Rethinking the role of police

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Renowned police scholar David Bayley begins his book, Police for the Future, with what he calls one of the best-kept secrets of modern life: "The police do not prevent crime."  

He points to American studies covering the period 1970-1990, which show increases in police numbers had no impact on crime rates, and cites other studies showing the same lack of correlation in Australia, Britain and Canada. 

To say that the police do not prevent crime at all is, of course, an exaggeration. But contrary to decades of cop-show melodrama, police spend only a fraction of their time chasing hardened criminals and shaking down drug cartels.

In 2018, police departments across Canada received 12.8 million calls for service. Between 50% and 80% of them were non-criminal in nature, spanning everything from domestic disputes and traffic accidents to overdoses and mental health crises. 

"Police are not out chasing bank robbers and serial killers," says Alex Vitale, professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College at the City University in New York, and author of The End of Policing. "If we look at what police actually do, day in day out, [and] if we look at the 10 million arrests that police perform (in the U.S.) every year, they're almost entirely located in the poorest and most vulnerable communities in our society.

"And the purpose of the majority of those arrests is not to produce public safety, as much as it is to manage a set of social problems that threaten the existing political and social arrangements." 

Emergency response alternatives

Geographer and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore says many cities have fallen victim to "organized abandonment" where social agencies are under-resourced and police are left to pick up the pieces. Sometimes the consequences are disastrous.

Of the 34 people killed by police in Canada in the first 11 months of 2020, at least nine of these fatal incidents began as wellness checks. 

A 2018 CBC investigation found that at least 461 people were killed during a police intervention since 2000. In 42% of these cases, there was evidence that the victims had mental health issues. 

This finding has amplified calls for alternative ways of responding to social crises. 

Toronto has been running a community safety programme in areas at high-risk of criminal behaviour, where police work in collaboration with other agencies. A 2017 report on the programme revealed that while the majority of calls for help were made to police, it was social agencies that now responded to most of them. Police received 66% of calls, but responded to just 3%; whereas more than 80% of those calls were relayed to Social Services, Health, Housing, Children & Youth Services. 

"Many people have acknowledged, including police leaders and the government, that the police are currently doing too much, that over time we've increasingly asked the police to respond to a host of social problems and social ills," says Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, a criminologist at the University of Toronto. 

Rather than de-funding, he advocates "de-tasking": conducting an audit of police tasks and relieving them of the ones for which they are least equipped or qualified. 

"And we can take those jobs, and assign them to other organizations, agencies, institutions, and move the funding with that. That's not to say there would be no police response to people in mental health crises, but they certainly would not be the primary response. They wouldn't be the first responder in those instances. They may be there for support." 

Reallocating resources

Across Canada, provinces and cities are re-examining the role of police in society. In the fall of 2020, Halifax's Board of Police Commissioners appointed community activist and teacher El Jones to create a committee to define defunding and ways funds could be redirected to better serve community needs. 

"We don't know how to deal with conflict, hold people accountable, and heal," she says. "Nobody who's an abolitionist seriously is like, 'we'll just get rid of the police. Everything will be fine!' We haven't created any kind of other system.. [yet]." 

Some countries have already begun to do things differently. Portugal decriminalized drug consumption in 2001 and saw drug-induced deaths plummet — IDEAS has featured a documentary on the Portuguese model. Since then, other countries have followed suit, and shifted addiction issues from a policing priority to a matter of public health. 

The legalization of prostitution in Germany has allowed police to focus on traffickers and forced sex work. 

Toronto is launching a pilot project where civilians, not police, are sent to non-violent mental health crises. 

Each initiative allows police agencies to focus their resources elsewhere — effectively the kind of "de-tasking" that Owusu-Bempah describes. 

Alternative agencies could replace police in some cases, and complement them in others. Winnipeg is home to a host of grassroots groups, including OPK (Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatwin), Community 204 and Mama Bear Clan, which carry out street patrols in vulnerable areas.