Avnish Nanda, the litigator and instructor in constitutional and environmental law at U of A, says yes.
Our society places a high value on public safety and has developed a variety of state institutions to pursue this public good. Police are tasked with preventing the collective and individual harms inflicted on society through activities ranging from homicides to property crimes, and to apprehend those who commit these transgressions so that they can be held accountable through our legal system. The state affords the police a “monopoly on violence”; this is the only state institution that has the lawful authority to use physical force on citizens, even to the point of taking life.
But not all threats to public safety can or should be addressed through the use of force. This is what the concept of “defund the police” attempts to highlight. The state’s resources can be redirected to other agencies to better maintain public safety. In many instances, dispatching police will not adequately address the threat to public safety. In fact, the arrival of the police might itself constitute a greater threat.
In Alberta much of the work of our police services revolves around responding to mental health distress calls. The deinstitutionalization of psychiatric hospitals in Canada in the 20th century has led to policing being the state’s immediate response to individuals in mental health crisis. Approximately 30 per cent of the Edmonton Police Service’s work involves officers dealing with individuals suffering from such episodes. The Calgary Police Service devotes similar resources and time to mental health related calls.
Police officers are taught to respond to threats to public safety through their use-of-force training. In cases concerning individuals suffering from mental illness, a police presence can often escalate tensions. This can result in the police using force, even lethal force, on individuals they were sent to help.
In recent years police services in Alberta have relied on expert, non-police mental health intervention specialists to address a portion of the calls they receive. These specialists are employed by Alberta Health Services and are considered essential to addressing mental health distress calls in a non-lethal manner. However, there aren’t enough resources to ensure that every such call is attended to by a mental health expert. Only a small number of calls receive this sort of specialized response.
Defunding the police is not about taking resources away from police services in an effort that undermines public safety. It’s about addressing public safety in a manner that prioritizes the lives of all members of our community. In the context of mental health calls in Alberta, this might involve diverting funds away from police to establish a specialized AHS agency to respond to individuals in crisis. This could ensure that people suffering from mental health episodes are attended to by experts who can address their situation and not exacerbate matters to the point where they or others are harmed.
Howard Burns, the executive director of the Alberta Federation of Police Associations and retired police officer, says no.
Albertans expect our elected representatives to ensure we’re getting good value for our tax dollars. Policing costs are usually one of the largest line items in municipal budgets. As such, they receive a great deal of scrutiny before they’re approved. Nowadays, as a result of tragic events in the US, some local politicians are clamouring to cut the very police budgets they previously supported. Such decisions appear disingenuous, based on emotion rather than fact.
When these emotional arguments are closely examined, they often don’t hold up to scrutiny. For instance, police brutality is frequently touted as a reason for change, but the facts demonstrate that any use of force by Alberta officers is exceedingly rare. In 2019 the average use of force rate during police encounters in Alberta’s two largest cities was 0.5 per cent. In most professions, a 99.5 per cent success rate would be celebrated. Imagine results like that in the medical field!
Another pretext for change is the flawed premise that the police are racist. This assertion is based on statistical evidence that shows some minority groups are overrepresented in their dealings with the police. Other causes for this situation haven’t been considered, and a giant leap in logic must be taken to determine that police are the problem. Considering that most police interactions are call-driven, it’s far more likely that any overrepresentation is a result of broader societal failures and not racism by police. Overrepresentation of these same groups in the prison system further supports a societal failure premise.
Those calling for cuts to police budgets need to understand the true implications of what they’re asking for. Significant reductions will result in the elimination of many ancillary services. Ironically, some of these services are actually meant to alleviate the very things our communities have expressed concern over. Expenditures aimed at assisting at-risk youth, victims of crime and other vulnerable people will likely need to be cut. Programs designed to prevent crime or foster diversity will need to be curtailed. Officer training will have to be reduced, and outlays for expensive equipment such as body-worn cameras will need to be re-examined. If the cuts run too deep, layoffs will be inevitable, leading to the likelihood that emergency calls go unanswered during peak call periods.
