

He framed the idea of defunding as a way of looking at mitigating the costs of policing. With more upstream prevention, he says, the cost of policing will come down.

CTV legal analyst and former OPP Commissioner Chris Lewis says he was "saddened and horrified" by the death of George Floyd, but says that ultimately the judicial process has begun its course.

"I totally understand the emotion surrounding the death of Mr. Floyd and of course the issues around racism in policing and police violence, but at the same time, defunding police and lessening police is not the solution," he tells CTV.

"That's like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Certainly changes have to be made, there shouldn't be racism in policing. Acts of racism and excessive force, whether they're racist in nature or not, need to stop without a doubt. But how does defunding the police change all that?"

He says that community and social services need to be refunded before people can begin to discuss the idea of defunding the police.

But the ACB Network says that policing has such deep systemic roots that it can't be fixed.

"The imagination of police in the 1790s in South Carolina where the first publicly-funded police force was formed, they were actually called slave patrols, and you can just imagine from that title alone their intention was to control enslaved Black people," explains advisory committee member Ciann Wilson.

"So it should be no surprise that in 2020, the children of those enslaved people are saying, 'no, there isn't a reimagination (sic) possible with a system that is built out of white supremacist desires for control and surveillance.'"

The network says it's very clear on its messaging, and sticks to it: the only solution they see is to defund police.

"What we've noticed since our call to action is a number of key decision-makers and people in positions of influence repurposing our statements with more moderate language," says advisory committee member Ruth Cameron.

"We have not made a request for reform, nor reimagination (sic), with regards to our calls to action. What we are interested in is a defunding of police with our initial request to the amount of $29.3 million."

Will we see any changes to policing in Waterloo Region?

Torigian says that, if the pandemic has shown us anything, it's how fast policy changes can be made, implemented and bought into.

"If we can pivot so quickly on policies because of this crisis, we need to start thinking about the racial divide, the inequalities, the over-representation, the under-policing, it's about time to start thinking about this as a crisis because this crisis has been going on a long time," he says.

"Then we could actually start implementing policy at the speed of that crisis."

Chief Larkin says that, while the School Resource Officer and Community Outreach Programs were noble and well-intentioned, he's open to having discussions with stakeholders about alternatives.

Larkin says that the COPs program has been the subject of academic studies that have shown different outcomes and he believes in it, but that ultimately as a community program it's worth reassessing.

In both cases, though, he says the police involved are volunteers who are invited to participate in the programs by stakeholders: the City of Kitchener runs the COPs program.

For the SRO program, he says that the police are invited into the schools by the school board.

"I understand that it may make a number of people feel unsafe and feel that it's not appropriate. So let's engage in discussion and dialogue with the school board with all the stakeholders," he says.

But Warren tells CTV that nobody, from police to municipal decision makers, has reached out to the ACB network about sitting down for a conversation.

As MPP for Kitchener Centre, Lindo says that she hasn't seen any concrete steps taken by policymakers, either.

"From every vantage point that I have, there does not seem to be the political will to make the change," she says.

"And because there isn't the political will to make the change on the provincial level, I'm finding that it's easier for police for instance to say, 'we need to reimagine policing,' as opposed to saying, 'we need to reimagine the world that we live in.'"

Former Coun. Jane Mitchell says that decision makers need to listen to the voices of the people who are calling for change.

"As a white person, I need to listen, I need to learn more about what Black lives are like," she says.

"It's  up to all of us to listen to Black people and do what they say and what they think is needed to reform our world so that there's no racism."