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The sad state of policing in Canada

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Police in Toronto in 2009. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Since May 26, 2020, police officers in Canada have been responsible for killings in Nunavut, killing Caleb Njoko in London, Ontario, Ejaz Ahmed Choudry in Mississauga, D'Andre Campbell in Brampton, Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto, and Rodney Levi and Chantel Moore in separate incidents in New Brunswick.  

Five of the people listed above were killed after the police were called in for wellness checks by family or friends. On June 19, 2020, CTV released an analysis of the last 100 people shot and killed by police. Unsurprisingly for many of us, a disproportionate number of people killed were young men who were visible minorities, predominantly Black and Indigenous.

Discriminatory policing impacts every province in Canada and has resulted in death and injury and long term physical and emotional trauma which communities are fighting to address.

Black Lives Matter is calling for the defunding and disarming of police and this applies to Canada as much as the United States. In an interview, Sandy Hudson, co-founder of Black Lives Matter in Canadalays out the demands of the movement across Canada and the unique challenges we face in this country.  

According to her interview, the demands focus on two areas, police accountability and defunding the police and re-allocating the funding.

Across North America, Black Lives Matter is organized as a network of locally focused organizations. This structure is particularly effective for demanding change of police forces which are governed through a mixture of municipal, provincial and federal authorities.

Police accountability

In six Canadian provinces, police investigate themselves in the event of a serious incident. After the recent police shootings in Nunavut, experts called the police oversight model completely toothless and more than 30 years behind the national trend.

This can be said about many of our localities in Canada. In May 2019, Justice Minister David Lametti released a report called "State of the Criminal Justice System" -- one of the Liberal government's many reviews. According to the John Howard Society, this report detailed the poor state of criminal justice in Canada but offered few real recommendations or solutions. We need to address police shootings and also the larger issue of mass incarceration and criminal justice.

In Manitoba, between March 10 and the end of April, Winnipeg police officers shot and killed four people, at least three of whom were Indigenous. When deadly force is used by Winnipeg Police Service, it has been disproportionately against Indigenous people, and the Independent Investigations Unit of Manitoba frequently finds the actions are "justified." The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has been calling for body-worn cameras to be worn by front-line officers to help restore confidence in future independent investigations.

Prime Minister Trudeau has started talking about a roll out of body-worn cameras among RCMP officers and initiating efforts so that provinces and municipalities adopt similar measures. Currently, the Calgary Police Service is the only major police force in the country that has equipped all its front-line officers with the tool. However, criminologist Kelly Sundberg points out body-worn cameras are an expensive gadget and a "distraction to the real issue of accountability and addressing what needs to be done."  

If we treat body-worn cameras as the solution for accountability, we will likely end up awash with more evidence of police violence for which officers are still not held accountable, as in the United States. Comprehensive police accountability means internal investigations with teeth and ensuring people have real recourse against discriminatory policing practices. 

Focusing on body cams and other piecemeal measures, like banning choke holds, alone is a distraction. Real and comprehensive accountability means joining the movement to demand real change.

Defund the police and prison industrial complex

According to Statistics Canada, the total operating expenditures of police across Canada have generally been increasing since 1996-1997. In 2018, the John Howard Society issued the following "Financial Facts about Canadian Prisons" in which they stated that total (federal, provincial and municipal) public spending on criminal justice in Canada per year is about $20 billion. The report explains: "Of this, nearly $5 billion is for jails and prisons, of which about 55 per cent is provincial and 45 cent federal. The rest is for courts and police."

According to Sandy Hudson, the federal government spends "more than $9 million per day on the RCMP. That's not policing at the provincial level or policing at the municipal level, we're just talking about the RCMP."  

In part to fund the consistent increase in the prison industrial complex, municipal, provincial and federal governments have cut funding for services year after year. In 2018, PressProgress reported, an "OECD study looking at how much countries spend on services, benefits and tax breaks related to healthcare, families, old age security, unemployment, housing and more, found Canada's public social expenditures fall well below the OECD average -- even lower than the United States."

Right now, in Ontario and Alberta, Conservative majority governments are gutting school and social service expenditures. As of June 23, Jason Kenney's government has passed language calling for a civilian corps to help police, which could well mean a group of armed vigilantes like in the United States. 

In Canada, police have been investing in more technology and the Liberal government has retained many of the Harper government's efforts to bring in a new era of surveillance in Canada. We need to see more investment in our communities.

We do not have a comprehensive legal aid system in Canada. Instead, it is left up to provinces and can be defunded at the whim of the provincial government, as we just witnessed in Ontario in 2019. In 2018, a federal Liberal government justice department review showed the importance of legal aid, but also the constraints of ever shrinking funding.  

In 2018, The Conversation published the results of a investigation which studied 10 large and medium-sized Canadian police forces, comprising eight municipal police forces, one provincial police force and one federal police force from across seven different provinces, which found that deployments of SWAT teams -- special weapons and tactics units -- have risen in major Canadian cities, and are higher in some cases than those by U.S. public police.

The article explains: "in Canada, there is no national policy or law regulating SWAT team conduct or growth." 

In 2017, activists in Victoria, British Columbia, questioned the municipal police force's acquisition of an armoured vehicle to police their quiet town. This points to a larger issue of militarization and ever increasing budgets which demands action. 

We need police to be demilitarized and held accountable. We need to focus on alternatives to incarceration. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by gimmicks which will serve to keep the current structure in place. Join the local fights to demand accountability and alternatives to the current state of policing in Canada.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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