The defund argument is about our priorities as a society. Do we favour harm reduction or retribution? Do we seek to support people in crisis or punish them?
By Ryan McGreal
Published June 04, 2020
By now you have probably heard about the "defund the police" movement, including a powerful call by local Black Lives Matter leaders in Hamilton this week.
"Defund" is a blunt, provocative statement that will almost surely trigger law-and-order folks. But there is an important, nuanced discussion to be had before you dismiss it out of turn.
Different people mean different things by "defund the police", so let me stake out the territory I have in mind when I think of it. As always, YMMV.
Thesis: Police budgets are currently far too high and police powers are currently far too expansive. In Hamilton, for example, our police budget is $171 million, the single biggest line item in the entire municipal budget. The police budget is also, as the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion notes, higher than all of our social service programs - combined.
Pouring so much money into policing does two things, both harmful. (1) It starves social programs that would prevent a lot of police calls if they were properly funded; and (2) It forces the police into social service roles they're not trained or qualified to do.
This hurts vulnerable communities twice: first, by depriving them of the basic resources they need to survive and flourish, and again by applying punitive force against the predictable crises that result from the lack of resources.
Of course, this mis-allocation of resources doesn't happen in a vacuum. Racialized communities are trebly harmed: through systemic racial discrimination, disproportionate marginalization and impoverishment, and then disproportionate policing and criminalizing.
As Toronto Anti-Racist activist Desmond Cole so compellingly argues, whenever you have an agency with broad authority and discretion in a racist system, that agency will disproportionately exercise its discretion in racist ways against racialized communities.
The more power police have, the more power they have to target and punish racialized, marginalized communities. Sure enough, A 2018 Ontario Human Rights Commission report found black Torontoians are 20 times more likely to be shot by police than white Torontonians.
Similarly, across Canada, Indigenous people are shockingly overrepresented at every single level of our prison system: more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, more likely to receive a tougher sentence, more likely to be punished and segregated, and more likely to be injured and killed.
One response is to demand that the police do better: better training in conflict de-escalation, mental health, racial sensitivity, and so on. And sure - constraining the unwarranted use of force has to be part of the solution.
Likewise, a robust system of transparency and accountability - including mandatory, non-interferable body cameras - could potentially help in combination with better use-of-force and de-escalation training.
But the defund argument says that the real problem is dispatching the police into situations that require vastly different skills than policing. The police are a hammer, and many of the challenges they are called to respond to are not nails.
A huge proportion of the people killed in police hands - like Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who suspicously fell to her death after police responded to a 911 call at her apartment - are people in crisis, not dangerous criminals.
If we shift public resources from bloated police budgets to comparatively starved social welfare budgets, we could provide more stable living for vulnerable people and would need fewer emergency call-outs to intervene with people in jeopardy in the first place.
Another aspect of the defund argument is activities that are illegal but shouldn't be. Drug prohibition, for example, wastes enormous resources on policing and incarceration that could be spent far more effectively on harm reduction.
And of course, every criminalized activity is just another opportunity for police to use their authority and discretion to disproportionately target racialized people with charges. It is inherently a multiplier of racial discrimination and injustice.
In summary, the defund argument is about our priorities as a society. Do we favour harm reduction or punishment? Do we seek to support people in crisis or crush them? Do we invest in protecting people or in jailing them? Do we want to reduce inequity or multiply it?
Defund is a spectrum of options, not an all-or-none binary choice. There is lots of room for re-balancing our public expenditures between rubber-stamping $300,000 armored police tanks and eliminating the police altogether. But the discussion needs to happen.
It's going to take more than carefully worded press releases to restore the catastrophically eroded public trust in our police. It's going to take a real transformation to match our resources with our needs more humanely, fairly and effectively.
So when you hear someone saying, "defund the police", don't dismiss it as utopian nonsense. If you have not experienced the sharp end of the racial discrimination stick, it is incumbent on you to listen to people who have experienced it. The status quo cannot continue.
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