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Defund the Police Part I: Abolish the Police? - Chris Dick

What is Defund the Police?

The hashtag #DefundThePolice gained worldwide prominence this past spring when footage arose online of a white Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of a black man, eventually resulting in his death. Protesting and rioting ensued as peoples’ outrage grew following the death of another black person at the hands of police, and the behaviour of the officer was universally condemned by police across the United States. 1 Supporters of defunding the police have generally provided two different definitions for the term “defund the police”, one of which is the reallocation of a portion of police funding to social services, with the other being the complete divestment and abolition of police, with the proceeds being directed to social services. 2 In the first part of this two-part series, we will examine the second meaning of “defund the police”, namely abolishing the police, the implications that it could have, and why it would be an ineffective approach to fixing the issues it aims to address.

Abolish the Police?

One meaning of “defund the police” proposed by those in favour of defunding the police is to completely abolish the police over time. Some proponents of this approach, also known as police abolitionists, include the acronym ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) in their names, biographies, and posts on social media sites such as Twitter and TikTok, which helps illustrate their anger and frustration towards police. 3 They believe that police institutions are irredeemable and antithetical to the safety of minorities, and the only way forward is through abolishment. 4 The question that immediately ensues during discussions of abolishing the police is what will happen when violent crimes are committed? Who can we call? Some police abolitionists have proposed a “service that provides expert specialized rapid response” to violent crime, 5 or a “small, specialized class of public servants whose job it is to respond to violent crimes”, 6 which sounds like the police abolitionist way of saying “police”. It seems somewhat impractical to completely abolish police only to establish a small group that essentially performs the same key functions of police.

Who Would Be Affected?

Police abolitionists fail to recognize that the people who would be most adversely affected by the abolition of the police would be the very people police abolitionists aim to protect: minorities and marginalized groups. In 2014, Statistics Canada published a report on the victimization of Aboriginal people in Canada which found that violent victimization rates were twice as high for Aboriginal Canadians as they were for non-Indigenous Canadians. 7 A June 2020 poll of United States citizens found that 55% of black respondents were opposed to the idea of abolishing the police, 8 and another poll found that 81% of black respondents wanted police to spend the same amount or more time in their area. 9

Police abolitionists advocate for the gradual reallocation of funds from police to social services, with the idea that eventually there will be no need for police because social services will eradicate crime by offering education, mental health services, and housing to everyone. The reality is that the effects of these proposed social services will be slow to materialize, and even when they do materialize crime will still occur. In Winnipeg during 2019, there were 282 thefts over $5,000, 4,069 instances of fraud, 226 instances of counterfeiting, 149 instances of child pornography, and 381 instances of impaired driving, all of which are criminal code offences that are generally not crimes of poverty like many violent crimes and property crimes. 10 If police are abolished, who will investigate and enforce the law for crimes such as these? Some new form of law enforcement would inevitably need to be established for the purpose of serving the functions that police are already serving.

A Police-Free Community

The notion that crime will persist even in the absence of police is supported by what occurred in the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), which is also known as the Capital Hill Organized Protest (CHOP). The CHAZ/CHOP began in June 2020 when the Seattle Police Department vacated one of their precincts in downtown Seattle following several days of conflicts between police and protesters. 11 Protesters decided to engage in a sustained protest through occupation and established a six-block radius around the vacant precinct. 12 While some people in the CHAZ/CHOP reported feeling safer without police in the area, especially near the beginning of the occupation, there were four shootings, two deaths, arson, and a number of alleged sexual assaults that took place over the final nine-day span of the CHAZ/CHOP. 13 The outcome of the CHAZ/CHOP suggests that without police there is no accountability or fear of repercussions for criminal behaviour, and that crimes will continue to occur in the absence of law enforcement, although it is fair to mention that the CHAZ/CHOP did not have the benefit of the social services that proponents of defunding the police propose.

