Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis by kneeling on his neck until he couldn’t breathe—while knowingly being filmed. Regis Korchinski-Paquet died after police arrived to her Toronto home, responding to a call to support a mental health crisis. Brampton’s D’Andre Campbell was shot and killed by police on his front lawn while experiencing a mental health crisis. Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman, Chantel Moore was killed by police in New Brunswick while they were performing a wellness check. Many people who are hearing about these incidents are considering—for the first time—what Black people mean when we call for defunding the police. The call demands that we divest funding from police services and invest in other programs that are better equipped to deliver the safety and security needs of our society. The support for this call has been overwhelming. A cursory critical survey of the services that police provide show that police generally fail at executing their purported function. This moment calls for us to seriously consider what sort of policy changes are necessary to accomplish our goal of divesting from this anti-Black institution, and reinvesting in crucial social services.
RALLIES FOR CHANGE
Across Canada, we have seen an unprecedented wave of support for defunding the police. Thousands of people have attended demonstrations calling for an end to anti-Black police killings and signed petitions calling on policy makers to defund the police.
And for good reason. For many people outside of communities regularly targeted by police, last week may have been the first time they have witnessed the brutality the police regularly inflict upon communities that they target. Across the United States, police are using biological weapons, lethal force, and their fists against the very people they are meant to “serve and protect,” during demonstrations against police brutality. Such tactics are used regularly against people demonstrating against injustice in Canada, too. Protesters in Montreal this week demonstrating against the police killings of Nicholas Gibbs, Bony Jean-Pierre, and Pierre Corialon, among other Black people who have been murdered by police, were met with pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
The police regularly carry out functions that limit the rights of members of our society to exercise our freedom to speak truth to power; these incidents are not unique to this moment. When Black Lives Matter – Toronto protested the police killing of Andrew Loku in 2016, police officers attacked a crowd of demonstrators; beating them, dragging them, and confiscating necessary mobility devices. Police also exhibited brutal repression of Land Defenders at Wet’suwet’en. These are just two Canadian examples among many.
POLICY OPTIONS FOR DEFUNDING THE POLICE
One of the ways that we can approach defunding the police is through redirecting funds currently wasted on ineffective policing to services that are constructed to meet our needs. Our society has fallen into a troubling trend of using police as an easy, ineffective, band-aid attempt to solve social issues plaguing our communities. It’s time to refuse this failed approach. We need to solve these problems at their root cause, and we can afford to do this now if we defund the police.
Removing Police From Our Educational Institutions
An area of our society that has seen significant defunding to the detriment of society is education. Politicians often talk of cuts to education as a way to save money, and our children and youth have suffered for it. This systematic defunding of education has resulted in less teachers and counselors in school. As this defunding has taken place, funding to police continues to increase. Adults trained to support children and youth have now been replaced with police, who are instead meant to control students. Oftentimes, these so-called “Special Resource Officer” (SRO) programs are not universal in a school board. Instead, police officers are placed in schools with a higher proportion of Black and otherwise racialized students. Wealthier, whiter school districts are less likely to have SRO programs in their institutions.
This has led to the rights of minors being infringed in their schools. Where police are in schools, minors experience interrogations by police without the consent of parents and outside the presence of adults, and in one case, a six-year-old child was arrested and handcuffed in her classroom. There is absolutely no reason that armed police officers should be in an educational institution intimidating students. Youth and children telling their own stories about their experiences with police in classrooms describe feeling intimidated and fearful when they see police in their institutions and around their schools. Police cannot replace the vital functions of a school counselor or a teacher, and they often only receive weeks of training before being placed amongst minors. How can children be encouraged to learn in such an environment? In some cases, parents are not even aware that police are in schools, interacting with their children.
In the City of Toronto, a coalition of activists were successful in forcing the Toronto District School Board to end this anti-Black program. In June, the City of Portland, the University of Minnesota and Toronto’s Ryerson University announced their intention to end relationships with police and refuse to have regular police presence inside educational institutions. Public schools in Canada should follow suit, and opt instead to invest in more teachers and counselors to provide the support that students need.
