A journal by Salvatore Loiero
Defunding the police is a movement that originated in public disapproval for police violence that disproportionately targeted Black Americans and a criminal justice system with a long history of treating Black Americans unequally. It gained attention due to the Black Lives Matter movement that called for justice system reform during the George Floyd protests that started in May of 2020. Today, it continues to address a need to fight for freedom, liberation, justice, and the safety of Black and Indigenous people (Ontario Federation of Labour, 2020). There are different conceptions of defunding the police among activists, scholars, and elected officials. Fundamentally, it concerns the need to reimagine publicly provided safety services (Elghawaby, 2021). The movement, as it was intended, is most accurately described as the process of reallocating resources from a department concerned with law enforcement and using it to fund other social services to address the situation in a more appropriate fashion. Instead of a police response, other professionals such as first responders with specialized training in investigating and responding to violent crime could be called to the scene (Elghawaby, 2021). It allows society to deal with emergency situations differently by using first responders that are trained in dealing with many forms of crisis to deescalate and diffuse a violent encounter or assist someone in need of health or social services intervention. The situation might benefit from the experience of someone with professional training in dealing with persons in poverty, those affected by domestic violence, or people with mental health challenges. Unfortunately, police are often the first and only emergency unit called upon to respond to situations where peoples’ safety is in jeopardy (Novacic, 2021).
2020 was one of the deadliest years on record for people killed in police encounters, and Black and Indigenous people are overwhelmingly the most affected by police violence. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Deadly Force Database maintained internally by its own researchers indicated that thirty people were killed using police force in the first half of 2020—equivalent to the full year average for killings involving police for the past ten years. The same data shows that most of those police encounters that resulted in an officer killing a civilian involved the subject being pursued for conduct that was a result of mental illness or substance abuse. Several findings remain evident in the data describing the outcomes of fatal encounters when police have used force. First, the number of cases has increased consistently over the past twenty years, despite being corrected for population growth. Second, the number of Black and Indigenous people represented among those killed are disproportionate to their representation in the population. Third, most cases of fatalities involved mental health and substance abuse. Similar data collected by a University of Toronto criminologist influenced a Nova Scotia law that outlawed police street checks, citing data that showed that police disproportionately targeted Black people. According to the CBC’s Deadly Force Database, Indigenous people made up 16 percent of deaths, despite constituting 4.21 percent of the population. And Black people represented 2.92 percent of the population but accounted for 8.63 percent of the deaths (Singh, 2020).
York University Professor Lorne Foster, who studies race-based policing data, conducted a study in which he collected race-based data on police stops in Ottawa. He found that police stopped a disproportionate number of Black and Middle Eastern people. Professor Foster said that police should collect this data and use it to review and reform their practices. In his study on police activity, Foster said that “They need to look at this type of data to take the next step and to address these deeply rooted discriminatory features in our society, particularly in relation to their service and the community” (Singh, 2020). Professor Foster’s research identifies systemic problems with policing that treats people differently based on their race and should serve as the basis for structural changes to police training, police practice, and accountability. His work should also inform the justice system’s approach to how it prosecutes and sentences people of colour and Indigenous people.
People in Ontario who advocate to defund the police try to achieve justice system reform by “reimagining alternatives to police services, decriminalization, disarmament, and demilitarization; redistributing a portion of the overfunded police budgets towards much-needed public services in the communities; exploring community-driven, community-led solutions to community safety and well-being; and overhauling the training process and ensuring public accountability for the police’s remaining tasks” (Ontario Federation of Labour, 2020). Examples of events that demand a different response than the traditional use of police are crises that arise out of mental health issues, domestic violence, substance abuse, and homelessness (Griffith, 2020). Less public money could be spent on police enforcement and achieve the same—if not better—results without the need to resort to law enforcement and while providing greatly needed social services. The City of Toronto spends approximately twenty-five percent of taxpayer money on funding the police, which is comparable to what we spend on public transportation, the library, children services, and public health combined. Providing more funding for services like children’s services and public health would provide more comprehensive services, better responses to crime, and healthier communities (Black Lives Matter Canada, 2021).