The rational choice theory posits that in contemplation of committing a crime, an individual engages in a risk versus reward analysis: what is the benefit of committing the crime, how likely are they to be caught, and what are the punishments associated with the crime? 14 Internet anonymity and a police-free world are dangerous for the same reasons, when there is no accountability, there is no obligation for people to adhere to societal norms of basic human decency and respect, and it rests on the conscience of each individual to behave in a manner that is acceptable to the rest of society, which when left to our own devices we so often fail to do. Police presence has at least some effect on the deterrence of crime, and the belief that social services could completely eradicate criminal behaviour is naive.

How Do We Proceed?

The issue with the views espoused by many police abolitionists is that they are fueled by anger and emotion, however righteous it may be, rather than reason. Are all cops really bastards? Are they all part of a toxic system that is beyond repair? What effects is this kind of rhetoric having? Are we alienating law enforcement—who we will inevitably need in some capacity—and what will be the result of that alienation? Are we encouraging quality recruits to join law enforcement in the future? Is there a way for police and marginalized communities to co-exist? These are valid concerns, but anyone who attempts to engage in discourse that challenges the beliefs of police abolitionists is classified as hateful, racist, or privileged. The utopian fantasy that fundamental change can effectively occur without meaningful bilateral discussion of some important issues is hindering our ability to make meaningful progress, and only leading to increased division. Canadians are divided on whether defunding the police is a good idea. 15 More Canadians might support the idea of defunding the police if a less radical approach is taken. Abolishing the police completely is not the answer. If we want citizens and policy makers to consider defunding the police, we need to employ a more sensible, nuanced approach that addresses the myriad issues with police, while still taking into consideration some of the pitfalls of police abolishment. The second part of this two-part series will explore the other meaning of defunding the police, namely the reallocation of a portion of police funding to social services. We will analyse some of the benefits and challenges associated with this approach to defunding the police, and what practical steps we could take to improve policing, and ultimately, the lives of minorities and marginalized groups.


1 Stefanie Dazio, “Police across U.S. condemn George Floyd’s death in custody, giving critics pause”, The Associated Press (28 May 2020), online: <globalnews.ca> [https://perma.cc/HD6E-DSN5].

2 Ann Gehan, “The different meanings of ‘defund the police’”, Concord Monitor (26 July 2020), online: <concordmonitor.com> [https://perma.cc/FSD4-5F7L].

3 Ellissa Bain, “WHAT DOES ACAB MEAN ON TIKTOK AND TWITTER? MOVEMENT EXPLAINED!”, HITC (29 May 2020), online: <www.hitc.com> [https://perma.cc/QZ5Y-UMPS].

4 Sandy Hudson, “Defunding The Police Will Save Black And Indigenous Lives In Canada”, Huff Post (2 June 2020), online: <www.huffingtonpost.ca> [https://perma.cc/XZ27-BCF5].

5 Ibid.

6 “Building a Police-Free Future: Frequently Asked Questions”, MPD 150 (June 2020), online (pdf): <www.mpd150.com> [https://perma.cc/E9SX-78J4].

7 Jillian Boyce, “Victimization of Aboriginal people in Canada, 2014” (28 June 2016), online: Statistics Canada < https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2016001/article/14631-eng.htm> [https://perma.cc/7MLE-FYAC].

8 YouGov, “The Economist/YouGov Poll” (June 2020) at 43, online (pdf): <yougov.com> [https://perma.cc/JLZ7-RMN5].

9 Lydia Saad, “Black Americans Want Police to Retain Local Presence” (5 August 2020), online: Gallup <news.gallup.com> [https://perma.cc/DM7D-NWL2].

10 Winnipeg Police Service, “2019 Annual Statistical Report”(2020) at 4-5, online (pdf): <www.winnipeg.ca> [https://perma.cc/7YNT-YNZK].

11 Katelyn Burns, “The violent end of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, explained” (2 July 2020), online: <www.vox.com> [https://perma.cc/L3P4-3JWA].

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Nicole Myers, ed, Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews, vol 5, ch 3, Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services (6 May 2016), online: <www.children.gov.on.ca> [https://perma.cc/S69J-TTX2].

15 Darrell Bricker, “Canadians Divided on Whether to Defund the Police: 51% Support the Idea, 49% Oppose It” (27 July 2020), online: <www.ipsos.com> [https://perma.cc/33GW-D9YM].

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