For years now, activists across North America have pushed for local police forces to be defunded in the face of their persistent bias and discrimination towards marginalized communities. But their response to anti-vaccine protesters in the nation’s capital might actually make that happen. The Ottawa police department’s willingness to surrender the city to those protesters has made the best case for it yet.
Whether it’s police officers taking selfies with the protesters or watching passively as they carry fuel canisters past a supposed perimeter, there’s a growing inventory of evidence demonstrating a clear bias towards the protest. And as if to add insult to the growing list of injuries Ottawa has suffered over the last 10 days, the police chief hired a high-priced public relations firm to help him with “engagement support on the first weekend of the demonstrations.”
With policing costs chewing up nearly 10 per cent of the city’s overall budget, Ottawa residents have a right to ask what they’re getting for their money — and why police funding keeps going up.
They’re not the only ones. As the Globe and Mail reported in 2020, the cost of policing in Canadian cities ranges from 10 to 25 per cent of their overall budget, and it’s going up faster than other areas of spending. “Spending on police in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta is increasing at a faster rate than spending for other municipal services, a pattern experts say highlights the need for greater financial accountability.”
In Greater Toronto’s Peel Region, those costs have been as high as 40 cents out of every dollar spent, and while it’s an outlier, as Queen’s Park Briefing’s Jack Hauen noted, the cost of policing in Ontario is going up everywhere. “The OPP is getting nearly $213 million more than it was 10 years ago; the Toronto Police Service (TPS) now receives $150 million more; and the NRPS (Niagara Regional Police Service) is getting over $34 million more.”
Few people are seriously suggesting that we don’t need police forces or that they don’t have an important role to play in our society. But it’s clear police don’t have the skills, training or aptitude to handle some of the more sensitive social issues they’re often pressed into addressing, from mental illness and homelessness to substance abuse. By shifting some of the funding for police services into areas like social work and community outreach programs, we can actually deal with the issues at play and divert some of the people affected by them away from the criminal justice system.
Sandy Hudson, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada, laid this out in a 2020 piece for Chatelaine. “Police services cost Canadians $15.1 billion per year,” she wrote. “If we were to defund the police, we could put that money into new services that would better serve our safety and security needs. We could afford to create front-line emergency services for mental health and sexual assault, along with investigation services — for murders, theft, violent crime — that do not fail as often as the police do. And we could create safety and security services that actually serve Black and Indigenous people rather than killing us.”
The idea that social work should be done by social workers shouldn’t be controversial, even though conservatives have managed to turn it into a wedge issue. But it’s the question of whether more policing leads to more safety that’s especially tricky.
As the Washington Post reported last year, a study of American data that stretches back to the 1960s shows it does not. “More spending in a year hasn’t significantly correlated to less crime or to more crime,” the Post’s Philip Bump writes. “For violent crime, in fact, the correlation between changes in crime rates and spending per person in 2018 dollars is almost zero.”
Opinion: With policing costs chewing up nearly 10 per cent of the city’s overall budget, Ottawa residents have a right to ask what they’re getting for their money — and why police funding keeps going up, writes columnist @maxfawcett. #Convoy #COVID
The challenge has been translating this sort of data into a winning political argument, and so far those pushing to defund the police have had mixed results.
In Edmonton, city council voted 8-5 to reduce their police force’s annual budget by $10.9 million, with that money going instead towards social outreach and support programs. But in Calgary, the plan to trim the city’s police budget by just 2.5 per cent was met with huge pushback from local conservative politicians, with then-mayoral candidate Jeromy Farkas describing the proposed cut as a “dangerous attempt to appease extremists.”
In the end, Calgary’s city council actually ended up increasing the funding allocation for the police. And in Vancouver, a modest $5.7 million cut to the local police department’s budget in 2021 was appealed to the province, which has yet to render a decision. But the blowback seems to have chastened Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who supported the VPD’s request for a $325-million budget in 2022 — almost $4 million more than his own finance team recommended.
Time will tell, but the politics around police funding may have shifted permanently after what has happened in Ottawa.
Canadians have seen the defiant indifference, and in some cases vocal support, offered by police to an occupation of their own city. They have watched as the RCMP in Alberta continues to allow a small group of rural agitators to block the border, disrupt trade with the United States and interfere with other people’s freedom of movement. And they cannot help but see the contrast between these responses and how police tend to crack down on protests involving environmentalists, Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized communities.
Those Canadians, and the elected officials that represent them, are going to have to ask some very fundamental questions. If the police are here to serve and protect, who are they serving and what are they protecting? And if they can’t, or won’t, do their jobs, isn’t it time to give some of their funding to people who will?