What do we mean by ‘defunding the police’?
As I write this, the protests against police violence and brutality sparked by the murder of George Floyd continue into their third week across the US, with no signs of abating.
One of the bold demands that has arisen out of this newest iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement is to ‘defund the police’.
What used to be a radical idea discussed mainly by anti-police violence activists and prison abolitionists is now being seriously discussed by mainstream policymakers, mayors and city councils across the US and Canada. The Minneapolis city council voted to disband their city’s police department (the one responsible for producing and harbouring the officer who killed George Floyd), deciding to ‘end policing as we know it’, and create systems ‘that actually keep us safe’.
Here in Victoria, the concern may not be so much with police brutality, as with what and how much the police are asked to do, and the disproportionate amount of the city budget they soak up to do it.
Taxpayers concerned about getting a bigger bang for their buck could hardly do better than advocating for creating two front-line support worker positions for every one
Police are increasingly expected to deal with the mental health and addictions issues that underpin chronic homelessness, something not best addressed by law enforcement officers working within a paradigm of crime prevention, but instead by people trained in assisting people dealing with inter-generational trauma. For example, a disproportionate number of people without homes are Indigenous, and were victims of inhumane treatment at residential schools, were displaced from their traditional ways of living, and/or have stories of childhood trauma and abuse.
What would “defunding the police” look like in Victoria?
‘Defunding the police’ doesn’t have to mean disbanding the police department overnight. It can mean shifting funding within the city budget from the police to other social services, such as housing, mental health supports, and other forms of front-line care.
One option would be to create more high-quality jobs for front-line care and support workers. A front-line mental health support worker at the Portland Housing Society, for example, can expect to make $38,000/year to start, and is responsible for crisis intervention and de-escalation, and for acting as a first responder in medical interventions, including overdose response.
The starting salary for a Victoria police officer, in contrast, is $70,000/year, rising to $100,000/year after five years on the force. The qualifications include basic first aid and CPR, but there is no mention of conflict resolution or de-escalation skills, just ‘demonstrated sensitivity’ to ‘people whose culture, lifestyle or ethnicity is different than your own’. In fact, the listed qualifications for becoming a police officer goes into greater detail regarding vision and hearing requirements than any social or communication skills.
If we were really interested in solving homelessness, we would invest in addressing its root causes.
Taxpayers concerned about getting a bigger bang for their buck could hardly do better than advocating for creating two front-line support worker positions for every one police officer. Having qualified people trained in overdose response, crisis intervention and de-escalation rather than crime prevention would go far in actually addressing the core needs of the chronically unhoused on Victoria’s streets. It is estimated that a core of about 150-200 people drive an estimated 90% of the calls to which the VicPD currently responds. If we were really interested in solving homelessness, we would invest in addressing its root causes, not just ‘policing’ it by pushing people without homes around.
Council has attempted to reduce the size of the police budget before
In February 2019, the current city council attempted to work with the Victoria police chief and controller to find savings, going over the police budget line by line. Despite there being 243 officers and several dozen civilian employees currently on the force, Chief Manak insisted there were no savings to be had, and even argued that getting a 3.4% increase to the police budget – instead of the 6% the police were asking for – was in effect a budget cut, because it wouldn’t let him expand the force as much as he wanted.
It is important to understand that the police, already the largest single item on the city budget soaking up a whopping 23% of all operating revenues [see graph below], will still be the only part of city government to see a budget increase at all from 2019 to 2020, apart from underground utilities, from about $57 million to $60 million.
When then-councillor Laurel Collins pushed back against Manak's claims in those council meetings, noting that Victorians pay the highest per capita policing costs in Canada at the same time as crime rates are declining, the police chief called that a 'false narrative', and attempted to set his own around 'public safety' and that we're living in some 'new world reality'.
Victorians pay the highest per capita policing costs in Canada at the same time as crime rates are declining.
- Laurel Collins, MP for Victoria
It is interesting how completely local corporate media outlets like the Times-Colonist, CFAX, and CHEK News aided the police chief in creating this narrative, uncritically running headlines that suggest that the council had actually ‘cut’ the police budget, when in fact they had just not increased it as much as the police would have liked.
The budget items that these news outlets prefer to manufacture outrage over are the relatively minuscule council costs, when councillors have the audacity to suggest that they themselves should be paid more than $42,000/year for what is effectively a full-time and a half job. And people take the bait - any online forum discussing local Victoria issues will feature dozens of angry trolls focused on increasing the highest end of the bar graph here, and reducing the lowest end.
So even this council, with its progressive bent and willingness to explore shifting city budget resources from policing services to more direct solutions such as housing and other social services, may meet strong headwinds in trying to enact meaningful and material change.
The last and biggest barrier to change? The Province of British Columbia.
Would the province stand in the way?
In February 2019, Tonia Enger, Acting Director of Police Services for the province, made a decision with respect to an outstanding dispute from 2018 between the Victoria and Esquimalt about city and police budgets. Her decision obligated both cities (who share policing costs) to hire six new officers. (At the time, that iteration of Victoria’s city council had voted for the additional officers, while the Esquimalt council had not.)
“In a nutshell, you could say sometimes the kids can't play in the sandbox and dad has to come in and say this is how it's gonna be.” - Mike Farnsworth, Minister of Public Safety
The incident serves as a precedent and a reminder that the Province can effectively overrule any municipal council that may decide to move towards defunding the police, and reallocating those resources elsewhere. At the time of Enger’s decision, Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnsworth took a literally paternalistic tone regarding the province stepping in, saying, “In a nutshell, you could say sometimes the kids can't play in the sandbox and dad has to come in and say this is how it's gonna be.” This kind of statement points to how deeply entrenched he is in the belief that the only way to ensure public safety is by adding more police.
But it also points to how any movement to defund police and shift resources will have to organize broadly, not just at the local, but also at the provincial and even the national levels. This continent-wide groundswell of support for defunding the police may be just the beginning of a whole new world that is possible, if only we dare to imagine it.