Abolition? Defund? Reform? Diverging policy pathways in police governance

Christoph IvancicBy Christoph Ivancic

The police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have set off a flurry of social mobilization calling for the re-evaluation of policing and its value to society at large. The BCCLA was active in police reform measures last year, creating a 69-page submission to the Special Committee on reforming the Police Act. To its credit, the Federal government has not been deaf to calls for reform either. The Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security released a report earlier this summer that made recommendations to combat systemic racism in policing in Canada. While the report makes some recommendations that align with the BCCLA’s position on police reform, it’s clear that the committee has missed the mark on key issues.

Starting with the good news, the report makes a number of seemingly progressive recommendations such as the decriminalization of simple possession of all drugs, increased engagement with indigenous communities, the possibility of ending contract policing with the RCMP, the tightening of use-of-force guidelines, transitioning the RCMP away from a paramilitary force into a police service model, and more robust, transparent, and diverse civilian oversite. While it is promising that these solutions are finally gaining traction in government circles, it remains disappointing that the government has taken this long to pay heed to solutions that have been put forward by BIPOC activists for years. Perhaps social change is just more palatable to the Senate with Peter McKay leading the charge.

Despite the positives, there remain problematic implications to the report’s recommendations. For instance, the report emphasizes indigenous participation and co-optation into the policing system but does little to re-affirm indigenous sovereignty aside from calling for the development of “an Indigenous Police Services Framework designed to promote self-determination and self-governance” (Recommendation 13). The commission decided not to include a recommendation that indigenous communities must give “free, prior, and informed consent” to be subjected to the jurisdiction of colonial police forces, something that the BCCLA advocated for in their submissions on police reform. The report also goes so far as to recommend a specific model of policing in Indigenous communities, the Kwanlin Dün First Nation model, which incentivizes cooperation with the RCMP in exchange for more community control and creates indigenous intermediaries to go between the RCMP and community members. There is an internal contradiction in calling for “self-determination and self-governance” while incentivizing a specific model of policing for indigenous communities which reaffirms the position of the RCMP, a contradiction that is heightened by the attestation of land defenders that the RCMP are illegal on their lands.

The report turns a blind eye to calls to defund the police and devote resources to upstream methods of crime control and prevention. Instead, there are recommendations that, if implemented, would result in significant increases to police budgets. These recommendations include training to prevent excessive use of force and systemic racial profiling (Recommendation 5), the creation of a national police college (Recommendation 9), the addition of de-escalation, implicit bias, gender-based violence, cultural awareness, and the history of slavery and colonization to RCMP training (Recommendation 35). First, lets address use of force. The idea that training is the appropriate tool to remedy excessive use of force is no longer viable. Human beings do not need to be trained in how to not kill people, conflating this issue as complex implies that police use of force is a black box that civilians can’t understand. In reality, it is democratic civilian leadership that legitimates police authority. This also points to one of the issues which both the report and the BCCLA highlight; police oversight is not civilianized, it is filled with ex-police officers, ex-crown prosecutors, and others with interests related to policing.  The report does make a recommendation to reign in police use of force through a zero-tolerance policy for excessive use of force. However, it is unclear why this zero-tolerance policy would be immune to current issues within police oversight, including problems of civilianization and independence, enforcement, transparency, and victim involvement. Turning to the issue of training more broadly, the recommendation to create a national police college includes mandatory crisis resolution and psychology courses. This also misses the point of the mass social mobilization which occurred over the past year. Police do not need psychology courses so that they can better respond to wellness checks. Police need to stop doing wellness checks and we need to find more appropriate methods of dealing with conflict and harm in our society, something that the BCCLA called for in their submissions to reform the Police Act (BCCLA Recommendation 2.2 and 2.7). Any recommendation which increases funding for police reinforces and affirms carceral logics which must be challenged to achieve any kind of meaningful transformation.

Interestingly, the report makes no recommendations on issues of homelessness. With mass evictions garnering media attention in Toronto, a number of deaths following the erection of fences in downtown Montreal, and a wave of park bans in Vancouver, it’s curious that the committee failed to see the connection between systemic racism and the criminalization of homelessness. It bears repeating that the socio-economic impacts of colonization put the indigenous population at a higher risk of homelessness and police are the ones charged with performing the ticketing, arresting, and removal.

The committee’s report falls short of “rethinking safety and achieving a full transformation, especially one that upholds Indigenous jurisdiction and justice systems”, which is exactly what the BCCLA has been advocating for. The BCCLA will be using its expertise on police reform in the coming years as it challenges anti-poverty policy across the country and participates in the Mass Casualty Commission, along with friends at the East Coast Prison Justice Society, in Nova Scotia.

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