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Mayor sparks debate over police funding approach

Mayor Cam Guthrie has sparked fierce debate after making it clear he did not want to “punish” police amid efforts to change the service, with Guelph activists saying a recent statement was misleading in contrast to what the anti-racism movement wants from local leaders.

Police observe protestors on June 6, 2020. GUELPHWIRE/Eli Ridder

“No. I do not support defunding our police out of a desire to punish them,” Guthrie said in a statement posted to Twitter late on Thursday.

“I am not here to punish the good men and women of our service, who do one heck of a good job caring for our city.”

The pressure is on for police reform in the Royal City as part of a greater international movement to reallocate funds from police departments into social services that are better equipped to deal with certain emergency responses, supporters argue.

Though the Guelph Black Lives Matter chapter is only eight days old, one of the founding members, Kevin Sutton, put out a statement on the organization’s social media saying in response that “we are not seeking punishment.”

“We are seeking an END to the punishment,” Sutton continued.

“We are seeking an end to police brutality, and an end to the racist targeting of the BIPOC community by law enforcement, the justice system, the education system, the healthcare system, housing, and all other systems of service.”

BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and peoples of colour.

Efforts to change policing in Guelph come amid social unrest worldwide sparked by the killing of George Floyd, an African-American, at the hands of a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in late May.

A few thousand demonstrators marched through the streets of Guelph on June 6 in support of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism movement, with speakers rallying protesters against police violence and calling for systemic change.

“Today we are here to stand for something we believe in. It is enough of the police brutality and the violence that our BIPOC community faces,” organizer Kayla “Kween” Gerber told a roaring, diverse crowd during the march.

The demonstration took place in tandem with gatherings across the country, and around the world, continuing the momentum that started with the killing of George Floyd — an African-American — at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis in late May.

Many of these protests included calls for “defund the police”.

Many activists want more funds allocated towards public health initiatives and services that offer support for the vulnerable in a community, such as illicit drug addicts and those who are homeless.

One of the only levers municipalities have over local police departments in Canada and the United States is annual fiscal budgets, with some cities using funding to find new ways to tackle public safety and leading to a “defund the police” movement growing in some communities.

‘Potential for dialogue’

Kevin Sutton told GuelphWire on Friday that he sees the situation as a chance to talk.

“I do want to say that, although the backlash is Mayor Guthrie’s to deal with and find a way to address the various community concerns, I’m choosing to see the potential for dialogue,” Sutton explained.

“At the end of the day, both the City and GPS are key stakeholders in any form of transition that happens,” Sutton added.

“So we have to be prepared to have constructive conversations at the table, while we still apply community pressure for the changes we are seeking.”

Separately, the opportunity for a face-to-face discussion will come soon for one of Guelph’s prominent anti-racism activists she speaks with Guthrie.

A conversation between Gerber and Guthrie will take place in the coming days, the local activist confirmed to GuelphWire, though she does not represent the BLM Guelph organization.

Mayor taking action

Mayor Cam Guthrie on Wednesday said that he will ask the police chief to create an action plan to engage those who identify as Black, Indigenous and people of colour throughout the community in what he called a first step towards meaningful action.

“Over the last two weeks I promised our community that I would listen, be intentional and both focused and learn of the issues surrounding systemic racism and intolerance towards our [BIPOC] community within Guelph,” Guthrie said in a statement.

“Conversations have only just begun and I am committed to continue having respectful dialogue on these issues that result in both understanding and meaningful positive change.”

Along with his role as mayor on city council, Guthrie is also a sitting member of the Guelph Police Service Board, an oversight body made up of five residents that holds the service accountable. 

The request for a report on current police engagement with the BIPOC community and to determine a way forward, as well as a report on Guelph Police’s use of carding, was passed as a set of motions on Thursday from Guthrie at the board.

However, earlier this year, the mayor successfully passed a 10 per cent increase to the police budget that paved the way to a planned hiring of over 30 new full-time positions within the service, fulfilling a part of his 2018 re-election platform.

On Tuesday night, the Upper Grand District School Board’s trustees appeared to show significant support for a task force to review police presence in schools, a proposal expected to be passed next week. The local Catholic school board is also headed in that direction.

(Reporting by Eli Ridder; With files from Jack Fisher)