In light of ongoing police violence against Black, Indigenous and racialized people in Canada and around the world, a group of scholars from various Canadian universities have collectively penned an open letter to all levels of government. Ours is an evidence driven, unequivocal call in support of defunding the police and reallocating resources to help build stronger communities, not stronger police forces. It is a call to develop an effective public safety strategy, one that privileges prevention through community building, economic security, and social services rather than reactionary and largely punitive criminal justice responses to social problems.
We, the undersigned scholars and lawyers, call on all federal, provincial, and municipal governments to immediately move to defund policing services across Canada and to reallocate resources to education, housing, living wages, and community health and safety initiatives.
Alternatives to, and the abolition of, policing and prisons have been advanced by activists and academics, particularly Black women, for decades. It is a call rooted in Black, Indigenous, racialized, and otherwise marginalized peoples’ lived experiences and writing. It is a call that legal professionals and scholars from across identity categories and disciplines support with our research, particularly in the wake of recent and ongoing police violence and the denial of systemic racism by the Commissioner of the RCMP (since recanted).
Understanding this call requires us to first acknowledge the oppressive roots of policing. The institution of policing in Canada, as inherited from the British colonial model, is based on the suppression of labour and the enforcement of a wage-labour system, the forcible control and displacement of Indigenous peoples, and the criminalization of racialized immigrants, refugees, and Black United Empire Loyalists.
While the police in Canada have always acted as a paramilitary force, the more recent rise, use, and deployment of specialized police units, and their direct operational relationship to the Canadian military during protests, disproportionately brutalizes marginalized people, criminalizes dissent, and undermines democracy. The police are deployed almost exclusively to quell disruptions of the material and “normative” order and to maintain the status quo. Police have very limited capability to prevent crime and regularly criminalize large swaths of those they are directed to “serve and protect” vis-à-vis various Community Contacts Policies (e.g., carding).
Research on policing reveals that the number of police officers employed has never been related to rates of violent crime, but rather is directly related to levels of inequality. Research has also repeatedly demonstrated that progressive, community-based social programming is far more successful in building safe communities. For every dollar we spend on early childhood programs, for example, we save at least seven in real criminal justice dollars down the road. While Canada’s policing budget has steadily increased, the crime rate shows little variance, indicating that putting public resources into policing has little to no discernable impact on public safety.
In the interest of public safety and social justice, we insist that a substantial portion of the 15.1 billion dollars currently dedicated to law enforcement across the country be reallocated to initiatives such as early childhood supports, stable and affordable housing, financial barrier-free education, a living wage, mental health care, alcohol treatment and harm reduction programs, and shelters for those fleeing violence.
- We insist that police no longer be first responders in situations involving mental health crises, addictions / overdoses, or wellness checks. Instead, resources should be put into training non-violent, unarmed health and crisis response teams whose emphasis is de-escalation and service provision;
- We insist that the practices of infiltrating activist organizations, hiding badge numbers or identifiers at protests, and the repeated and documented use of police as agents provocateurs be formally outlawed through legislation;
- We insist that police service board members be directly elected and that provisions be put in place to reserve seats on both police and civilian oversight boards for historically marginalized groups with the stated goal of ensuring that the communities that are most often the targets of law enforcement practices have their voices and experiences represented;
- We insist that no more funds be allocated to better “guns and gadgets.” Research shows that when militarized units are formed, they tend to grow, are deployed more often, and further contaminate police culture. Moreover, body worn cameras produce misleading, distorted, and wrongly interpreted footage, and are easily rendered inaccessible. Technology is not the answer–a shift in resource allocation is.
Having made these calls, we the undersigned also acknowledge the need for broader systemic change. We reject the tired and inaccurate notion that when police interventions ‘go wrong’ it is because of one bad person. Instead, we point to the structure and culture of policing that is rooted in power and state sanctioned violence. Defunding the police is directly related to divestment from criminal law and prisons as a means of addressing social problems. It must be accompanied by decriminalization, redistributive policies, and educational reform that enables the un-learning of, racist, colonialist, classist, hetero- and gender-normative ways of knowing. It accompanies a call for settlers and those with institutional power to renounce some of their privilege in the name of justice and equality. This requires difficult, ongoing work and sacrifice at the individual and the state level. It requires creativity, compassion, consultation, and collectivity.
Defunding the police is not a panacea. It is also not an invitation to privatize security or extend the scope of surveillance to other institutional bodies. It is one change among many that is needed to bring about a more just and less violent future. For these reasons and more, we call on governing bodies at all levels to take immediate action in support of building strong communities, not strong police forces. We expect that our governments will listen to the evidence provided to them and take the necessary steps now.
Dr. George Rigakos
Carleton University, Law and Legal Studies
Dr. Christopher Schneider
Brandon University, Sociology
Dr. Justin Piche
University of Ottawa, Criminologie
Dr. Joao Velloso
Université d’Ottawa, Faculté de droit