Do we really need as much policing as we have? Or are the ever-growing police budgets actually inadvertently leading to greater violence?
A lot of us have believed that police exist to serve and protect. And yet a sickening string of videos showing the abuse and/or killings of blacks, Indigenous people, mentally ill, and other vulnerable populations in both Canada and the U.S. have cast a cloud of doubt over whether the reality lives up to the ideal.
The idea of severely stripping down police forces comes in sharp contrast to the largely discredited tough-on-crime rhetoric promoted by Donald Trump and parroted by his proteges.
In fact, truncheon logic is starting to feel as out of step with the times as reruns of Cops.
Even Trump seems to recognize the public is demanding action. Last week, the U.S. president signed an executive order that would encourage better police practices. Among its provisions, it would establish a database that tracks police officers with excessive use of force complaints in their records. It would also instruct the Justice Department to push local police departments to be certified by a “reputable independent credentialing body” with use-of-force policies that prohibit the use of choke holds, except when the use of deadly force is allowed by law.
As I thought about what needs to be done, I reached out to my old high school buddy, Graham Reddoch. Now retired from his role as executive director of the John Howard Society in Winnipeg, he did a great deal of work in the 1990s on restorative justice initiatives, with a focus on what he calls “problem-solving policing.”
He believes that policing has developed into a “militaristic, adversarial industry” – one that needs to be dismantled if we ever hope to move beyond the endless spiral of violence now making the headlines.
Yet he says there are forces that are intent on defending the status quo, including “powerful police unions, who are only willing to abide tinkering around the edges” – banning choke holds, improving race relations training, and reporting and prosecuting police conduct. Those measures are dealing with the symptoms rather than the underlying problems.
“If police continue to close ranks around wrongdoers, as in the case of the 75-year-old man knocked down and hospitalized, we have a long way to go if we only tinker.”
Tinkering with the current system is a bit like rearranging the decks chairs on the Titanic; our regard for, and trust in, police is still sinking. We need to rethink the whole concept and structure of our police departments. We need to scrap this broken model and redesign policing from the ground up with a renewed eye on why such entities were created in the first place.
A look back on Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Good Policing, penned in London way back in 1829, reveals how far we’ve drifted from the founding notion that a police department is here to eliminate “crime and disorder” – not to catch and punish criminals.
For one thing, we need to narrow the scope of a police officer’s job. By some estimates, as much as one-third of a typical street cop’s job could be classified as social work, even though officers have little training in that area. That’s one reason why too often a call on a domestic dispute – where emotions are already running high – escalates into a physical arrest or other violent action.
Clearly, we shouldn’t be sending cops out on calls like those.
Reddoch would like society to go even further – getting proactive on addressing the underlying issues that lead to criminal activity. He points to the Perry Preschool Project, which began in Ypsilanti, Mich. From 1962 to 1967, 123 preschool children with risk factors of failing in school were randomly divided into two groups. One group entered a high-quality preschool program and a comparison group received no preschool education. The fate of these individuals has been monitored over the years.
The study found that at age 40, those who experienced the preschool program had fewer teenage pregnancies; were more likely to have graduated from high school; were more likely to hold a job and have higher earnings; committed fewer crimes; and owned their own home and car.
In Canada, as people with mental health issues were deinstitutionalized, more and more of them ended up in a different kind of institution: prison. As Reddoch notes, pretty much every prison in Canada now has a substantial population of people with mental health issues.
Dealing with the social factors that can lead to criminal activity early on can reduce the rate of crime down the road. But these programs are also expensive. Where do we get the money?
Clearly, this is where the concept of ‘defunding’ police departments comes in. Defunding is a bit of a misnomer, because most of these proposals don’t mean taking away all funding. Rather, they refer to reducing funding to police and reallocating those dollars to more proactive ways to reduce crime.
When you view it through that lens, if the ultimate goal is to create safer communities, then the shifting of funding is practically a no-brainer. Yet advocates for the status quo resist these changes with all their might.
I’m not inside the police fraternity and I don’t know exactly what it’s like. Articles that I’ve read present a wide variety of portrayals: from a well-meaning culture in which ‘bad cops’ are rare, to more damning portrayals of widespread macho, racist and sexist behaviour.
What I do know is too many people are dying for no justifiable reason at all, and too often those victims are from disadvantaged cultures. This is an intolerable disgrace in a society that smugly considers itself the most advanced in history.
The time to reconsider our whole approach to policing is upon is. And in doing so, we should keep in mind Peel’s ninth and most powerful principle: “To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.”
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.