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Last Wednesday, a local business association sent a letter to Vancouver Councillor Jean Swanson. They implored the city council to issue more police to handle spikes in homelessness.
“They were pleading for more police. For more cleanup of their park. For cops to patrol the park and to get people out of them. For cops to patrol the street so people wouldn’t sleep in doorways,” the Councillor detailed in conversation.
Councillor Swanson is worried about a recent court injunction that will dismantle a tent city set up by a hundred homeless people in an unused parking lot. She has enough experience to know that once the injunction is enforced, people will be forced into alleys, storefronts, and sidewalks. In response, there will be more calls for police.
The situation is all too typical in a city that has seen substantial growth in homelessness. Between 2005 and 2019, a modest count of the sheltered and unsheltered found an addition of 1000 people to the streets. Meanwhile, in the past ten years, $100 million has been added to support the Vancouver police. Now 2020, the police make up over one-fifth of the city’s operating budget.
According to Swanson, rather than pushing for police, there are simple ways to fund homelessness and poverty reduction strategies. The first step for the city would be to overcome its housing crisis.
Affordable rental housing is scarce in Vancouver. The units that do exist are often priced at an infeasible rate—even for the working population, about one tenth of whom live below the poverty line. It is made more difficult for the homeless who can’t get housing subsidies until they begin renting.
“I campaigned on the idea of a mansion tax on housing worth over five million,” Swanson told The Post Millennial. “If you had a one percent mansion tax on housing that was over five million, and two percent on housing that was over ten million you could get about 200 million a year which would be enough to end homelessness with modular housing in two or three years.”
However, the COVID-19 epidemic threw the city into a deficit that demanded cuts to social services. “Everybody else was taking hits” so just before George Floyd was killed, the Vancouver city council supported a one percent cut to the police.
The Vancouver Police Board rejected the cut that had been approved by the city council. One author observes that “the board was scandalized by the very idea.”
“Defunding” the police
Since the police board’s decision to reject the funding cut, the Councillor has received over a thousand letters calling for the “defunding” of the police.
“These are some things we can work on,” says Swanson, listing what a defunding offensive would entail. “Ending poverty, getting housing for everybody, and getting trained workers in de-escalation and crisis issues to respond to police calls that the police aren’t really trained to respond to.”
As Swanson suggests, many Canadian activists see the police as confronting issues better handled through greater investment in the community. Areas like the Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, home to a heavy number of people in poverty, are dealt heavy policing. Their population is ticketed at high rates for petty infractions like panhandling, jaywalking, and street vending.
For the addicted, the threat of police has been shown to “elicit fear” that promotes “risk behaviours… such as the sharing of used syringes.” Meanwhile, users limit their “access to healthcare” out of a similar concern for police intervention.
On the other hand, one Vancouver study carried out a catalog of the risks of overdosing. It found 3,030 lives had been saved between 2016 and 2017 by three well-funded policies. These programs included the growth of safe injection sites, therapy treatment, and the widespread distribution of nasal spray that effectively reverses overdoses.
“We have mental health and addiction issues,” says Ruth Goba, the director of Toronto’s Black Legal Action Center. “Rather than making budgets around harm reduction centres that care for people with addiction, we bring in the police.”
For Goba, whose center offers legal services to low income black Ontarians and pushes legal reforms, calls to defund the police are expressions of concern over the breadth of their mandate. The police are simply relied upon to do too much that unarmed social workers used to do in their stead.
In line with Goba’s thinking, one of the few studies of Canadian police budgets observes, “police are being required to fill gaps in service… when governments cut the numbers of social workers [and] mental health workers… there is a direct impact on the demands placed on the police resources.” The authors add that police services are forced to use, despite being ill-equipped for the job, “an increasing portion of their time responding to high risk and vulnerable populations, including the mentally ill.”
What seems to particularly worry Goba is the presence that police have developed in Toronto’s schools. With the preference of police intervention over counselors, children can be set on paths towards expulsion and early criminalization. These early experiences are one of the several factors Goba attributes to the increasing gun violence in the city’s neighborhoods.
The roots of violence
Yet, as far as the police department is concerned, increased funding will allow them to address Toronto’s significant increase in homicide, shootings, and other major crimes. An upwards trend has been observable ever since violent crime spiked in 2015. The department now has a budget of over $1.2 billion for 2020 (up twenty percent from 2018’s $996 million budget). Some of this money has been put into equipping the front-lines with semi-automatic assault rifles carried by the Canadian Armed Forces.
“Get at the roots of why there is gun violence rather than putting a bandaid on it, get at the wound itself,” Goba asserts. “Think of the ‘Roots of Violence’ report. The authors talked about education, they talked about investing in communities.”
The report mentioned by Goba was the result of widespread consultation with hundreds of people and a detailed review of the available literature. Although supportive of certain police tactics to address crime, the authors were concerned by “the way policing is carried out on the streets” particularly by how it “undercut[s] major investments in other areas” that lead to a more “productive future” for youth.
The lengthy study suggested increasing funding for affordable housing, recreational and arts facilities, parks, and schools to ensure young people avoid violent and criminal lifestyles.
The report spoke to a situation of poverty many Torontonians are increasingly experiencing. Over the past five years, the number of homeless people has grown roughly 70 percent. Meanwhile, one in ten Torontonians linger on the wait-list for social housing.
Other than diverting funds from social services, through racial bias the police can directly harm black Canadians Goba says.
