Since the police assassination of George Floyd in May 2020 and the subsequent mass mobilizations for police debriefing and abolition, the defund movement has continued to organize.
Did this work have an impact in Canada? Were there successful challenges in reducing Canadian police budgets?
The answer is complicated and depends on how you define success.
Some argue that the mobilization and movement building that has taken place – people brought together in campaigns to abolish the police who are rethinking community safety – is a great success in itself. Abolition has entered the public consciousness like never before.
Dozens of books have been published by academics, lawyers, and activists, building on the work of Black feminists in the United States and Canada who have long argued that policing perpetuates violence in our society rather than reducing it.
There have been some modest successes with the defundering of the police.
In Edmonton, the city council voted to reduce the $ 209 million budget increase by $ 10.9 million and allocate the money to social services.
In Halifax, a subcommittee of the Halifax Council of Police Commissioners submitted a detailed and carefully researched report to the city council on how the local police force could be gradually dismissed and funded.
However, when one looks further, what appears to be a serious and growing counter-campaign. This is perhaps the strongest indication of the movement’s success in undermining the sanctity of police budgets to date.
Police have vigorously fought the defund movement through threats and false representations of impending violence if budgets are cut. They co-opt calls for community safety and mark themselves as protectors who need ongoing or greater resources. They position themselves as innocent heroes being attacked, and discredit those who criticize them.
One strategy used by the police is an offensive and personal tactic to remove people from positions of influence if they support police funding.
When Winnipeg City Coun. Sherri Rollins criticized police racism in March 2020, an informal complaint was lodged against her by the police council claiming that she did not comply with the city’s respectful workplace policy.
Similarly, in July 2020, another Winnipeg City Council member, Vivian Santos, discussed the defundering and was expelled from the police council. Police removed her on alleged security grounds when background checks tracked down a friend with a criminal record.
Scare tactics are another strategy.
According to their own data, only eight to 10 percent of calls to police involve violence. Despite acknowledging that a large portion of the calls they receive can be better managed by other types of workers, police maintain that reducing officers would be “naive” and undermine community safety.
But which community keeps the police safe? Instead of diverting funding to organizations with expertise in gender-based violence, anti-racism measures and mental health, the police are demanding and receiving record funds to triage these programs themselves.
Waterloo Regional Police recently received a $ 12.3 million boost to carry out mental health interventions while community organizations are starving through austerity and struggling to keep their doors open.
In Hamilton, Ont., Activists from the Defund the Police Hamilton Coalition supported homeless people who were harassed daily by the police and eventually forcibly evicted from their camps.
The coalition called for the city council to reallocate police resources to permanent housing, putting the needs of the community first over the criminalization of homeless people. The organization’s antidote to intimidation tactics is to focus on prevention and the fight to protect people over property.
Police culture as a social problem
Police are proposing apparent reforms, such as training for unconscious prejudice and body cameras, as a promise to change the “culture of policing”. As criminologists have noted, such reforms increase police funding without demonstrable change, circumventing the reality that policing is inherently violent.
With increasing attention to their record of extrajudicial killings, systemic racism and harassment within their own powers and their failure to address gender-based violence, police are on the defensive.
Take, for example, the aggressive response to criticism from police unions. The police buyers may have to refine their words when responding to politicians and the public, but police unions often reveal their true colors.
In June 2020, the Regina Police Association defended a tweet indicating that its cultural unit, which works with indigenous peoples, would be the first to go should the police be defamed. “Choose wisely,” it threatened.
Also in June 2020, the Edmonton Police Chief similarly said that defining would harm diversity initiatives within policing. This threat to the employment of Black and Indigenous officers positioned the police as a benevolent force in the struggle for racial justice, obscuring the colonial foundation and systemic racism of policing.
Yet the charge in Canada to retaliate against the police is led by black and indigenous leaders and is explicitly focused on racial injustice in the criminal justice system.
What reduces damage?
The lack of “success” in police debriefing is a sign of how powerfully the police are fighting back, not a sign of a dwindling movement.
Over the past two years, police chiefs, police representatives and police unions have mobilized the public resources they have to fight the defund movement. But an Ipsos poll found 50 percent of Canadians under the age of 38 are interested in exempting and abolishing the police.
Rewarding the police is not radical or irrational, unlike what the police might make the public believe.
What is radical and irrational is still spending 15 to 30 percent of municipal budgets on public policing. What is radical and irrational is to continue to use criminalization and criminal law to deal with social issues and interpersonal harm when we know that a punitive, carceral approach does not reduce harm or lead to more security in our neighborhoods.
Instead, citizens need to think openly about ways to address damage in our communities and neighborhoods and to reallocate funds from inflated police budgets to housing, mental health, addiction, employment, counseling, education against violence and more. Then we can truly live in a healthier, safer world.
At a time when many people are struggling to make a living, we must not allow police tantrums to stand in the way of real security and a fair share of resources for community and social development. Nor can we accept the criminalization of poverty and inequality, which is the current alibi for how the public police and the entire penal system remain in business.