The sound of bouncing basketballs echoes down Banff Avenue as two dozen children try to emulate their heroes on a hot July evening. Down the block, there’s a new memorial that marks the spot where a 24-year-old man was shot in broad daylight.
When Kilo, who wasn’t comfortable giving his full name, heard gunshots that day, he ran outside to see a young man lying in a pool of blood. The experience shook the 35-year-old Haitian furniture mover, but he doesn’t think law enforcement is the solution. “More police presence sometimes means more harassment,” says Kilo. “What would make me feel safe is knowing my neighbour will have the same opportunities as someone who lives in Barrhaven or Orleans. When there’s not enough opportunities, bullshit will come and find you.”
His neighbour Sami feels differently: he wants change he can see, and believes more police patrolling the streets will mean less crime. “They come — the bad guys stay away. ”
Everyone wants effective policing, but in this municipal election, there’s a clear divide on what that looks like. At $369.5 million, the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) budget accounts for nine per cent of the city’s 2022 budget, the fourth-largest expenditure item. Calls for defunding police have intensified after February’s occupation of the city by protesters. Many say officers weren’t effective at enforcing bylaws or protecting residents from hateful symbols and harassment.
Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah is a commissioner with the Ottawa People’s Commission, a grassroots organization created to “give voice to the community’s experience” following the convoy. She questions the annual budget increases: “[Ottawa Police] were ineffective because they made the intentional decision not to respond to this as they would other forms of dissent. We saw them help move jerry cans to other areas. We saw them high-fiving the occupiers.”
Owusu-Akyeeah says she’s seeing support for defunding police not just among marginalized groups, but within the mainstream. “If I am someone downtown, who may be white, working from home, and I’m not afforded the service that was promised to me, then I’ve been failed by the service. Maybe I’m thinking about how much we’re funding this.”
Former OPS board chair Diane Deans says that, given the occupation fallout, a growing number of citizens are looking for candidates who can hold police accountable and limit their spending. Deans says there is fat to cut. She points to a policy that grants every senior officer an OPS vehicle for personal use. “I’m not one of those people who think we don’t need police. I think we do. I’ve often asked for police resources in my own ward,” says Deans. “But that doesn’t mean a blank cheque. It seems to me the next board has to ask questions about value for money.”
Asking those questions did not endear Deans to council. Under Deans, the board gave the force a smaller budget increase: $3 million less than the force wanted. It was eventually passed by council in a 19-to-5 vote, but behind the scenes Deans said it was challenging to convince the four board members appointed by the province not to vote down the proposal.
Councillor Eli El-Chantiry defends the police budget. He was the OPS board chair before Deans and was reinstated after the council voted Deans off the board in the midst of the convoy chaos. El-Chantiry says he was frustrated that the same councillors who voted to reduce the police budget two months earlier were the “first ones out of the gate screaming for more police resources” during February’s protest. The West Carleton-March councillor, who isn’t seeking re-election, says the convoy shows why shifting police funds to community services is a bad idea.
Ewart Walters, publisher of The Spectrum newspaper and an engaged member of the Jamaican community, is concerned that police budget cuts will set back reforms. Walters argues a critical mass of Black officers is needed to repair race relations: “What defunding will mean is that you can’t hire anybody. And we need to hire Black officers.”
Walters also worries the board will try to hire a new police chief before the election, which he does not support: “You’re going to build the house without clearing the ground?“
When it comes to hiring a new chief, Sam Hersh of advocacy group Horizon Ottawa agrees it should be delayed. He’s trying to help elect councillors who support a progressive agenda, including a leaner police service — not just a diverse one. He points out that the city’s first Black police chief, Peter Sloly, was forced to resign during the convoy — “and quite unceremoniously at that. And that didn’t make a difference. We need to try something else.”
Caught in the middle is interim OPS chief Steve Bell. He is still auditioning for the role of top cop after overseeing the “largest public order removal” in Canada. While there were no serious injuries, Bell knows it’s not widely seen as a success. Months after the convoy, residents still stop him to convey their anger. “What frustrates me is the harm that it has caused in our community,” says Bell.
He says the force has learned from the experience. “People were intimidated in their streets and there was an overwhelming feeling of being unsafe in those areas … that’s front of mind because we need to regain public trust.”
From the row houses of Banff Avenue to the streets of Centretown, citizens want more from their police force. It will be up to the next council to deliver.