10 June

Defunding the Police

Defunding the Police – What Does it Means 

By Scott Reid

With the continuing protests in the United States and around the world over the death of George Floyd and racist policing, a new term has emerged into the general lexicon – “defund the police”.  This phrase is being bandied about by those on the right and the left, often without knowing what proponents of defunding the police actually mean when they use it.

Those on the right attempt to define the term as “eliminating all funding” for the police, effectively starving the police out of existence.  Some reformers on the left appear to be trying to make that argument, but those are a small fringe group.  Predominantly, those suggesting this is what reformers mean are right-wing, pro-police, who cringe at any suggestion that police should be reformed.  For them, the only police reform to be considered is how much additional funding to give them.

However, to most people promoting a defunding of police departments, what they mean is “reduced funding”.  Every year, in municipal budgets around the country, the largest line-item by far is funding the police service.  They want more cops, more guns, more tasers, more police cars, more armoured vehicles.  The list is endless.  They want the newest and most expensive toys.

Due to legislation brought in by Conservative Premier Mike Harris in the 1990s, municipalities are required, by law, to balance their budgets, coupled with the constant warning against “tax increases”, and you have a toxic municipal tax situation.  People only have so much money to pay to municipal taxes, and municipalities are loathe to ask for more via tax increases.  They have to balance their books, and the police service always wants more.

The only solution to that conundrum, until now, has been to increase police budgets at the expense of other municipal services.  Think libraries, social housing, roads, park maintenance, after school programs, employment workshops, local health initiatives, local sports leagues, at the like.

Without a change in either raising more funds (ie. tax increases) or in how those funds are allocated, eventually the only line-item in a municipal budget will be the police budget.

And the police are good at making the misleading case for budget increases.  In a time when crime has been steadily decreasing on average for decades since the 1970s, one might reasonably wonder why police departments need MORE money to deal with LESS crime?  The answer, of course, is that the police are very good at making it LOOK like there is more crime.  For instance, every time I have a client charged with a possessing a loaded handgun, inevitably there are about six separate offences charged:

  • Possess Firearm
  • Possess Restricted or Prohibited Firearm
  • Possess Loaded Restricted or Prohibited Firearm
  • Possess Ammunition
  • Careless Storage
  • Weapons Dangerous

Are all these charges really necessary?  Would it not be enough to charge the person with only Possession of a Loaded Restricted or Prohibited Firearm?  Does that once charge not incorporate all the other offences?  What then is the purpose of charging six crimes when one will do?  The answer lies in police budget requests.

When police go to their funding municipality, inevitably they tell the council how many arrests were made, and how many charges laid, the previous year as compared to years previously.  Of course, if the police say to the council, well, we charged 1000 fewer people last year, or laid 10,000 fewer criminal charges, how could a budget increase ever be justified?  If the police laid five fewer charges for every handgun they found, and other instances of police over-charging were eliminated, they would have far fewer offences with which to make their misleading argument of increasing crime.

Instead, police have to have an ever increasing number of arrests and charges to justify getting more money, which translates to new union members paying dues and more toys for the police to play with.

It also translates into an aggressive form of policing where the officers are actively looking to make arrests for every trivial infraction wherever they can find one.  Because of course, in this funding paradigm, city council never asks, and the police never tell them, how many of those arrests were valid?  How many ended up being the subject of Charter litigation?  How many trials found violations?  How many collapsed because there was no case?

What if a new paradigm emerged?  One where the police only actually dealt with police issues?  Actual crimes.  Not mental health interventions or overdose treatments, or things like that.  What if those issues were handled by, wait for it, experts in mental health, or drug rehabilitation respectively?

What if we removed from police responsibility those items that are not truly crime-related, and then divert the money that would have been given to the police to other authorities instead?

That is what defunding the police means in real terms.  Let’s look at examples.

Police should not be in the business of doing “wellness checks”.  Start there.  How many police resources are used by someone calling in and saying that they are worried about the mental health and physical safety of their loved ones, not because of any involvement in crime, but because of underlying mental health issues?  Police are not trained psychiatrists or psychologists.  Nor are they trained social workers, or counsellors.  Sending an armed police officer in a bulletproof vest with several “use of force” options on his or her belt, into a situation in which a mentally ill person is in an agitated state, is only likely to exacerbate the situation until it spirals out of control, with potentially tragic consequences (see the case of Regis Korchinski-Paquet).

Why not take the resources that are currently being expended on those sorts of calls, and put them into mental health funding?  Why not have a mental health emergency team that responds to those sorts of calls instead of the police?  If they arrive and realize crimes are in progress, or that force is going to have to be used, then they can call the police.  It is difficult to understand why the police are the first responders to situations such as these.

