This has become the Year of the Impossible: first a pandemic that no one imagined could happen in their own lifetime; then an economic implosion that made universal basic income at least a temporary response; and then a police street execution of a Black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that shook the world for a third time.
In the two tumultuous weeks since George Floyd died under the knee of officer Derek Chauvin, he has come to symbolize all three disasters: an autopsy revealed he’d had COVID-19 and recovered; he’d lost his job in the lockdown; and his death exposed the United States of America as a grotesque police state.
That was reaffirmed when two Buffalo police officers shoved a 75-year-old man and left him lying on the sidewalk while he bled from an ear. The cops who cleared Lafayette Park, just so President Donald Trump could get a photo op brandishing a Bible, made it even clearer: they serve and protect their political masters, not their fellow citizens.
Americans are now processing an additional fact: they are absurdly over-policed. Their federal government now has at least 132,000 civilian law enforcement officers. Many of them came out of obscure agencies, often in uniforms lacking identification, to guard the streets of Washington, D.C. and occasionally assault members of the media doing their job.
What’s now clear to Americans should be to Canadians as well, that countless incidents were not minor aberrations but part of a pattern: the Black men and boys shot dead for no reason, the Indigenous kids taken out of Saskatoon for a starlight tour in the dead of winter, the shooting of an Indigenous woman by a police officer doing a wellness check on her. Remember Robert Dziekanski, and the easy time his RCMP killers had in the court system? And the class actions taken against the Mounties for countless cases of sexual harassment?
True, we’d realized for years that policing is a tough, violent job that can result in PTSD and prolonged depression. That made us sorry for the cops, but it didn’t make us (or them) reconsider their profession.
That has had to wait for the death of George Floyd.
The Minneapolis City Council has now passed a motion to defund and dismantle the city’s police department. “Defund or disband” has become a catchphrase among protesters in scores of American cities, and it’s catching on in Canada as well.
It’s worth prying apart those two words — defund and dismantle — and considering the opportunities and possible results for carrying out each of them.
Defunding begins with the proposition that city police departments suck up public money that could be better spent elsewhere to make us all safer.
Looking more closely at her local police, Lauren Chambers, a young staffer with the American Civil Liberties Union, found that the Boston, Massachusetts police budget for 2020-21 is $414 million — four times that of the public health commission, and 10 times that of the city’s libraries.
What’s more, 530 Boston Police Department employees made more last year than Boston’s mayor. Thanks to overtime, the top 20 earners made over $300,000 each, for a 2019 total of $1.97 million in overtime pay. Gilbert and Sullivan said “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one,” but they didn’t know Boston.
Boston is unlikely to be unique. Police forces have strong unions and backup from politicians who keep calling for more cops and higher budgets. In Vancouver, the police board just rejected the city’s one per cent cut in the VPD budget. The board was scandalized by the very idea, invoking public safety. Using the money saved to help fund housing or mental health, or to defray extra costs incurred by the pandemic, were unacceptable alternatives.
According to the VPD’s 2019 report, its budget that year was $301,239,000 — a 5.1 per cent increase over 2018. The 2020 budget, passed last November, is for $315,278,000. A one per cent cut would amount to about $3 million. Even so, Ralph Kaisers, head of the Vancouver Police Union, told CBC Radio’s Early Edition on June 8 that the department has been underfunded for 10 years.
Defunding is not as drastic as it might sound. Budgets could cease to fund the military gear that departments have been buying in recent years. Money now covering overtime could go instead to more careful recruitment and training — and to more aggressive prosecution of cops who screw up.
And defunding of police could and should mean shifting funding to public servants, from mental health and addiction professionals to outreach support workers, who are better suited to take on some of the work that falls to police today given they are often the first to encounter people driven off the rails by hardships or delusions.
On tighter budgets, departments would have to make a real case for the equipment and training they need. It might be easier if they admitted that crime rates in Canada have been falling since 2003, with property and violent crimes now 30 per cent lower than they were then. Better support for poor and Indigenous communities could reduce crime still further, and so would decriminalizing drugs.
Dismantling would be a far bigger issue. It could follow the route taken by Camden, New Jersey, which tore its police department down to the studs and built it back up in very different form, with officers thoroughly retrained and reorganized.
In so doing we might go so far as to redesign the role of the police from crime-stoppers to genuine peace officers — people capable of maintaining order and protecting all citizens. A good peace officer would be highly educated and carefully trained to work constructively with people and to de-escalate conflict before it turns violent.
Peace officers would know their communities very well and be on first-name terms with many of the residents. They would more likely operate out of storefront offices rather than special headquarters, and they would be seen more as advocates for their communities rather than agents of their municipalities.
For violent crimes we could still have an armed force, a small one capable of rapid response and investigation of murders and assaults. Like the peace officers, armed officers would be under scrutiny by independent agencies capable of laying charges for any kind of unprofessional behaviour.
But what would we do with our current police? Retire as many older ones as possible. Retrain many of the younger ones. Steer some into careers in a different kind of law enforcement: ensuring that, for example, environmental laws and regulations are carefully followed, as well as those governing occupational health and safety.
Yes, the police unions would fight bitterly against such measures. But in the past few weeks we have sensed that a police state has grown up within the U.S. and another one is growing here. If we don’t act quickly and decisively to remove the police state, we ourselves will be the villains of a very big crime story.