Harvard Law Professor John Goldberg has commented on the defunding the police movement and told CBSN originals that “I think at the core of the defunding movement is the idea that we want to take money out of city and local budgets that has traditionally been devoted to paying for police services, and to redirect it [to] better housing for low-income people, better schools, better mental health treatments (Elghawaby, 2021).” Not only do some requests for emergency assistance require a more appropriate response, there are also fiscal benefits to using alternatives to police services. As an example of how the funding can be diverted and used for more productive outcomes, New York City Council cut one billion dollars from the New York City Police Department and put $350 million of that money into the Department of Education for school safety and committed $4.5 million to the Department of Homeless Services. New York City Council member Alicka Ampry-Samiel said that they spent one million dollars on a police gang unit, only to see an increase in gang activity. The council member asked: "So what would it look like if we took that million dollars and gave it to the community-based organizations that address violence?" The councillor thought the money would be used more effectively if it provided support for social programs that address homelessness and mental health crises (Elghawaby, 2021). The shift in spending would result in a more efficient use of resources because the diverted money from police units would replace the financing the city normally used to fund these social programs, creating budget savings in areas where the funds for the social programs would normally come from. In addition, it would change the lives of people who would otherwise be the subjects of the criminal justice system.
Violent conflicts that arise out of a police response to situations involving a mental health crisis call attention to the problem of dispatching police to address such emergencies. In the United States, as early as 2015, the Treatment Advocacy Centre estimated that someone with a mental health condition who was stopped by police was sixteen times more likely to be killed during the encounter than other civilians. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine featured a study that found that from 2009-2012 twenty percent of deaths involving lethal force with law enforcement were related to the victim’s mental health or substance induced disruptive behaviors. Surveys published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness showed that people suffering a mental health crisis are more likely to encounter police than they are to receive the medical treatment they need. As a consequence of deferring to police to answer distress calls, two million people in the United States are needlessly jailed each year (CBS News). Using alternative emergency response supports, people would get treatment for illness and crises that would not ordinarily receive attention and they would avoid conflict with the law. In Canada, data maintained by the CBC shows that 68 percent of people killed by police had either some form of mental health ailment, addiction, or both (Singh, 2020).
Police forces over-police racialized minorities, and violent police encounters disproportionately affect racialized communities. Police are far more likely to use force when they encounter a racialized individual, someone suffering from mental health issues, or homeless people. The consensus among scholars and public servants is that resources are better spent and are more effective when they focus on the root of crime, rather than treating poverty, mental health illness and addiction as criminal activity. Increased spending on social programs has the potential to address many of the health and social needs of people who find themselves in conflict with the law and help them access the resources they need to remain safe. Recognition of the causes of poverty, illness, and conflict with the justice system is representative of the progress society is making to help address problems in justice system administration using the potential of social and health policy to solve complex challenges.
Black Lives Matter Canada (2021). A Movement to Fight for Freedom, Liberation, and Justice. Online: <Canada - Defund The Police>
Elghawaby, Amira (May 16, 2021). Canadians Are Talking About ‘Defunding the Police.’ Here’s What That Means and What It Could Look Like, Online: Canadians Are Talking About ‘Defunding the Police.’ Here’s What That Means and What It Could Look Like. (pressprogress.ca)
Griffith, Cynthia (December 7, 2020). What Would Defunding the Police Mean for the Homeless Population?, Online: <https://invisiblepeople.tv/what-would-defunding-the-police-mean-for-the-homeless-population/?gclid=CjwKCAjwuvmHBhAxEiwAWAYj-N8vi21nFti9bt8OeYFusFmAMe7r5Yyspzpb_Xr6lbvOAMAoP6iWURoCTKUQAvD_BwE>
Novacic, Ines (March 11, 2021). CBSN Originals, “"Defund the police" made headlines. What does it look like now?”, Online: <https://www.cbsnews.com/news/defund-the-police-meaning/>
Singh, Inayat (Jul 23, 2020). 2020 Already a Particularly Deadly Year for People Killed in Police Encounters, CBC Research Shows. Online: Deadly Force (cbc.ca)
Ontario Federation of Labour, (July 17, 2020) Defund the Police FAQ, online: <https://ofl.ca/defund-the-police-faq/>