The large budgets allocated to urban policing must be reconsidered so that communities can explore safer alternatives.
Defund shouldn’t be a dirty word.
In fact, funding public policing is a step towards choosing real safety for communities across Canada. Defunding means taking money from police budgets, while reducing the size and operations of the police. At the same time, it means giving more power to community groups and devoting more resources to community and social development. Defunding the police is a necessary step towards social and economic justice.
Taking the time to cut through the intimidating rhetoric of the police can help reveal how the police are actually creating harm.
Police rhetoric and intimidation keep people from thinking about the costs of policing. The rhetoric can be so overwhelming that it often prevents us from exploring other possibilities of non-punitive, community-directed responses to transgression.
I recently helped edit a collection of essays exploring the economic, political and social reasons for funding, disarming and dismantling public policing in Canada. After considering the arguments, I am convinced that larger police budgets and larger police deployments will cause more harm than good.
Police break the bank
One of the main reasons for defunding the police is economic.
In some Canadian cities, public police budgets now represent more than 30% of municipal budgets. Police fees should increase even more over the next decade.
These costs create structural deficits that municipalities will never escape. For economic reasons alone, police funding is an issue that anyone interested in cities and public (and fiscal) policy should bear in mind. This money should be reinvested in social programs, community development, mental health, transportation and housing.
Yet, it is necessary to go beyond economic claims and look at politics. Police policy is another reason for funding.
Conservative police culture
The policy of the police forces is undemocratic and contrary to social justice.
For example, last February, during the right-wing “truckers” protest, some police officers sided with the anti-vaccine convoy in cities like Ottawa, Winnipeg and Coutts, Alta.
Some officers used their cars as personal photo booths for the occupants and served as a valet for truckersrevealing differential treatment for most white settler protesters compared to, for example, Wet’suwet’en Indigenous Land Defenders and Water Protectors. Several officers Across the country are under investigation either for donating to the convoy of truckers or for posting social media alerts encouraging the occupation of Canadian cities that have done harm, disruptive and disrespectful to so many people.
There are other examples of regressive policing. The police used public resources to support their own narrow, conservative political causes. In Edmonton and Lethbridge, Alta., police were caught spying on critics and spreading negative messages on social media. In Toronto and Winnipeg, police unions aired attack ads on mayors when these politicians suggested that policing costs should be brought under control.
Recently, Calgary police reported they will continue to wear thin blue spots who have been branded fascists and racists in the United States and Canada as well.
Some police officers like to suggest that they are the thin blue line that holds back the forces of chaos in the world. This forces the police to adopt an aggressive policing ideology.
To mark their political stance and outstanding posture (some might call it extremist), officers will adorn their uniforms with thin blue crests or affix blue stickers to their cars.
These examples reinforce the idea that the police are biased against leftist political groups and embody a conservative political order.
In this conservative culture of political policing, critics must be neutralized. Police definancing becomes a dirty word.
Another reason to defund and abolish the police is the violence they inflict, especially on black and indigenous people.
Numerous studies and countless stories demonstrate the graphic violence that police wantonly use against racialized people.
There are other groups that suffer from police brutality in ways that have become commonplace. People in mental health crisis are regularly shot by police instead of getting help.
Doctors and nurses in the United States and Canada tired of seeing the results of police brutality on their patients’ bodies have formed groups appeal to the police of definancing and abolition.
This immediate violence adds to the slow violence that the criminalization of people inflicts on entire neighborhoods. Every police arrest can affect access to education and employment opportunities, and have a lasting impact on families. Imprisoned communities by American criminologist Todd Clear is a book everyone should read: it reveals how putting people in jail erodes social and family ties.
It may sound counterintuitive, but criminalization undoes the community and creates the conditions for more transgression. The more the police criminalize people, the less healthy our communities are. When you understand this, you begin to see the harm the police are doing everywhere.
Alternatives for security exist
Do we want a society governed by a rock-’em-sock-’em mentality of reactive and violent responses to those in distress and need?
Or do we want to live in a generous society in which community development is at the center of government funding and policing is no longer a top priority?
It is not a luxury to debate this for many people, especially black, aboriginal and people of color in Canada. Police abolition is a matter of survival.
For more discussions on police funding, see the book Disarm, defund, dismantle: abolition of the police in Canada that confronts head-on the myths of the police. The ideas in the book are based on the work of many social movement groups calling for defunding the police. The book examines the politics and economics of policing, the history of police violence, the colonial dimensions of Canada that the public police continue to defendpolice targeting of sex workers and migrants, and the need to put defunding on the agenda in every jurisdiction.
Reading these arguments can help communities consider alternatives to the police while strengthening the case for defunding the police and reimbursing the community.
We have reduced power and scope or removed harmful social institutions before. Continuing to accept the status quo by handing over massive budgets to public policing institutions will not lead to a safe and healthy future. Bigger police budgets and bigger police deployments are a recipe for more harm.
Kevin Walby does not work for, consult, own stock, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.