“A perfect example of this is the Neptune four. They were on their way to an after school tutoring program. They were stopped by police and questioned as to where they were going. They exercised their rights and ended up being assaulted.”
Although police data dis-aggregated by race is hard to come by, a study released by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (where Goba was once Chief Commissioner) notes that black men are nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be fatally shot by the Toronto police.
When whites are killed, they are much more likely to have a gun, priors, and to have threatened police than their black counterparts—suggesting police use higher standards before choosing to shoot white people.
Nakuset, the director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, says she’s seen discriminatory behavior from the island’s police throughout her twenty year career, and little change at that.
As an example, Nakuset detailed an incident that occurred in late May. Maina, a frequent resident in Nakuset’s shelter, was experiencing a crisis, contemplating suicide. She was being assisted by an intervention worker of another homeless shelter. After calming her down, the worker called 9-1-1 to get an ambulance for the Cree woman—17 police officers arrived with a K-9 unit, instead.
The police had previously been criticized for picking up Maina, who speaks little English or French, and placing her in a detention cell for hours to then release her into the city in the dead of night without an escort. She ended up going missing for a week.
“We don’t feel safe,” says Nakuset. “Not only do I hear it from the residents but I hear it from the staff that get profiled.”
The homeless, who are disproportionately indigenous in Montreal, are generally subject to a high rate of police encounters in the city. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a homeless woman who was ticketed $320 for not holding on to an escalator handrail and refusing to provide ID afterwards. In September of that year, a municipal judge dismissed 300 charges against “vulnerable” people that violated their Charter rights.
Fo Niemi, the co-founder of one of the islands’ influential civil rights organizations, says that almost every week he is referred cases of discrimination, with young black men coming to his organization for help.
“We represent a lot of people that have problems with police in terms of discrimination based on race,” Niemi told The Post Millennial. “Especially when it comes to young black men, often as drivers who are stopped and checked. We have some black people who are in their late sixties and seventies who get locked up by police at a simple traffic stop.”
Niemi says that accountability mechanisms for discrimination entail a lengthy process that police and cities drag on to exhaust the complainant. After hearing that the courts can take four to five years to deliver a decision most young people tell Niemi “don’t bother.”
Similarly, Nakuset has experienced frustrating difficulty in having Montreal police take sensitivity training seriously. She had assisted a 2016 network of urban aboriginal community workers in preparing a detailed manual, speakers, and an exercise.
“We tried to do a blanket exercise with about a hundred police officers. And they were being like children,” said Nakuset, describing how officers had been laughing and making jokes throughout the presentation. “After that training they cancelled it.”
Both Nakuset and Niemi agreed that some of the city’s police budgets should be reallocated to other social services that target socioeconomic factors behind crime, and to otherwise provide for outreach workers in police agencies.
The Montreal police have a 2020 budget of $1 billion, an over fifty million increase from its 2015 numbers. On the other hand, community services like the city’s shelter system have had their resources strained in the past few years. This situation forced the Cabot Square crisis in one of Montreal’s parks that lingered through 2019. A dozen of the city's poor that frequented the park were reported as having died prematurely after a nearby homeless shelter relocated.
Police were ultimately encouraged to up their presence in the area around the park as fights and public drinking ensued.
While city Councillors in Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal have suggested an openness to defunding the police, some members of these communities have long been advocating for a different approach to intelligent budgeting of police and social services; one with less dependence on the initiative of city council.
This approach has most recently been exemplified in the Washington city of Seattle.
There, protesters were able to construct an autonomous zone over a six block stretch after the local police abandoned their precinct. The zone has since set up daily people’s assemblies or town hall meetings, well-attended gatherings of locals looking to participate in running the area's affairs. Anyone in attendance is offered the chance to speak, an opportunity often taken up by working groups, organized on a volunteer basis to coordinate specific community needs and to report back to the assembly.
In such a fashion, worker-run food stands have been set up that offer free food and books. Medical aid and gardens are also supported, as is a citizen’s watch (in place of Seattle police) by trained community members.
Dimitri Roussopoulos, a Montreal organizer from the local Milton Park Citizens Committee, has long advocated for a similar form of direct democracy which he believes would open an outlet for community concerns over policing and funding of other key services. For a two year window in the 2000s, his organization was, in fact, successful.
In those years, Montreal had been influenced by the southern Brazilian city of Puerto Alegre, where municipalities would have their citizens gather, discuss, question, propose and ultimately vote on items in the budget.
In 2003 the mayor of the Plateau, a borough of Montreal—100,000 people dense—expressed interest in a trip to Brazil to observe this form of local democracy that has now spread over 2,000 cities and towns. Upon her return to Canada, she erected a similar system within the Plateau that attracted much of its community. However, with the election of a new party two years afterwards, these public forums were shut down—deemed too expensive.
Yet, the city of Montreal has recently appointed a committee of organizers to lay the groundwork for the re-emergence of these participatory budgets.
“Only with this kind of opening does the question of the size and purpose of the police budget get onto the agenda,” said Dimitri.
Policing budgets are notoriously oblique in Canada and inaccessible for the public. A 2015 study of the matter concluded that a lack of “qualitative and quantitative data” prohibits “debate over the economics and sustainability of policing.” According to Dimitri, this trend is supported by a city process of overlooking police spending that, for all practical concerns, avoids public scrutiny.