The Sunday Edition

Powerful forces will fight the call to defund police departments

It used to be a given that increased spending on police budgets meant increased security — and that police budgets were untouchable. In less than three weeks, though, the Black Lives Matter movement has completely changed the conversation. Speaking to The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright, Robyn Maynard makes the case for defunding and John Sewell explains the forces, as powerful as ever, that are working against change.

It's time to build other kinds of supports for people besides the police, say experts

At a Calgary Black Lives Matter vigil in early June, attendees called for police reform and honoured people of colour killed at the hands of law enforcement. (Terri Trembath/CBC)
Listen32:52

Against the backdrop of violent actions by police and massive Black Lives Matter protests around the world, there is a growing call for a complete review of police functions and financing.

In Minneapolis, where George Floyd's death sparked the protests, city councillors voted to disband the police department. Politicians in other cities, such as Toronto, are proposing cuts to police budgets.

Anti-racism activists are lobbying for the redistribution of tax dollars to front-line workers who are better trained than the police to de-escalate difficult situations.

Robyn Maynard is the author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. (Stacy Lee Photography)

"Canadians are taught to imagine that a lot of what police do is rapid response to keep us safe," Black feminist scholar Robyn Maynard explained in an interview with The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright. "But the vast majority of what police forces are actually doing is not keeping people safe."

John Sewell agrees. The former mayor of Toronto is coordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition.

"We have this understanding the police are always on the edge of dealing with situations of violence. The data doesn't appear to support that," he said to Enright.

He believes better police training will not help.

"There's an old phrase that says, 'Police culture eats training for lunch,'" Sewell said.

Maynard, the author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present, sees police violence against Black Canadians as not only systemic, but deadly.

Perhaps it sounds radical. But if you think of the fact that we've actually defunded public schools, social housing, public transit and we've defunded long-term care to the point that these institutions are at a crisis, then it's not that radical.- Robyn Maynard

"We see that the criminalization of Black communities by means of the police and incarceration has a long-standing history in this country," explained Maynard. "Particularly since the 1980s, there has been a real rise in mass incarceration and police killings."

She also argues that police violence in Canada doesn't get enough attention. In 2017, a special CBC investigation found that more than a third of the victims of fatal police encounters in Toronto were Black people, even though they represent only eight per cent of the city's population. In 2018, the Ontario Human Rights Commission found that a Black person in Toronto was nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be killed in a police shooting.

Many activists, including Maynard, would like to see police departments defunded.

"Perhaps it sounds radical," said Maynard. "But if you think of the fact that we've actually defunded public schools, social housing, public transit and we've defunded long-term care to the point that these institutions are at a crisis, then it's not that radical."

She insists that defunding the police would actually benefit those institutions that have seen their financial support eroded over time.  

"It's important to understand that this talk about defunding is not only about taking things away," said Maynard. "It's also about building something new, building other kinds of supports for people."

John Sewell is the co-ordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition and a former mayor of Toronto. (Rosa Marchitelli/CBC)

Sewell shares that view. He points out that Toronto police responded last year to 30,000 calls where people were in mental distress, and there were several cases recently of Black people or people of colour who died during that police response.

"So maybe what we could do is we could say, 'Well, let's get hospitals and the agencies who know about mental health to form crisis intervention teams, so that they respond, rather than the police,'" he said to Enright. "That would be a big change and a really good change."

Sewell proposes that, similarly, different professionals who have the appropriate training could become first responders in helping homeless people, in cases of drug overdoses or domestic violence, calling for help from the police if needed.

Since his years as mayor of Toronto, from 1978 to 1980, Sewell has been questioning the way police spend their money, and says he is well aware of the powerful forces that conspire against change. 

When there is discrimination by one officer, other officers don't speak up ... management doesn't respond either because within police organizations, managers are always appointed from below. So they're infected with that culture.- John Sewell

"So politicians tend to stay away from it. Any talk about policing issues and — when they do get into it — the police association, which is the police union, gets on them: putting private detectives on people who speak out, threatening them with criminal charges, and on and on," he said. 

One of the biggest obstacles to change, according to Sewell, is police culture.

"When there is discrimination by one officer, other officers don't speak up. Then what happens is that, in fact, management doesn't respond either because within police organizations, managers are always appointed from below. So they're infected with that culture," said Sewell, "and that's what has to be disrupted and changed."

He proposes a few ways to go about this: to train police in community colleges or university settings, rather than in dedicated, isolated training schools; to hire people with management training and skills to work in police departments, rather than only promoting from within the organization; and to demand independent audits of the police, that would give a detailed accounting of how they spend their time and money.

Sewell does not believe that equipping police with body cameras is the solution. 

"All of the data on the body-worn camera says that does nothing at all to change police behaviour," he said. "I have been totally surprised that the mayor of Toronto and the prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, are now saying, 'Oh, we've all got to have body cameras.' We've got to look at the evidence."

Click 'listen' above to hear both interviews.

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