Defunding/Disbanding the Police
Question 3 : Recently, some activists have called on cities to defund or disband police departments and replace them with other public safety structures. Do you agree that the police should be defunded or disbanded, or could they be reformed in another way? If so, how?
This question prompted discussions about police bias, how resources are allocated, mental health services, and community partnerships. While some groups found a consensus on defunding the police and pointed out the need for increased accountability, there was discomfort with completely disbanding the entire system. There was a recognition that society needs some form of policing and questions whether other systems replacing police are free from racism.
When discussing police bias, a question raised was: Are police a reflection of broader societal problems or the source of the problem? Police are supposed to provide a level of safety and security to the public, which contrasts with the violence that certain groups experience as a result of police action. Police bias was looked at from several different levels, including hiring practices, training, and accountability. Re-training police with a focus on addressing racism, racial profiling, and peaceful de-escalation of conflict were suggested. In addition, selection bias in hiring practices of police services in Winnipeg and Canada needs to be recognized and addressed. Instead of giving warnings to officers who use violence unnecessarily or act in unacceptable ways, harsher measures need to be taken to deter police from continuing to use violence or lethal force.
Accompanying this discussion should be the implications of long-term defunding of necessary social services like education, mental health, and income support. In many situations where there is a crisis, the police is the first institution called. This overuse of the police for situations that should be supported by other services has resulted in the need for more police department funding. Hence, there needs to be a discourse on how to allocate scarce resources, not only in times of crisis but when addressing broader social issues.
Like the police, other social systems that we rely on also include bias and perpetuate structural violence. Therefore, there is a need to look at various social systems, not just the police. It was also suggested that social services that could replace the police should be appropriately trained with clear policies and rules. The system of policing we are in now is fundamentally flawed and needs to change, but the systems that we are putting in place to support community safety needs to be fundamentally better. Therefore, the dialogue on systemic racism has to go beyond the discussion of police bias. What is the point in taking out one system to replace it with another that has the same fundamental problems?
Police are often called to situations involving mental health issues.
Consequently, we need more supports and resources for mental health and addictions. It was noted that mental health resources are underfunded in Winnipeg. Thus, how can we ensure that staff responding to a specific call are trained to address citizens' needs? Could there be a dispatch system that identifies which professionals should respond to a call, and workers with mental health training could respond to these calls with or without the police present? Many families fail to get appropriate support for loved ones, which can lead to escalated situations. Therefore, part of the funds in defunding the police could be channeled into training and professionals to manage crises relating to addictions.
Improving relationships between police and community organizations was another theme that came out of the discussions. There are many different stakeholders: government, police, community members, marginalized, and community organizations. They all need to come together in a collaborative process where we can keep each other accountable. Any overhaul of the police needs to take everyone’s interests into account so that a new system does not make the same mistakes. The goal is to find a system where all community members feel safe, not just individuals with privilege. Community safety should take a holistic care approach, including mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual support. Non-violent intervention techniques need to be learned and used in conflict situations. An example of community safety that has had a positive impact is in Yukon. A First Nation community focus shifted to create a unit focused on the well-being of people. Partnerships between police and other community organizations that know the community could help re-train police and teach them about the issues affecting Winnipeg's vulnerable groups.
To conclude, there was broad support for defunding the police, but most did not support a complete disbanding of police. A lot of the discussion centered around the question: What does it mean to have a police force with a variety of tools to address community needs? Police bias was recognized as a serious problem with a recognition that other social services in Canada, like education, also contain bias. Funding cuts to many social services have left community members vulnerable to poverty, mental health challenges, and addictions, resulting in crises. Police forces are being overwhelmed by situations that should be addressed by other systems with training in addressing these issues. Therefore, Canada needs a better understanding of systemic racism in all its social services and a holistic system for public safety.
Defunding/Disbanding the police concludes our three-part series on COVID-19 and Racism. Through the various conversations that occurred at our Virtual Ethics Café, one thing is clear; racism must be addressed and eliminated in this country. To learn more about racism in Canada, click here.