'It's always about balance': AIDS Saskatoon supports police reforms, but not abolition

The executive director of AIDS Saskatoon says he supports the Black Lives Matter movement and others demanding reforms, but stopped short of endorsing the movement's specific call for police forces to be abolished.

Black Lives Matter and others in Sask have demanded abolition of police and prisons following recent incidents

AIDS Saskatoon executive director Jason Mercredi, left, poses this week with members of the Saskatoon Police Service after giving them a two-day course in harm reduction and de-escalation. Mercredi says he agrees reform is urgently needed, but doesn't believe abolishing police forces is the answer. (AIDS Saskatoon/Twitter)

The executive director of AIDS Saskatoon says he supports the Black Lives Matter movement and others demanding reforms, but stopped short of endorsing specific call for police forces to be abolished.

Jason Mercredi said it's important to work with police and governments on changes.

 "It's all about relationships. We have to make sure we're in dialogue with each other. If nobody's talking, that's when you can get problems," Mercredi said.

 AIDS Saskatoon has been working with police for the past year on de-escalation training, harm reduction and other reforms. At the same time, the non-profit — which provides support, advocacy and outreach services for people living with, or affected by, HIV/AIDS — is funding the Okihtcitawak Patrol Group as an additional presence in core neighbourhoods.

"I think it's always about balance, which is why we're funding Okihtcitawak Patrol Group and why we're working with Saskatoon Police Service. We're trying to be as responsive as we can to the community demands," Mercredi said.

As part of a survey it conducted last year, Mercredi says AIDS Saskatoon knocked on every door in the Pleasant Hill neighbourhood and elsewhere. He said more than half (52 per cent) off the 263 people who responded said they wanted more police and community patrols in the area.

Calls for reform

Mercredi said police need to change, but says those calling for more supports, like mental health and addiction services or more social workers, should take those demands to the provincial government, which funds those areas.

Mercredi noted it's the provincial government which has repeatedly rejected calls for funding a safe injection site in Saskatoon.

Since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May, there have been calls for around the world for defunding of police services — with proposals ranging from police budget cuts to a completely dismantling police forces.

Last month, a group called Saskatoon Coordinating Committee Against Police Violence organized a "Disarm, Defund and Abolish the Police" rally, calling on supporters to send a letter to elected officials asking them to "start divesting from the [Saskatoon Police Service] immediately."

The committee's Eileen Bear said said during the rally that defunding Saskatoon police wouldn't mean abolishing the service immediately, but transitioning some its funding and responsibilities to workers more suited to some crisis situations, such as nurses.

Earlier this week, OUTSaskatoon, which advocates for Saskatoon's 2SLGBTQ community, posted a letter of support on its Facebook page for Black Lives Matter, the Indigenous Joint Action Coalition and others. It said OUTSaskatoon supports those groups' calls for action, including "the abolition of the police, the closure of prisons, and a renewed emphasis on community programming and resources we desperately need."

In an interview Thursday, OUTSaskatoon acting director Krystal Nieckar said the Facebook post was meant as a general show of solidarity. OUTSaskatoon will hold a series of community talks this month and then decide whether to endorse specific demands, such as abolition of the police force.

"The current system is not working," Nieckar said. "But our decision [on specific demands] cannot be made without our community behind us. We'll take some time to listen."

With files from Alicia Bridges