• Erica Wallis

Social Services Need Money to Recover from COVID-19. Redistribute from the Police

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

The murder of George Floyd by a member of the Minneapolis police force has sparked massive protests worldwide that call for a global reckoning with racism and the role that law enforcement plays in aiding a deeply unequal system. 

Decades of Black scholarship and activism have supported alternating calls to reform, defund, or fundamentally reimagine the role of the police across North America. Once a politically untenable position, a rise in public support for the Black Lives Matter movement has made deeper policy change seem more feasible. In Toronto, where almost a quarter of residential property taxes go towards police funding, two city council members have introduced a bill to cut the Ontario Provincial Police budget by 10%. And a growing number of Northern Canadian leaders are calling for a systematic review of the RCMP following many instances of brutality, misconduct, and racism. 

On its face, defunding the police may sound like a radical proposal. But policing is a publicly-funded entity no different from other social services that have been systematically defunded and devalued for years. Amid twin health and economic crises, a strong social safety net is more important than ever.

When it comes to addressing racism in Canada and combating the impacts of COVID-19, two words keep coming up: systemic reform. Black Canadians are not just targeted disproportionately by the police, they are impacted disproportionately by COVID-19 and its economic consequences. 

To resolve stark inequalities in the system. We have to be bold in reimagining the system. 

Why Not Police Reform?

Reforming the police is a more moderated alternative to divesting and restructuring. But such attempts at police reform have been historically ineffective, and fail to meet the importance of this moment. When it comes to inequality, the system isn’t broken - it was built this way. 

Racial discrimination is a design of the system

The RCMP operates as the police force for every province and territory in Canada except for Ontario and Quebec. This force was established primarily to control and monitor the frontiers of Canada’s colonial expansion - to police Indigenous communities. Although today Indigenous people make up 5% of the Canadian population, they account for 30% of prison inmates, and 30% of those who are killed by the RCMP. A 2017 Human Rights Watch reported that the relationship between Indigenous communities and the RCMP was “deeply fractured”.

Black Canadians also make up for a wide disparity in police violence. A report from the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that Black residents in Toronto were 20 times more likely to be killed by police officers than their white counterparts. Camisha Sibblis, an assistant professor in the school of social work at the University of Windsor described the Canadian police as “cogs in a colonial wheel”. 

Social issues are criminalized, instead of addressed

Most Canadian cities spend vastly more money on policing budgets than any other social service. Instead of providing housing for the homeless, homelessness is criminalized. Instead of mitigating the factors that push people into drug addiction, substance abuse is met with jail time.

In London, Ontario for example, police officers often respond to calls that have little to do with violent crime. An estimated 60 percent of calls to police officers are non-criminal matters, such as issues with drug addiction, homelessness, or mental health crises. 

A Canadian report on the role of police in the 21st century admitted “the role of police must align with trends in the safety and security web, acknowledging that other players may have a unique advantage in responding to particular issues.” Perhaps we should take them up on their proposal. 

Policy Proposal: Defund policing to refund social services

Federal spending on COVID recovery is projected to hit $152.7 billion, and reality is starting to sink in that someone will have to foot the bill. To be clear, simply cutting police spending is just a single step on the road to confronting racism in Canada. Racist attitudes and microaggressions are part of social services as well, and internal reforms in these institutions are required in this conversation. However, in 2017-18, more than $15 billion was spent on policing services across Canada, while education and social services were routinely cut

Policy proposals to cut police funding are not the end goal. They are just the beginning of confronting and dismantling the legacy of racism in Canada. 

A Two-Step Approach: Divest and Reinvest

1. Reduce police budgets nationwide by 20% for the 2021 budget

Toronto city councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Josh Matlow have released a motion to cut the Toronto Police Budget by 10%. Their motion includes a proposal to re-invest funds into community-led alternatives to policing, the criminal justice system, anti-racism education, affordable housing, skills training, food security, and more. 

We believe that this could go further. In 2015, the Toronto Police commissioned a KPMG review of the budget, which found that police spending exceeded the cost of operating and requires cuts as it is. If the TPS can have its budget cut in a normal economy, the urgency of COVID-19 calls for a more thorough review of how funds are used. We would, therefore, call on those cuts to go deeper, to direct more money towards the necessary services that face the highest usage during the coronavirus pandemic. 

2. Reallocate funds to key social services 

Most calls for defunding the police rightly focus on services that could start to mend racial disparities. When we add COVID-19 into the equation, there are four key social services we have identified that should absorb re-allocated funds from the police. 

  1. Affordable housing and shelter: Homeless shelters have become increasingly unsafe as a result of a highly transmissible pathogen that requires social distance and hand-washing as the only known preventative. 

  2. Employment and social services: COVID-19 has created stratospheric unemployment numbers that have left millions relying on employment insurance to survive. Bolstering services that can help find people gainful employment would help offset the economic impact of COVID-19

  3. Children’s services: with parents out of work as a result of COVID-19, access to affordable child services is more critical than ever. 

  4. Long term care homes and services: following severe outbreaks of COVID-19 in long term care facilities, leaders across Canada have called for a sweeping review and overhaul of a long-neglected long term care system. 

Ultimately, Canada has a long road ahead to effectively address the racial inequalities that our institutions have perpetuated while we looked the other way. Writing from an American perspective, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor says “if we are serious about ending racism [...] we must begin with a real and serious assessment of the problems. We diminish the task by continuing to call upon the agents and actors who fuelled the crisis when they had opportunities to help solve it.” The enormity of this moment requires fundamental changes.