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COMMENTARY: Defunding the police? In Canada, it’s a fantasy argument

What is the ‘defund the police movement’
WATCH: (June 5, 2020) Emerging from the anti-racism protests is a growing political movement to reduce funding to police forces, including the VPD. Rumina Daya reports.

As activists step up their campaign to defund the police in Canada, they might be surprised to learn a lot of cops out there actually agree with some of their demands.

The death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old U.S. Black man, in the custody of Minneapolis officers on May 25 has triggered calls for police reform around the world.

In Canada, the movement has highlighted many of our own recent cases of alleged police brutality and racism.

READ MORE: Regis Korchinski-Paquet’s death reinforces need for major mental health, policing reforms: advocates

Supporters of police reform say cops are too often dispatched to deal with cases better handled by social workers, like “wellness checks” on people who are mentally ill or “street checks” of people who are homeless or addicted to drugs.

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“We would like to see those areas be funded and resourced by people who are better placed to deal with those crises,” said Latoya Farrell of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

“There are people working on the front lines — mental-health professionals or doctors — better placed to deal with these kinds of issues,” he told me.

You won’t get an argument from Tom Stamatakis, leader of the major organization representing Canadian police officers.

“If there’s some way of building capacity in some other public service or social service to take away some of that demand on the police, I don’t think there’s any police officers that would be opposed to that,” said Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Associations.

Police departments and their supporters have been arguing for years that fraying social services across the country are turning cops into front-line social workers on top of their police duties.

“There’s been massive downloading,” said Curt Griffiths, professor of Police Studies at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University.

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“If you don’t have mental-health workers and you don’t have social workers and you don’t pay them a decent wage so they stick around, then you don’t have all the infrastructure of support and services you need,” he said.

“It’s all been downloaded into the police.”

READ MORE: Alberta RCMP dashcam video shows violent arrest of First Nation chief, moments leading up to it

So does the campaign to defund the police have a point? Would it better to create new ranks of first responders to deal with cases around mental illness, homelessness and drug addiction?

Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer said he shares many of the concerns raised by activists.

“The police have been asking for years for more supports for mental health, housing and addiction,” he said.

“We’re very in tune to these issues and I have reports that we’ve done ourselves that have asked for those things from over the past 10 years.”

But Vancouver’s top cop is quick to add a major reality check to the argument.

The fact is many emergency calls related to social issues carry threats of danger, he said.

“Many of these calls we go to involve people in severe crisis, sometimes having psychotic episodes, sometimes armed with weapons that are a danger to themselves or others,” he said.

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“We have people jumping off bridges or wading into water to drown themselves. We had one recently where a fellow suffering a serious mental-health episode set his apartment on fire. He was armed with knives and he wasn’t going to let anybody in and put out the fire.”

READ MORE: ‘Defunding’ police and funding mental health resources will save lives, experts say

So who’s going to deal with a situation like that? A social worker?

The chief doesn’t think so.

“There’s nobody that can deal with that except the police in concert with the fire department,” he said.

“You’re not going to have a psych nurse or a social worker with a clipboard just go in on their own and deal with many of these types of dangerous calls.”

Not that there aren’t a lot of less-dangerous calls the police could easily do without, he said.

“With some of the lower-level ones, for sure. We need more supports that other people can take on.”

The bottom line: Maybe you can defund the police for a lot of routine calls. But for dangerous situations, you will always need the cops. Pretending otherwise is a fantasy.

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Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.