By Pauline Kerr
While reports of police in the United States – and this country, too – committing acts of extreme, unnecessary and often racially based acts of brutality turn the stomachs of decent people, calls to defund the police are equally alarming.
If someone is breaking into your house, you want a police officer there, fast. Defunding police would not hurt the rich. They would have options such as moving into gated communities patrolled by private security. Poor people, already over-represented as victims of crime, would be the ones who would suffer.
Taking cash from front-line enforcement and putting it into community programs aimed at preventing crime, sounds very nice, if you totally disregard certain facts. One key fact is, we have crime. Some of it is related to substance abuse. Some of it is based on greed. There is relationship-based violence. There are property disputes. We have idiots who like to drive at double the speed limit on a busy street, who consider shoplifting a victimless crime and who think tearing up a neighbour’s freshly planted corn field with four-wheelers is harmless fun.
Police are being called on to handle situations today that were not even on the radar 20 years ago.
They are often called on to mediate in cases of relationship-based violence. Two decades ago, such violence was considered a personal matter, not a legal one. Today, assaulting one’s marital partner or child is considered assault.
Police used to be called to remove the town drunk from his favourite watering hole. In days gone by, they would let him sleep it off in the drunk tank. In 2020, it is as likely as not to be someone higher than a kite on a horribly toxic synthetic drug that scares even addicts. Police might find the person dangerously violent and totally irrational, or unconscious and not breathing. Officers must assess whether the person needs an ambulance, a Naloxone, and/or a few days in a locked hospital ward.
Added responsibility demands better training, which would indicate a need for more funding, not less.
Defunding an institution and putting money into community care is not a new concept. We have heard it before, when the province closed down most of its mental hospitals. The argument was that people could be better and more compassionately cared for in the community. The only catch was that outside large cities, the well-integrated system of mental health, social and home care workers that would make the new system work did not exist. We all know what happened. Jails, homeless shelters and hospital emergency rooms ended up looking after the many who fell through the cracks.
We heard the same kind of language then, that we are hearing about police now – the whole system is filled with abuses, it needs to be replaced by community based social services programs, and so forth.
Ask any emergency room doctor who has spent hours on the phone trying to find in-patient treatment for a psychiatric patient who desperately needs it, if it was wise to close down the province’s mental hospitals, and be prepared for a strongly worded answer.
Were there abuses of the old mental hospital system? Without a doubt. The same is true of today’s police departments.
Just as there are many fine, dedicated police officers who are on the job for all the right reasons, there are also officers who do not belong in uniform – racists, misogynists, cynics, violent and dishonest people. Effective oversight, investigation of incidents involving police officers conducted by an independent body, and an end to the mentality of protecting one’s brother and sister officers no matter what, will go a long way towards correcting some of the issues. We must remember the problems form only one part of the picture of policing in this province and country. We must also consider the tremendous number of things our police departments do effectively and fairly, with compassion and honesty.
Who would benefit from defunding police, i.e. slashing front-line police budgets? Our fear is that it would be criminals.