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Police brutality has been an integral component of Canada’s policing systems all the way back to the founding of the settler-colonial state. The rise of the mass Black Lives Matter movements across the United States and other countries – sparked by fatal police violence – has thrown calls to defund the police into the mainstream.
Simply put, the proposal is two-fold: First, eliminate some responsibilities of the police, especially those they are not especially well trained to do. Second, reallocate the funding that goes along with those responsibilities toward effective solutions that prevent crime.
One of the responsibilities of the police that could be eliminated is the role of social work and responding to mental health crises. As we’ve seen far too often in Canada and across the world, the police are untrained and ill-equipped in social work.
Hamilton, Ontario has launched a “non-police crisis response team,” as has Toronto (MCIT), that provides an alternative to simply sending the police if 9-1-1 is dialled. And it has been very successful too:
Woods and Burtenshaw are members of Hamilton’s mobile crisis rapid response team. The program pairs a police officer with a mental health worker to answer 911 calls involving people in mental health crises.
In the eight years since the program launched in Hamilton, there has been a marked reduction in taking people in mental health crisis into custody.
Before the mobile team, Hamilton police apprehended three out of every four people they were called to assist. Their latest figures show a 70 per cent reduction to fewer than one in five.
When it launched in 2013, the Hamilton unit was the first of its kind in Ontario. Over the past five years, it’s expanded to three units on daily staggered shifts, responding to an average of almost 2,700 people in crisis annually.
Jeff Stanlick, director of services at the Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington, oversees a similar program in Guelph. He said that it has reduced intrusive apprehensions and unnecessary emergency department visits. From April to November of this year, the program responded to 1,859 live calls, 76.7 per cent of which were diverted from hospital.
Not radical, and room for improvement
This program is designed to be integrated within an existing police framework. This is simply one part of defunding the police as a policy goal:
Jamie Livingston, an associate professor in the department of criminology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, recognizes the success of crisis response teams, but believes there should also be a response option that doesn’t involve police.
“The key question now is to think about designing services that don’t promote interaction between police and people with mental health illness, but to look at alternatives,” he said.
“The police can escalate things very quickly because of their own training.”
A CBC News investigation examined the details of the more than 460 people who died in encounters with police across Canada between 2000 and 2018. It found that 70 per cent of the people who died struggled with mental health issues or substance abuse or both.
Edmonton city council votes to Defund the Police
Edmonton city council recently voted to defund the police, diverting about $10 million from police funding toward “community safety and well-being initiatives,” a welcome change in the right direction.
Predictably, right-wing commentators reacted in a frenzy. One of them decried the decision as a “pet project” of the “new woke fashionably lefty council.” He completely missed the point of the decision, of course, which is to create the socio-economic conditions that reduce crime in the first place. It seems he prefers the reactive, discriminatory, harmful, and even fatal status quo.
The success of these examples in Edmonton and Hamilton points toward the need for Canada to move away from authoritarian police models toward more liberating, restorative solutions.
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