Defund the Police: How to Proceed? - Chris Dick
Assume that completely abolishing the police is not a practical solution. If so, the remaining means of defunding the police is via reallocation. What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of reallocating funds from police to social services? What are some practical solutions or starting points for improving the police and the lives of those they impact?
Benefits of Re-allocating Police Funding
Police in Winnipeg
Here in Winnipeg, disdain for police has likely never been more prevalent than it is today. Websites like https://winnipegpolicecauseharm.org are dedicated to exposing the shortcomings of the Winnipeg Police Service [“WPS”], while advocating for its abolition. There have been a litany of social media posts about incidents involving the WPS, and one officer in particular has been recorded on multiple occasions engaging in utterly repugnant behaviour. One such occasion captured on video displays the officer giving a retributive ticket to a driver at a traffic stop whose passenger inquired why the officer was not wearing a mask while in close proximity to them, a current WPS requirement. When it came out that the officer in question had a history of problematic conduct both on and off duty, outrage grew further; it suggests a pattern of concerning behaviour that has not been sufficiently addressed. In the spring of 2020, there were three people killed over a span of ten days as a result of WPS-involved shootings. Outrage grew further earlier this year over the Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba’s [“IIU”] decision not to lay any charges against the officer who shot and killed a 16-year old driving a vehicle following a liquor store robbery, with some referring to the IIU as biased.
The most senior position at the IIU is the Civilian Director, a position currently headed by a former criminal defence lawyer and prosecutor, who, by law, is required to exercise independent judgement. The IIU is also comprised of two teams of four senior investigators who must have experience in major crime investigations or have other investigation experience, working under the supervision of two team commanders and a Director of Investigations. Because the teams of senior investigators are comprised of individuals who require expertise that is obtained in the course of a career in law enforcement, it affords the impression that the investigators are a group of former police officers that are responsible for holding current police officers to account, and biased in their resolve, or lack thereof, to do so.
The WPS is costing the City of Winnipeg a significant amount of money. In 2020, the WPS’s budget accounted for over 25% of the city’s expenditures, the largest percentage among other large cities in Canada. The Winnipeg Police Board has also approved a budget increase of 2% for 2021, and, notably, 89% of the police operations budget is allocated toward salaries and benefits. Of the top ten highest paid employees in the City of Winnipeg’s most recent compensation disclosure, five were members of the WPS, ranging in salary from $272,876 for the Chief of Police to $211,284 for a Sergeant. The WPS pension has also been one of the most expensive in the country and subject to significant scrutiny because of officers’ ability to include overtime in their pensionable income. The City of Winnipeg has been attempting to unilaterally remove overtime from the pensionable income calculation, citing long-term sustainability concerns but has had trouble doing so because they were party to the negotiated agreement. Between questionable officer conduct, the uncertainty of accountability, and the drain on financial resources, there is a serious demand for a more efficient, transparent, and compassionate medium for law enforcement.
There may be other organizations that are better suited to meet the needs of communities in which police presence is prevalent. The volunteer-run Bear Clan Patrol in Winnipeg has been largely successful in its efforts to create a safer environment in the inner-city. Their non-threatening, non-violent approach to providing security in the neighbourhoods they patrol has been demonstrably effective; the Government of Manitoba showed they were in agreement by recently allocating funds to the organization. Perhaps allocating more funds to groups that are better connected to and possess a better understanding of the neighbourhoods they patrol would provide a bulwark against confrontational police interactions. Additionally, some European countries have already demilitarized their police, encouraging less use of deadly force and more support from mental health workers and medical providers. In recognition that underlying social issues are often at the root of encounters that traditionally necessitate police, some European countries have responded by:
making use of violence reduction units;
providing mental health ambulance services;
taking a housing-first strategy to combat poverty; and
offering alternative sentencing options for offenders.
In Stockholm, Sweden, for example, mental health workers have been deployed to handle emergency psychiatric issues in the place of police since 2015; they are supported by mental health ambulances, which helps free up police resources, allowing police officers to focus on investigations and violent crime.
Drawbacks of Re-allocating Police Funding
When it comes to defunding police in a case such as that of Winnipeg in which the majority of police expenditure is spent on salaries and benefits, there are two main approaches: cut down on personnel or cut down on salaries. Both have their respective challenges.
A study conducted by the University of Regina Department of Justice Studies used a cost-of-crime calculator to examine seven index crimes, including:
The study found that the addition of one officer to the Regina Police Service would result in a crime reduction benefit of over $270,000, taking into account transportation and medical care for victims as well as criminal justice processing. The study further estimated that the number might be higher but for some intangible factors that the calculator could not take into consideration. The calculation did not account for the potential countervailing benefits of police funds being redirected towards social services, but remains intriguing nonetheless.
There is also a serious concern that cutting police personnel would increase police response times and victims of violent crime, especially the marginalized, would be left to fend for themselves entirely. Defunding the police would render departments less capable of providing emergency responses, decrease public confidence, and increase fear of crime.
Police presence also reassures local businesses that their property and commercial interests will be protected from damage and theft. Business investment in inner city neighbourhoods is crucial for the employment prospects and vitality of the community; if businesses are concerned that police will be unable to respond to emergency situations in a timely fashion, they will be less likely to invest in neighbourhoods that have higher crime rates. Cutting police personnel also has the potential to actually increase police expenditure because the police force will be stretched thin and remaining officers will have to work overtime to fill the gaps left by the vacant positions, leading to higher hourly payroll costs. In addition to costing more to fulfill the same duties, officers would likely be tired and overworked, resulting in more burnout, less patience, worse-decision making, and more troublesome police interactions.
