Recently, The Peak published an editorial covering the debate surrounding policing in Canada, and whether the institution needs to be abolished or reformed. There’s no question that we have a problem with policing — namely the lack of accountability and the no-holds-barred approach the police have to even minor issues. While I agree that reform alone is not the answer, it is imperative that a deeper dive be taken into this issue — one that outlines alternative solutions to dissolving the police entirely.
Demands to completely abolish the police have at their crux the argument that policing is an institution of violence, and thus beyond reform or repair. It is a demand raised out of genuine, long-standing frustration with police brutality and abuse of power. However, it does come with a key problem: if the police are completely eradicated as an institution, what are they replaced with?
As of 2013, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) has over 1,500 employees. Federally, the RCMP has over 30,000 employees. When taken as one institution, law enforcement is one of the largest employers in the country. Calls for complete abolishment essentially mean that all these workers — in uniform and otherwise — would be out of work, a prospect that police unions will (and should) fight bitterly.
There is also the public safety side of things, with legitimate concerns around response to violent crimes. It is true that a large part of the time, police officers respond to issues such as noise complaints, traffic citations, and other non-criminal matters. Having said that, simply because responding to violent crimes is not what an officer does on a daily basis does not mean that violent crimes don’t exist. The public should have a police force to protect them in these rare cases.
Complete abolishment, thus, is not the solution. The example of Camden, New Jersey is frequently used to highlight “successful” abolishment. Prior to its sweeping changes, Camden’s violent crime was high and police brutality worse. There were 37 complaints of brutality at the hands of police in 2011. Since the police reforms, violent crimes have dropped 42% according to data provided by the department, and the crime rate itself has dropped considerably. The general public’s perception of the police has improved radically too.
However, one needs to remember that Camden has a population of under 100,000, and in turn has a different law enforcement dynamic compared to much larger cities in the US and Canada. Also, and more importantly perhaps, the police force in Camden was not eliminated completely. They only changed the way policing took place, via retraining staff and putting new policies in place. So even if cities in Canada were to implement the same changes as in Camden, there is no guarantee that the results would be the same.
What is the answer to the police problem then? Defunding, for one.
Regardless of where we are in the debate, we can all agree that police departments across Canada are grossly overfunded. As reported by Statistics Canada, over $15 billion was spent in this country on policing in 2017–18, an increase of 2% from the prior year. At home in Vancouver, the city allocates $314 million to the VPD. This is an increase of $100 million over the last one decade.
Defunding these departments even by 50% would maintain the ability to respond to violent crimes and would also result in the availability of substantial funds for other essential services. However even a small decrease of 10–20% would be substantial. A shift in funding to public servants such as mental health responders, addiction professionals, and outreach support workers would be a critical cog in the solution to the policing problem.
Not only are these professionals better equipped to address mental health and addiction, but they really should be the first people to encounter calls for help from people going through these crises — not the police. Examples such as the recent murder of Ejaz Chaudhry in Ontario, and the abuse suffered by Mona Wang and Shanna Blanchard in BC — all during police wellness checks — come to mind.
None of what I have proposed is intended to deny that systemic racism exists in our policing institutions, however it would be incorrect to say that every police officer on the force has racist views. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that at the end of the day, everyone in a police force is a worker doing a job. The political left has historically fought for both civil rights and workers rights. This case should be no different. Officers who are guilty of homicides, assault, and abuse of power should absolutely be prosecuted, but complete abolishment of the force creates more problems than solutions.
The focus of solving the policing problem should not be on eliminating the force altogether, but to bring it back in a new form that preserves the jobs of those who deserve them, as well as ends the violent practices too often made against the general populace.