On a more positive note, the conversation surrounding police budgets has provided us an opportunity to reframe the role of the police. Defining police responsibility is a worthwhile endeavour and should be pursued. The police can no longer be everything to everyone, and the real task at hand is to determine who should take on duties the police have inherited by default (e.g., mental health and non-criminal matters).
Decisions about police funding must be fact-based and data-driven. Emotional arguments based on false narratives have no place in the decision-making process. Police budgets should remain intact until reliable facts and data dictate otherwise.
Avnish Nanda responds to Howard Burns
Racial inequities in Alberta policing are well documented. In 2017 a landmark investigation into the Edmonton Police Service’s use of street checks revealed that Indigenous and Black residents were far more likely to be subject to the practice. Street checks are a “preventative policing” technique that involves officers stopping and interrogating individuals on the grounds that they appear suspicious. The stops don’t occur in relation to a specific criminal act or investigation. Rather, by detaining and questioning suspicious-looking individuals without lawful grounds to do so, the aim is to disrupt crimes before they happen.
But it just so happens that Indigenous and Black people are more likely to appear suspicious to the EPS and to be subject to street checks. Though Indigenous people represented 5 per cent of Edmonton’s population in 2017, one in every five individuals subject to a street check by the EPS where a single race was recorded was Indigenous. Black people were similarly overrepresented in street check data relative to their share of the population. The EPS offered a number of alternative explanations to avoid acknowledging the obvious: systemic racism and racial prejudices were leading officers to stop Indigenous and Black Edmontonians at higher rates than other residents. To this day, the EPS maintains street checks as a legitimate, “non-racist” policing practice.
This isn’t the first time the EPS has been accused of racism. Last summer a scandal erupted in the canine unit when it was revealed that officers had put up posters depicting police dogs attacking Indigenous and Black people, who appeared in the posters as racist caricatures. However, in sharp contrast to its defence of street checks, the EPS recognized the motivations behind the conduct of the officers involved in the incident, describing it as “racist behaviour” in its ranks that would not be tolerated. No officer has been held responsible for the posters, however, and no investigation has been launched into whether the racist views literally on display within the canine unit resulted in improper, discriminatory policing conduct among its members.
The EPS isn’t the only police force in Alberta that has been reluctant to acknowledge racism in its midst. In June, when pressed whether systemic racism exists in policing in Canada, the RCMP’s commanding officer in Alberta, deputy commissioner Curtis Zablocki, denied that this was the case. After Zablocki was widely condemned for his comments, including by his superiors, he took back his statement and acknowledged that systemic racism is rampant in policing in Canada and that it must be stamped out.
However, similar to the EPS, the RCMP’s actions have fallen short of its words. This past September, when a crowd of white supremacists descended on anti-racism protesters in Red Deer who were marching against police racism and broader racial equity issues, the RCMP stood by, refusing to intervene and protect the demonstrators from being physically assaulted. After being confronted for witnessing the attack and failing to protect protesters, the RCMP initially refused to investigate the matter. Their conduct, including comments by the head of the local RCMP detachment indicating he felt the white supremacist presence and views were just as valid as those of anti-racism protesters, led to public uproar. Eventually the RCMP conducted a full-scale investigation and laid charges against participants.
Even our policing oversight body has a racism issue. The Alberta Serious Incident Response Team, which investigates allegations of major police misconduct, doesn’t believe it should collect data on race or ethnicity, claiming such information has limited value. Its refusal to do so further entrenches systemic racism in policing by not capturing and probing how race factors in to incidents of police misconduct.
The EPS’s street check data; the racist posters targeting Indigenous and Black people found in a police detachment locker room; RCMP standing metres away without intervening, and watching white supremacists pummel anti-racism protesters demonstrating against police violence—none of this surprises anyone involved in police accountability work. Race and incidents of police misconduct, including police-involved deaths and other serious use of force incidents, are connected. The problem is we can’t tell the whole story unless ASIRT fills in the details. We’re left with anecdotal evidence and incomplete records, allowing police to evade accountability for race-based inequities in policing.
“Defund the police” is about accountability. It’s about ensuring that we have a state institution that protects the public safety and well-being of all Albertans, and that this guarantee isn’t dependent on one’s mental health, skin colour or ethnicity. For many, policing in Alberta, in its current form, is unable to provide that assurance, and they are willing to consider alternative ways to achieve this public good. Whether through reform or radical transformation, better is not only possible but must be pursued without delay.