Cutting Salaries and Other Expenditures
Collective-agreement and union concerns aside, cutting police salaries would have a negative impact on policing overall. Prospective police officers and quality candidates who might otherwise make great police officers would be less inclined to pursue a career in policing if salaries continued to be cut and financial security was so uncertain. The quality of the pool of new recruits would decline and the police force would be obliged to lower their standards in order to hire candidates that would not ordinarily be selected, which could also necessitate longer, more expensive training procedures. The correlation between higher wages and employee productivity, satisfaction, and retention is well-established. If police salaries were cut, there could be significant turnover within the police force, necessitating more frequent orientation and training for new officers and leaving the burdensome duties of police in the hands of more junior, less experienced officers. Cutting police expenditures would also have an undesirable impact on departments’ abilities to fund training. If there is a concern that police lack empathy, resort to violence, and are altogether poorly trained, reducing their funding would not ameliorate the situation. Addressing damaging or prejudicial police tactics requires funding.
Is There a Solution?
Now that we have examined some of the benefits and drawbacks of defunding the police, we should look at how we can move forward. We can categorize the issues with police into two primary areas: legal/policy issues and moral/societal issues.
We need improved crime demographic statistics and record-keeping. Despite what many think, the use of force by police disproportionately against people of colour should not be construed as racism prima facie. It is common to find articles comparing police lethal use of force statistics with race statistics to suggest that if people of colour are overrepresented in instances of police lethal use of force, it is indicative that police are more likely to use lethal force against people of colour than against white people. The fallacious line of reasoning employed to present these statistics as irrefutable evidence of police racism fails to consider who is committing violent crime. If a disproportionate percentage of violent crime in which police intervene is committed by people of colour, it would explain why police force is disproportionately used against people of colour. This proposition is supported by a study that found no evidence to suggest disparities in officer-involved shootings between people of colour and white people. Some refute the proposition that the overrepresentation of people of colour in use of force statistics may be attributable to the possibility that people of colour are disproportionately committing violent crime, citing a mathematical phenomenon known as Simpson’s Paradox, which will show a trend when examining groups of data in isolation but will actually inverse the trend when examining data in aggregate due to the limitation data has in accounting for variables such as the gravity of the situation in which a police encounter takes place. If that is the case and data is failing to account for important variables, how can one make an assertion that the data is conclusive of anything, one way or the other? The problem, especially in Canada, is that our police data records are inadequate and do not track race-based statistics or account for many variables. We need to improve statistical recordkeeping, including race-based crime data, which Statistics Canada has stated it will begin to work with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to collect. If marginalized people are the ones who are disproportionately committing violent crimes, perhaps there are underlying issues we need to address. Improving social services might eventually address some of these underlying issues. However, if we reallocate police funds to finance the social services in question, it would be tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. Police are one of the only defences we currently have to address violent crime and defunding them before reducing violent crime could be incredibly detrimental.
Accountability is perhaps the most important issue; much of the current disdain for police stems from the perception that officers are not being held accountable. We need more transparency and more severe consequences for officers who engage in misconduct. An officer with a history of power-tripping and aggressive behaviour should not be actively policing. Changing the IIU’s organizational structure to include individuals who are not former members of law enforcement as part of the senior investigation teams could help dispel any bias, real or perceived, within the IIU. The fact that the IIU’s current Civilian Director was a former criminal prosecutor and criminal defence lawyer is valuable. If the senior investigation teams were comprised of an equal amount of individuals with experience other than law enforcement, it could be highly advantageous for the IIU. While the IIU investigates serious incidents involving police officers in Manitoba but does not accept complaints directly from the public, the Law Enforcement Review Agency [“LERA”] handles citizen complaints about police conduct. People need to be made aware that organizations such as LERA exist as a means of holding officers accountable for misconduct; their mandate to dole out punishments should not be relegated to slaps on the wrist but should include uncompromising reprimand for deserving police behaviour. We should also re-evaluate current police training methods. If there is a systemic or cultural toxicity or violence that is underpinning the police, we need to find ways to address that at the source.
The bilateral discussion on the issue of societal morality has truly been insufficient. While defunding the police has been an exceedingly prevalent topic, somehow we have missed out on the requisite discourse to reach an agreeable solution. Are people who want to defund the police far-left commies? Are people who disagree with defunding the police irredeemable alt-right racists? People are too quick to villainize or resort to personal attacks against those with whom they disagree when, instead, they should share their opinions in ways that increase dialogue. People should allow others to hear the merits of their arguments and form their own opinions on that basis. Many members of the vocal subset of young people who believe in completely abolishing the police will eventually be those in the position to make policy decisions; at that time, there will no longer be any opportunity for discussion. It is for that reason that it is incumbent upon each and every person to share their opinion and strive find a rational, agreeable solution for the problems we face. If there is disagreement between peers, there should be discussion to search for a resolution. People should try to understand where those with differing opinions are coming from, and be humble enough to constantly re-evaluate their own opinion as they become better informed. There will not be a clear-cut solution for every disagreement but, ideally, having discussion will allow good ideas to come to the forefront and. more importantly, allow bad ideas to die.
Ultimately, there are few easy answers. However, we do know some things. We know we want everyone, especially the marginalized, to feel safe and secure. We know we want to restore public confidence in our institutions. We know we want to improve the world we live in. We know we need police, or some form thereof. How can we have all those things? One expert on community policing suggested that it is not as simple as taking money from police and allocating it elsewhere; the system as a whole requires funding. While increasing systemic funding would be an expensive upfront cost, it could pay dividends in the future. This might be the best approach: a reduction of police funding if and where possible and a provision of separate funding for social services and alternatives to policing so that they can begin to develop. Eventually, once the effects of the social services and police alternatives have materialized and the need for police is reduced, we can begin to confidently “defund the police”. At that time, the cost savings associated with having an efficient system of social services would make up for any short term deficits.