What Does ‘Defund the Police’ Really Mean?

Dig into this contentious call to action

By Anna Holtby

July 27, 2020 •

“Defund the police.” The phrase is as complex as it is current. It has been printed in countless headlines and splashed across Facebook feeds in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and global anti-racism protests. City councils across the country are discussing police reform and reallocating budgets. Some municipalities plan to cut police funds, while others have voted to maintain them

Regardless of a city’s stance, making changes to such a large institution couldn’t happen overnight. According to Statistics Canada, police budgets have generally been on the rise for the last two decades and operating expenditures in Canada reached more than $15 billion in 2017-18, the most recent data available.

Almost all police services in Canada ascribe to a community policing model, which focuses on building public trust and meeting a community’s needs over forceful crime control. Those calling for defunding question the effectiveness of this approach, while 68,000 police officers across this country wonder what budget cuts might mean for them.

For a term that has become so well-known, “defund the police” doesn’t have a single definition. It covers a spectrum of ideas, from redistributing a portion of police funds toward social services to abolishing the institution altogether.

Now, many Canadians are wondering what “defunding the police” really means — and what it would look like in their neighbourhoods. We asked lawyer Avnish Nanda, ’10 BA(Hons), criminologist Holly Campeau, political scientist Malinda S. Smith, ’93 PhD, and patrol constable Bruce Phillips, ’10 BA.

(Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Please note, Phillips is a member of the Edmonton Police Service but spoke to us off-duty as a U of A grad. His views don’t necessarily reflect those of EPS.)

How would you define “defund the police?”

Nanda: When I use that language, I’m considering what is achieved through the institution of policing — which is primarily public safety and security — and whether that can be achieved through an institution that is structured on providing security through the use of force. 

Campeau: The wider conversation is far more nuanced than simply defunding the police entirely. It’s suggesting that a chunk of money that has traditionally gone to police budgets could go to social services that are equally or , in some cases, more important to the project of community well-being. These are things like education, housing, employment, child development, family services and, of course, health — both physical and mental. “Defund the police” is about reducing the need for criminal justice intervention.

Smith: When people say “defund the police,” this encompasses a spectrum of things — from people who are calling to reduce budgets and reallocate funds to social services to others who are calling for the abolition of the institution itself. And that invites us to think about the purpose of the police and whether they are serving the public good. And how they emerged into an institution that is more generative of fear and anxiety rather than safety, and where people, especially racialized and Indigenous peoples, feel terrorized by the police.

What are your concerns when it comes to reallocating funds?

Campeau: An important place to start is curbing our reliance on an arm of the criminal justice system for non-criminal matters. It’s unreasonable to expect police to respond appropriately at all times to situations for which they are not properly suited.

Phillips:  The idea that prevention is more cost effective and sustainable than cure has a lot of truth to it. But taking resources away from police is likely to have some fairly negative consequences if you do it rashly and without a lot of evidence. The very people that we are all most concerned about, the most vulnerable people in our society, are also the most likely to be the victims of crime. Reducing our ability to protect them is likely to have damaging consequences. We absolutely should be interested in creating long-term, sustainable change, but if you take away resources from police right now, those vulnerable people are going to be left high and dry.

I’m concerned with defunding to the extent that we might not be able to respond to high-priority calls as quickly, or not go to calls that we should be going to, and then people are put in harm’s way.

What is “police culture” in Canada?

Campeau: I define police culture by how police make sense of their work. What provides them meaning and purpose? Some ideas are positive, like public service mindsets, while others are more harmful, like paramilitarism. And these will often co-exist, which is problematic.

The media often associates police culture with an overzealous sense of mission, a brotherhood, or racist or conservative ideals. My sense, after interviewing close to 150 police officers, is that, sure, you can spot these traits among some officers. But you’ll also find officers who are nothing like this. You can find these same traits in corporate boardrooms — it isn’t useful to think of police culture this way. 

For example, some structures in policing are heavily militarized, which sets the tone of preparing for battle. If a person coming into this line of work interprets their role this way, rather than as a public servant, they will perceive citizens through a dehumanizing lens as “the enemy.” Then, if you add the ways through which systemic racism and bias manifest, you have a recipe for disaster. You have George Floyd’s murder. 

Phillips: Contrary to popular perception, there is an overriding desire within police to produce good outcomes and help people. This is the reason that most cops I know joined the police. I think where people perceive police culture negatively, there is a misperception of what our concerns are. There isn’t a general desire in our job to punish somebody who did something bad. It’s primarily about trying to protect the victims of crime. And that doesn’t get communicated very often, which is unfortunate.