Howard Burns responds to Avnish Nanda
“Defunding the police” means different things to different people. Some believe defunding should be a form of punishment for perceived wrongdoing by the police. Many in this camp have the unrealistic goal of abolishing the police and dismantling society’s public safety framework. A second segment believes defunding involves redefining police responsibility and redistributing any realized cost savings. This is a much more realistic goal, and it appears that Mr. Nanda subscribes to this vision.
I concur with Mr. Nanda that policing has become the “immediate response” to individuals suffering a mental health crisis. Alberta police services have inherited this responsibility by default and there really isn’t a present-day alternative.
I question Mr. Nanda’s contention that approximately 30 per cent of police calls in Calgary and Edmonton involve “mental health episodes.” In 2019 the Calgary Police Service received a total of 560,604 calls for service. Of those, 4,799, or 0.9 per cent, were for mental-health-related events, according to CPS. The Edmonton Police Service numbers are similar, at 4,928 mental health calls from January 2019 to October 2019, as reported in The Globe and Mail. Granted, these numbers only reflect calls with a known mental health component. The actual number of mental-health-involved calls was undoubtedly higher, but the 30 per cent estimate seems inflated.
Mr. Nanda is correct that police officers are trained to respond to threats to public safety and use of force is a part of that training (as is de-escalation). It is also true that a police presence at a mental health call can escalate tensions; however, it is equally true that sometimes police presence has the opposite effect and contributes to a successful resolution.
Mr. Nanda uses the terms “mental health crisis” and “threats to public safety.” It is important to distinguish between these. A mental health crisis is usually a non-criminal event that oftentimes can be resolved without police involvement. Threats to public safety are typically criminal matters that require police intervention. A mental health crisis can become a threat to public safety when a subject’s behaviour escalates to a dangerous or criminal level. Once that occurs, the police are the only ones trained and authorized to deal with the threat.
Police are called upon when a mental health crisis escalates into a threat to the public; however, quite often the police are unaware of any mental health concerns and are responding based purely on a subject’s reported behaviour. If that behaviour is found to present an imminent threat to public safety, appropriate force may be used. It is key to understand that most deadly-force police encounters are dynamic and occur quickly, with officers reacting to a subject’s behaviour. Quite commonly, a subject’s mental health issues are not discovered until after the encounter has concluded.
The link between mental illness and the use of deadly force by police is well established. In 2018 retired Court of Queen’s Bench chief justice Neil Wittmann reviewed CPS use of force in 21 officer-involved shootings, 2012–2017. “Drug use and mental health concerns were identified as a factor for 10 (46 per cent) affected persons and alcohol in three (14 per cent). Four (18 per cent) persons made a demand for the police officer to kill them (suicide by cop).”
I agree with Mr. Nanda that public safety needs to be addressed “in a manner that prioritizes the lives of all members of the community.” That being said, I don’t believe that Alberta police officers have been recognized for the excellent work they are already doing to tackle mental illness.
My initial argument pointed out that any use of force by Alberta police officers is exceedingly rare (0.5 per cent of police encounters), indicating that they’re doing a good job of de-escalating most situations. Unfortunately this good work is largely ignored, garnering little public and media attention.
A recent example of Alberta officers de-escalating a serious mental health situation occurred in Red Deer last August. RCMP officers responded to the murder of Dr. Walter Reynolds at his medical clinic. They were met by a combative subject, reportedly armed with a hammer and a machete. The officers defused the situation and took Deng Mabiour into custody without the use of lethal force.
It is central to recognize that Alberta police services were alive to the challenges presented by mental illness long before the “defund the police” movement ever became popular. Both Calgary and Edmonton police have well-established partnerships with Alberta Health Services. These police and crisis teams (PACTs) provide an integrated approach to people suffering a mental health crisis. Their work is an invaluable piece of the proactive efforts police make every day to avoid threats to public safety. Successful initiatives like this are truly the answer and should be broadened and expanded.
Defunding the police isn’t the answer! Don’t do it!