Another area of significant reform could be in the area of Provincial Offences Act or Highway Traffic Act enforcement.  Many altercations with police begin with a traffic stop.  Often the purported reason for the stop is POA or HTA enforcement.  The police see a car with a busted tail-light, or out of date plates.  That is then used a pretext to stop the car for a criminal investigation, particularly when the driver and / or passengers are persons of colour.

But what if the police did not have the authority any longer to enforce the POA or the HTA?  What if enforcement of those statutes was left to a different, perhaps new, enforcement agency?  One that was not armed?  One that did not have the history behind it of racially motivated discrimination?  One that had no authority to search a car for contraband?  How differently would a motor vehicle stop of a person of colour unfold if instead of interacting with an armed, white cop, the black driver was interacting with an unarmed bureaucrat who issued the ticket and left?

Now, people might say, you’re suggesting that whole new response / enforcement agencies be created.  That’s going to be expensive.  How are you going to pay for all that?  Where are you going to get the money for all that?

Firstly, this is not such a radical idea.  We already have some of those sorts agencies, albeit on a smaller scale.  You don’t ever see cops handing out parking tickets do you?  Instead, that is dealt with by a bylaw enforcement officer, or a parking enforcement officer.  Nor are police involved with enforcing public health inspections of restaurants.  Wisely, cities have decided that experts in the field of public health and food safety should handle those sorts of duties.  There’s no reason in theory why municipalities couldn’t have decided to simply put more money into the police budget to hire more officers to enforce municipal bylaws and parking infractions.  Instead, municipalities across the country have decided that rather than have police do that sort of enforcement, they would rather pay to have a separate entity do it.

Where is the money going to come from?  From police budgets.  Police do not need to enforce municipal bylaws, any more than they need to enforce parking laws.  But nor are they needed to enforce POA or HTA offences.  But we have accepted the status quo in which ever-increasing police responsibility for statute-enforcement has led to ever-increasing police budgets.

One way to reduce incidents of police violence to provide for fewer opportunities for police to abuse their authority in the first place.  By limiting their jurisdiction to those areas of true criminal investigation, far fewer opportunities for abuse exist.  By their nature, police are an entity whose scope needs to be strictly defined, and strictly controlled.  Over the past century, however, we have allowed our politicians to expand the purview of police far beyond anything that could have been envisioned by early police forces.

Of course, there are added benefits to defunding the police, as I have defined that term.  If police did not need to address POA, HTA, mental wellness checks, etc, how much more time and resources could be expended on investigating actual crimes?  How much more time could be devoted to solving actual, serious, criminal offences?

But those are not the only benefits.  As any criminologist, or criminal lawyer, will tell you, the leading drivers of crime are poverty.  People don’t have money for rent, so they steal, they don’t have money for food, or drugs to which they are addicted, so they burglarize, rob, and sell drugs to get it.  Young people are bored, and poor, and disenfranchised, so they band together in groups and commit crimes together.

If the money that was removed from police budgets was instead moved into social programs, like housing, or youth programs (sports, education, etc), drug treatment, society would likely see a marked decrease in crime, leading to still further reductions in police budgets.

True, there will always be some crime.  And so there will always be a need for a police force.  But if we as a society are serious about addressing crime effectively, we need to focus our limited resources where they can make the most impact.  As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Investing far smaller amounts in social programs, and thereby eliminating a significant amount of crime, is far cheaper than paying for police, lawyers, courts, gaols, prisons, probation and parole officers to deal with it after the fact.

Critics of such a proposal might suggest that defunding the police will lead to an increase in private security which only the most affluent in society can afford.  To those people I say, that already exists.  The rich already hire body guards, pay for supervised security systems and the like.  And we already have gated communities with private security forces.  Stores and malls already pay for private security on their premises as well.

If the affluent wish to pay more for their own private security, that will be their prerogative.  They have the means, they can do what they will with it.  That does not mean, however, that those who can’t afford private security have no recourse.  No one, certainly not me, is suggesting that police will disappear.  And it is unlikely that private security are going to lay private informations when they stop someone.  Instead, they are going to call the police to come, take custody, and charge those they’ve apprehended.

Defunding police is an idea whose time as come.  Indeed, it is an idea whose time is long past due.  In order to satisfy the constant craving by police forces and unions for increasing shares of the pie, other social programs have been starved to the point of elimination.  It is high time to reverse the trend and invest in social stability, the only proven effective means of reducing crime over the long term.






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