Smith: The police have never had a uniform meaning. If you think about the emergence of the RCMP, for example, we need to think about their relationship to Indigenous peoples, residential schools and maintaining colonial order. Or if you think about the way in which policing emerged in the context of slavery, they were hunting down enslaved Black people. We haven’t given sufficient thought to the ways in which policing continues to reproduce colonialism and notions of whiteness as normative.

Now this mass mobilization is drawing attention to systemic inequities, with enough people saying, “Wait a minute, the way police interact with racialized and Indigenous people is not the same way they interact with the white community.” This has to change. 

What are your recommendations?

Nanda: I help people who have had bad interactions with the police. That’s predominantly racialized, marginalized communities — predominantly Indigenous communities. So I see folks who want to have a police force that reflects them, that cares about them and that treats them as someone worthy of protection.

I see the value of some traditional policing approaches, but I think that the institution has to be more holistic and more reflective and engaged with marginalized communities. 

Campeau: Officers will tell you they attend too many calls for which they are not the proper response — these include non-criminal civil disputes, mental health crises, animal welfare, and, oh, my personal favourite, parenting! So many officers tell me about parents who call the police to scare their kids.

So even where officers feel they can manage these matters, they often concede that other services can share the load. One officer I interviewed said: “You know, I have a gun, handcuffs, baton, pepper spray and the jail cell, but lots of calls don’t require these tools.”

Smith: Every institution in our society requires rethinking to examine the ways in which they reflect and reproduce systemic inequities. We need to rethink the militarization of the police. Armoured vehicles, tear gas, tasers — these create a more aggressive force. So you defund that approach. Some people see the police and don’t want to open their doors. They’re not trusted. If you can’t trust the police how can they ensure public safety? Police need retraining, including in communications, de-escalation and engaging with communities.

We have also criminalized social problems. Mental illness is not a crime. Addiction is not a crime. These require public investments in social, rehabilitative and restorative institutions. And that’s a social benefit — not only to the people they’re restoring but to families and communities.

Phillips: For community policing to be effective, better information sharing and more liaising with social services could be a productive step. Edmonton Police Chief Dale McFee is starting a pilot project where constables partner with social workers. There’s been a lot of success with programs like the Police and Crisis Response Team (PACT) — a partnership between EPS and Alberta Health Services to help clients with mental health needs. Since we already know programs like this work quite well, expanding on them seems like a very useful step that is unlikely to create unnecessary risk for anyone.

If you could coin the call to action, would it be “defund the police?”

Campeau: I can see the problems with “defund the police” because of the perception that the movement is wholly guided by abolitionists. And for some, that is the very idea, but for others, it is nuanced. But if part of the goal was to get people’s attention, perhaps it’s the right phrase. 

Smith: I would say “defund and reinvest.” Because it’s a twofold process, going from defunding the militarized institutions that generate fear and lead to the senseless killing of people for minor things to a reinvestment in communities, social services and a focus on justice.

What does successful policing look like to you?

Phillips: It looks like cops investigating crimes objectively and having positive interactions with the community, including with the people they arrest, as much as possible. Police emphasizing de-escalation with words, as opposed to the use of force. This happens in the vast majority of the calls for service we go to.

At the end of the day, if we lived in a society that did not require police because there was no violence, that would be a very good thing. Everybody, including police, would want that. 

Campeau: I interview arrestees in jail within 24 hours of their arrest. The biggest thing is that people are looking for dignity. People are looking for dignity in that interaction, and they’re looking for recognition that they are part of the community — that policing is a service that they, too, can benefit from. 

Police are also looking for dignity as they do their work. Police have things thrown at them. They’re called all kinds of names. But many officers are in this to help. They truly are in this line of work to make a difference. Everybody is looking to be part of a community.

What would a system that addresses current concerns look like?

Nanda:A society where public safety and security are maintained — where people, regardless of background, experience or identity, can live freely without fear of being subject to some criminal activity but also without fear of being subject to some sort of police misconduct. 

Smith: We need more creativity in thinking about how to reimagine these institutions and where we should be divesting and reinvesting. My hope is that this movement animates more reflection and more reimagining institutions that are for the public good.

  • Avnish Nanda, ’10 BA(Hons), is a sessional instructor in the university’s Faculty of Law and an Edmonton lawyer who takes on cases for people who have negative interactions with the police.
  • Bruce Phillips, ’10 BA, joined the Edmonton Police Service in 2014 and is a patrol constable in the downtown division.
  • Dr. Holly Campeau is an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at the U of A and a research expert in police culture.
  • Malinda S. Smith,’93 PhD, works in the Department of Political Science, is a provost fellow in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusions (EDI) policy and helped the develop the U of A’s strategic plan for EDI.

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