Robin Browne: Defund the police

Defund the police (but give the Chief a raise)

Robin Browne

by Robin Browne

As I marched through the streets of Ottawa with hundreds of others on June 20, I said to a Black activist friend that, if someone had told me two years ago that 2020 would see thousands of white people marching in the streets of the world’s cities yelling Black Lives Matter!, I would have said they were on crack (the person telling me the story and the 1000s of white people they imagined). Yet, here we are…

Two weeks earlier, I had marched with thousands of others in Ottawa and marvelled at white people holding signs saying, WHITE SILENCE IS VIOLENCE and DEFUND THE POLICE.

This was surprising on many levels, the first being – who the hell had ever heard the word “defund” before? Second was the fact that white people were calling for the defunding of an institution with which they have a fundamentally – and historically – different relationship than Black people.

In the U.S., the original idea of policing came from the south when slave patrols were hired to recapture escaped slaves. Then, when slavery was abolished, police enforced Jim Crow laws for even the most minor infractions. Canadian policing has a similar history. The Mounties were created for a specific purpose: to assert sovereignty over Indigenous people and their lands. Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald got the idea for the Mounties from the Royal Irish Constabulary, a paramilitary police force the British created to keep the Irish under control. MacDonald envisioned his own Royal Irish Constabulary — except instead of the Irish, they would control the Indigenous people already living on the land.

Racist policing has led to racialized people, especially Black and Indigenous people, having a very different relationship with police than everyone else. Comedian Andrew Shultz sums it up succinctly in his YouTube video, “Black people. I’m going to say something that’s going to be incredibly surprising to you and incredibly obvious to white people: I love cops!” He explains that white people love cops so much they named a band The Police and spend hours happily watching the show Cops (at least they did until the Paramount Network recently cancelled it amid protests over police brutality).

So, white folks screaming to take money away from something they love isn’t something we’re used to seeing everyday…in fact, ever.

But what does defunding the police mean?

For some folks, like Nova Scotian prison and police abolitionist activist, El Jones, it means getting rid of the police completely. In her Washington Post article, Black Canadians are suffocating under a racist policing system, too, Jones argues for defunding the police because they don’t increase safety for anyone, “It is past time to stop believing in the fantasy that arming the police, increasing their surveillance powers and allowing them to commit violence with impunity upon black people keeps the public safe.”

For me, right now, defunding means immediately replacing armed police with people able to provide a non-lethal, compassionate response to people experiencing mental health crises. I speak from personal experience…

My older brother is schizophrenic and lives in Toronto and has workers from the Canadian Mental Health Association that check on him almost every day. He used to have occasional runs-ins with the Toronto Police but I can’t remember the last time that’s happened since the CMHA workers have been helping him. I am sure that they are a key part of the reason my brother is alive today. Why not shift police funding to the CMHA to provide more workers to help people from getting into crisis in the first place (which would, no doubt, be cheaper)? (But if they do end up in crisis, send people like the CMHA folks, not the cops.)

In addition to being for defunding certain police activities, I’m also against increasingfunding to buy something that many of those calling for defunding are calling for: police body cameras.

One thing that has gotten very little coverage since George Floyd was killed is the fact the media is making money – and lots of it – off the images of Floyd’s death and the protests and riots that followed. These images and videos attract lots of eyeballs and lots of online interaction and allow mainstream and social media companies to charge more for ads. Body cameras would simply provide more lucrative footage of Black people dying – but wouldn’t stop us from getting killed. This is especially true since the police have to turn the cameras on before going to a call and can turn them off if something’s happening that they don’t want people to see.

Another issue is officer pay. A friend who lives in Toronto says they pay their officers very well and therefore attract officers with higher education. He argues that this leads to more outcomes like the one seen in the viral video of Toronto Police officer, Ken Lam, confronting, but not shooting, the white guy who had just mowed down several people with his van. My friend argues that, “People with masters degrees don’t shoot people.”, and that higher salaries attract people with higher education. If that’s the case, then why did a 2018 Guardian article report the results of a study showing that Black Toronto residents were 20 times more likely to be shot by police? Is it only those cops with undergrad or college degrees doing all the shooting? I haven’t seen anything to back that up.

One police officer who should get a raise, though, is Ottawa’s new police chief, Peter Sloly.

Sloly was sworn in as the Chief of the Ottawa Police Service on October 28, 2019 following an intense campaign by local activists to get him to come to Ottawa from Toronto. Since he arrived, he has reinstated the disbanded hate crimes unit and created a new Respect, Values and Integrity Directorate, led by former Inspector Isobel Granger, who Sloly promoted to superintendent to lead it. He also took swift, decisive action on the racist meme circulated around the Ottawa Police, leading to an officer being charged.

He continued setting himself apart from his predecessors by what he did during the June 20 march. Hundreds of us marched from the police station to City Hall to protest police violence, proclaim that all Black lives matter and remember Abdirahman Abdi who died after being pursued and beaten by Ottawa police in August 2016. Like the June 5 march, it was remarkable by the complete absence of police. I didn’t see a single officer from the time we started marching until the end of the demo – with one exception. When the march reached City Hall, and the temperature reached near forty degrees Celsius, one of main organizers took to the stage, passionately talked about Abdi and stated the group’s demands. Standing in front of him, was one lone police officer in full uniform, standing with his hands crossed…just listening. It was Chief Peter Sloly.

Sloly is a smart guy. You don’t become a partner and Security & Justice lead at Deloitte if you’re not. Before he did that, Sloly was on the Toronto Police force for 27 years, rising to Deputy Chief.  He has a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Masters of Business Administration.

He also clearly understands the power of symbolism and the need to back it with real action.

Give that guy a raise.

Robin Browne is an African-Canadian communications professional and father of two boys. He lives in Ottawa.

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