A New Approach To Gender-based Violence
Skeptics have responded to calls to defund the police due to concerns for people at high risk of gender-based violence. The fear is that society will not be able to protect people against sexual assault and domestic violence. But the reality is that as a society, we are failing to protect people from gender-based violence already. The police are not effective at preventing gender-based violence, or supporting victims and survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence. A woman is killed by her partner in Canada every six days. Sixty-seven per cent of people know a woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse. Indigenous women are six times more likely to be killed. Less than ten per cent of all sexual assaults are reported to police. Right now, each night in Canada, 300 women are not able to access women’s shelters because they are full. These are terrible statistics that suggest that femicide and violence against women are at crisis levels in Canada. Statistics Canada does not collect the same sort of data with respect to trans people, though there is evidence to suggest that violence against trans people are on the rise.
What this information tells us is that the police barely interact with Canada’s cases of gender-based violence, and are ineffective at preventing crisis-level incidents of gender-based violence from occurring. Moreover, these very policing institutions have faced their own allegations of sexual assault across Canada over the years. How can we trust such an institution to take gender-based violence seriously when it runs so rampant within its ranks? What sorts of services could we create to prevent gender-based violence? At the very least, we could put more funding into our shelter, outreach and support systems to keep people safe, rather than continuing to rely on the ineffective services of police. Additionally, we can envision entirely new services for those who need support that are not connected to the legacy of failure and neglect that the police have shown in cases of gender-based violence.
Decriminalization Of Unhoused People
Despite having no other place to go, unhoused people are regularly subjected to harassment from police while living in public space. In Toronto, during the COVID-19 pandemic, police destroyed an encampment where unhoused people live, confiscating tents that served as their shelter. In Vancouver, police regularly destroy encampments of unhoused people. Cuts and underfunding to social housing programs over time have resulted in crisis levels of unhoused people in Vancouver. Social housing programs are inadequate in several major Canadian cities; while capacity rates in shelter systems are largely insufficient for the scope of people requiring their use. Rather than policing unhoused people and criminalizing them for their poverty, we could instead reinvest resources saved from defunding the police into social housing programs.
During the global pandemic, we all got a new understanding of the dangers of not providing adequate, safe, shelter for unhoused people. Cities across North America responded by quickly setting up unhoused people in hotels to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. Why couldn’t we, instead of targeting unhoused people for arrest and incarceration during normal times, boost funding to the shelter system and public housing programs? Rather than criminalizing people for not having money, we should be supporting everyone’s ability to live in dignity.
THE TIME IS NOW
Since the unrest began, another Black man’s death is being investigated by Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit. In a situation that echoes the widely reported-on case of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, police were called during a mental health emergency, and Caleb Tubila Njoko fell from the balcony of his high rise in London, Ontario, to his death. These killings cannot be permitted to continue. Our lives are worth ending the consistent and heinous actions of the anti-Black institution of policing.
Restructuring safety and security in our society will be difficult. In all levels of government, this is going to need a multi-sector approach, engaging several offices to implement new services. But we can make these changes quickly. The swiftness with which the government announced several dozen new services and programs to support people and industries affected by the COVID-19 pandemic shows us how quickly we can create new initiatives if we have the political will. We must prioritize Black and Indigenous lives and take action now.
HOW TO START
If you are a policy-maker, take a look at other jurisdictions around the world who have started to defund the police, and start making plans to reallocate funds currently designated to policing towards alternative services of safety and support. If you are part of a union, or a religious or educational institution, you can take action by organizing workshops to educate your fellow workers about what defunding the police really means, and by releasing statements supporting the demand. As an individual, consider joining protests, signing a petition or donating to organizations who are doing their best to make these policy changes happen.
Black lives matter, and our policies should reflect that. When it comes to policing, the only way forward that can ensure that Black people are no longer the victims of these homicides by the very service meant to keep us safe is to defund the police. For too long, we have not prioritized addressing and ending police killings of Black people in our society, and the cost has been far, far too high. The time for justice is always now, and Black lives are worth prioritizing. Let’s get these policy changes implemented, and ensure that no more Black lives are taken by the police.