In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with 3 other police standing idly by without intervening, growing support for calls to defund the police have surged throughout the USA and Canada. But what does it mean to defund the police?
Put simply, the goal is to remove some funding for the police and redirect that funding to other programs that are more effective at solving the roots of societal problems. These programs must be non-authoritarian, non-militarized, and must incorporate the ideals of direct democratic control, to the greatest extent possible.
In Vancouver, BC, City policing costs amount to a whopping 21% of the overall 1.6 billion dollar annual budget. The Toronto police service costs roughly $1.2 billion, and is the biggest line item in Toronto’s 2020 operating budget. Edmonton’s policing budget is the 2nd largest expenditure at almost 15%. So clearly, a good chunk of public money is invested in policing. With such an investment, one would think that the police provide an invaluable service.
Sadly, this is not the case.
On Thursday, June 4th of this year, Police Officers were sent on a wellness check of a 26 year old Indigenous woman, Chantel Moore. The end result of this ‘wellness check’ was that she was shot and killed by the police. Chantel is, unfortunately, not alone, as many others suffering mental health crises have suffered the same fate.
There is no doubt that dealing with mental health issues on the spot can be a huge challenge, with split second decision making and crucial deescalation tactics needed. That is the point. These challenges require specific training and psychological expertise. The police have 2 major insurmountable problems associated with them: 1 – they are not mental health experts, often with minimal training, and 2 – the mere presence of the police during a mental health crisis can escalate the situation due to perceived hostility of the police toward vulnerable communities.
What if, instead of sending police officers to check on Chantel, mental health experts with specialized training were sent to check on her? According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, “although police interactions with persons with a mental illness have long been a component of policing, there is little doubt that police personnel now have more frequent contact with people with mental illnesses than they did 20 or more years ago.” Offloading such a burden off of policing and onto trained mental health professionals should therefore be a priority for Canada. Even the right wing think tank, Fraser Institute, has established that policing costs keep rising while crime rates fall.
There are other ways in which policing has failed Canadians. The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry has sharply criticized the RCMP for “rotating their most inexperienced officers in and out of remote Indigenous communities” and that they should “instead find ways to install veteran detectives and specialized Indigenous squads,” for example.
“The continued racism and sexism by many RCMP officers directed at Indigenous Peoples, the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women … have caused many Indigenous Peoples and communities to lose trust and confidence in the Canadian justice system, the RCMP, and police services in general,” according to the report. Consider also that between 2007 and 2017 one third of people shot to death by police were indigenous. Shifting funding to civilian watchdog groups would be a highly effective measure to provide a counterbalance to often unquestioned police narratives and pressure police to take Indigenous peoples concerns seriously.
Sandy Hudson, founder of Black Lives Matter – Toronto and co-founder of the Black Liberation Collective, demonstrate how racial attitudes toward policing are different, even here in Canada:
Black communities interact with police regularly because we live in neighborhoods police target. We are experts in the ways that police can brutalize and inflict violence upon us. Their presence is no assurance of safety in Black communities. This is often true for Indigenous communities and communities living in poverty as well.
There are other communities who do not interact with police regularly. Wealthier, non-Black, non-Indigenous, privileged communities tend to feel safe because they have a rarely used option to call the police when they feel their safety is threatened. But, they are generally not interacting with police; their communities are not policed in the same way, and they are not targeted for criminalization.https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/defund-police-canada-black-indigenous-lives_ca_5ed65eb2c5b6ccd7c56bdf7d\
The idea of redirecting police funds to a new Emergency Crisis Assistance Force is not a new, far fetched idea. In Oregon, the CAHOOTS program has been active since 1989. This program responds to emergency crises such as suicide prevention, conflict resolution and mediation, grief and loss, substance abuse, housing crisis, first aid and emergency care, domestic violence and many more services, free of charge. They respond to roughly 22000 requests annually, making up 20% of all public safety requests in the metropolitan area. This program has been wildly successful and if implemented on a provincial or national scale, could save countless lives and provide effective services that the police simply cannot.
Another critical area in which a shift of police funding could help public safety is housing. Utah had reduced chronic homelessness by 91% in the decade leading up to 2015. That is a rapid pace of change for such systemic issue. It is well known that guaranteed, stable housing is needed for those struggling with drug and addiction issues as a first step on the road to recovery. Domestic violence survivors, those with disabilities, and many other disadvantaged groups will also benefit from guaranteed housing programs.
The range of issues that could be removed from police duties to non-authoritarian and non-militarized (in some cases) programs is as vast as our imagination. Think of drug decriminalization, sex work, minor bylaw enforcement, restorative rather than punitive justice, implementing means of direct democracy and more community involvement, and anything else that strikes at the root of crime.
There are reasons to believe that shifting from a 40 hour, 5 day work week to a 32 hour, 4 day work week without a loss in pay is both beneficial for employees and still profitable for the majority of employers. Such a shift in work/life balance can easily reap rewards in terms of mental health with more people having time off to enjoy their life. It has been noted that rapid economic growth, not downturn, is correlated with a shorter life expectancy due to work related stress. This overall reduction of work related stress would undoubtedly lead to less mental health related police calls.
This offloading of responsibilities to trained professionals should be welcomed by officers too. Many police officers do go into the the police force with good intentions to help the community. We have seen that all to often though, once in the uniform, things can change in a bad way. Even in racially segregated states in the USA, police continue to kill innocent black men even if the police officer is black. Racial representation in the police force is not a solution.
This shift in public safety policy must be done strategically. The last thing Canada needs is to defund policing without having alternative programs in place, leading to a possible power vacuum and ultimately defeating the entire purpose which is public safety. Let’s get to work and build non-authoritarian, non militarized, alternatives to policing. Then we can shift our funding from the police to these new, more effective institutions.