Photo of police with shields and batons stand across protestors holding up signs.
Confrontation between Black Lives Matter protestors in Washington, D.C. June 2020. Credit: Koshu Kunii / Unsplash

The movement to defund the police has transformed debates about police reform and public safety across Canada. During the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising that followed the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and Chantel Moore, the movement drew wider attention and built more popular support.

It is also part of a much older struggle against the institution of policing on Turtle Island and continues into the present even after protests died down and media attention turned elsewhere.

The history of policing in Canada

The defund movement recognizes the police do not keep people and communities safe – and were never meant to do so. In Canada, the police were created to dispossess and displace Indigenous people, maintain the oppression of Black people in the afterlife of slavery, stifle labour actions, protect private property, and enforce white, middle-class behaviours on everyone.

A series of studies over the last four decades, show police in Canada continue to disproportionately target and harm racialized people and poor communities. For the defund movement, this is not evidence of unintentional police misconduct but instead of police operating according to their design.

Given this history, it is no surprise that decades of police reform efforts have simply not worked. Problems like racial profiling, the harassment of poor people, and police violence persist.  This should come as no surprise. Police reform since the 1980s has focused on changing the actions of individual police officers through measures like training, gender and racial diversity in hiring practices, and encouraging community engagement.

These efforts take the institution of policing for granted. They assume the police play an essential role in society and that problems like racism and violence can be excised like a tumor.

Defund the police offers a solution

The defund movement suggests that reforming the police is impossible. The problem is not a tumor but the body itself. Promoting public safety requires a whole series of programs and services that, contrary to the police, are actually directed to that end. As Black activist and scholar Robyn Maynard explains: “I like to think about defunding as something that just looks to all the places where people are the most abandoned in terms of safety in our society and removing police from the equation and adding something else.”

Many situations are simply safer without police presence. The policing of drugs forces the drug economy underground, leading to an unregulated and more dangerous drug supply and drug use practices that prioritize evading the police rather than safety. Ticketing homeless people for ‘quality of life’ offenses like public intoxication or sleeping on a public bench does not make the general public safer but certainly makes homeless people less safe.

“…defunding the police isn’t a left-wing fantasy, but something practical and necessary…”El Jones, scholar and activist

Sometimes a situation requires immediate attention but the police are not the answer. When it comes to interpersonal violence, the police, as a rule, only respond after the fact. This does nothing to prevent violence. Arrest and incarceration of community members often worsens the social conditions that lead to violence, adds to the their trauma and reduces their chances of finding a good job after release. In contrast, various community programs focused on mentorship, job opportunities, and mediating conflicts have been shown to decrease violence while improving people’s lives along the way.

The movement to defund the police and reinvest in communities has won widespread support. A 2020 IPSOS poll found a majority of Canadians are in favour of defunding police forces. City-specific surveys in Montreal and Ottawa showed even higher levels of support. The most obvious obstacle to change is city councils, which have ignored popular opinion and continued to increase police budgets. As Vancouver activist Meenakshi Mannoe explains, these budget increases are both “disappointing and unsurprising,” given city councillors’ customary support for the police, business associations, and NIMBY (not in my backyard) groups.

Overcoming this political obstacle will require a whole series of actions, from electing genuinely progressive city councilors to organizing disruptive political actions and long-term investment in popular education and community organizing.

From politcal movement to politcal action

Since the summer of 2020, many local groups created and built support around specific defund-and-reinvest plans. These actions show promise. City hall debate is often confined to a battle over competing budget figures rather than competing visions of public safety. It is likely easier for a city councillor to vote against a specific police budget reduction than against a specific alternative service.

To clarify and build support for particular alternatives, particular ways to defund and redirect police funds, Vancouver and Montreal activists developed and published elaborate ‘people’s budgets,’ while cities like Edmonton and Halifax developed detailed roadmaps to a different future through city-convened committees.

The progress in Halifax deserves special attention. A subcommittee of the Board of Police Commissioners, the body that oversees the police, released a report in January after 18 months of focus groups, a detailed literature review, and engagement with local groups and city residents. Chaired by Black scholar and activist El Jones, the subcommittee aimed to define defunding the police and explain how it can be done. The results are 36 specific recommendations to transform public safety in the Halifax area.

Like the defund movement in general, the report rejects the usual police reforms such as multicultural training, diverse hiring, and police body cameras. It focuses instead on accountability measures, current police services that can be transferred to other providers, and a process for reallocating police funding towards social programs.

The report recommends transferring three major tasks from the police to civilian bodies: responding to mental health crises, responding to gender-based violence, and traffic control. With further research and public input, the report outlines four other police tasks that could be transferred to civilians in the future.

Reports like this make it easier to hold city leaders accountable for their decisions and short-circuit some of their excuses for ignoring public demands. As El Jones explains, “the report shows that defunding the police isn’t a left-wing fantasy, but something practical and necessary that can be accomplished in a series of steps – other cities are making these steps and the research shows it’s effective.”

The question to city councillors is not whether they support a proposed police budget, but whether they support or oppose specific, practical steps that will make the city safer for everyone. While a world without police is certainly imaginable, getting to that world in the face of city leaders’ intransigence may involve taking the institution apart and shifting funding to alternatives piece by piece.

Photo of Ted Rutland

Ted Rutland

Ted Rutland is a geographer and interdisciplinary scholar focused on municipal politics, urban planning, and urban security in Canada. He approaches his work with an interest in social and racial justice,...