By: Meera Eragoda, Arts & Culture Editor
The recent prominence gained by the push to “abolish/defund the police” has mainstream politicians like Trudeau scrambling to turn these movements into a conversation about police reform. Not only does the focus on reform miss the mark of what the protesters are calling for, it is also ineffectual in preventing police brutality. Police abolition sounds extreme, but nothing less will work to fix a broken policing system.
So what’s the difference between police reform and abolition?
Police reform is based on the idea that the police play a fundamentally beneficial role in society, in spite of the few “bad apples” that give them a bad name. The argument is that with proper training and more technology like body cameras, the police will be held more accountable and will, hypothetically, be less violent.
As the implementation of body cameras in the US has shown, however, such measures don’t stop police brutality. As many Black people have pointed out, we shouldn’t need to see Black bodies being murdered to believe that police brutality is real and that the police are dangerous.
Police reform attempts to paper over this reality with more training and more resources. In doing so, however, it serves only to direct more funds towards a fundamentally violent institution designed to criminalize already marginalized people.
Police abolition, on the other hand, seeks to weaken and ultimately eliminate the police altogether. Abolitionists recognize that police forces were created in order to protect the wealth and private property of a small percentage of white men. Black abolitionists in particular recognize that this definition of private property included their ancestors, and that early police forces were actually slave patrols.
This history is present in Canada as well. The RCMP was created in order to dispossess Indigenous people of their land and resources so that it could be commodified by the few. The RCMP was instrumental for displacing Indigenous communities and taking Indigenous children away from their homes and placed into residential schools. They also enforced the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII and continue to criminalize poor and racialized folk.
Abolition means reckoning with this history of racism and dispossession by funnelling funds away from the police and towards other community initiatives such as mental health, education, and housing in order to make the police largely redundant.
Sandy Hudson — who has been instrumental in bringing the defund the police movement to the mainstream press in Canada — gives an example specific to Toronto how responded to fare evasion by adding more police officers at subway stations. She explains that if the City of Toronto redirected the funds they used for adding these extra officers into making transit free for all, this would eliminate the need to criminalize fare evasion in the first place. Given that the people evading fares are those who can’t afford them, policing fares equates to criminalizing poverty. Making transit free would make things more equitable and give everybody the opportunity of access.
This perspective can be applied to housing, mental health initiatives, education, and so much more. This is what Minneapolis just elected to do and in the Yukon, they’re experimenting with having unarmed community safety officers respond to calls instead of the police. Defunding the police and increasing funding for community care will help keep everyone safer and contribute to a more equitable world.
In our city where the police budget is approximately $314 million — an increase of 140% from 2001 — but where homelessness has been rising year after year, we need to ask ourselves what we want to prioritize. Do we want these funds going toward making sure everyone in our city has proper housing, enough to eat, mental health resources, education, and more? Or do we want to continue to fund the policing people for trying to survive in a system built to oppress them?
There is a template letter to Vancouver City Council that will help add your voice to those calling to defund the VPD which can be found here. I urge you to fill it out and send it.