Comment: Defunding is wrong approach: we need to re-think policing

A commentary by a former deputy minister in 10 ministries under five premiers, who also ran his own small business for 20 years.

No one can be complacent about law enforcement after media coverage of police violence and killings. I am deeply conflicted, understanding the anger those historically discriminated members of society feel, but also supporting the police in my community and their exceptional work.

But the idea of defunding police is about the dumbest idea I have heard in my years associated with public policy.

Because the policy fix is not defunding police, it is re-thinking policing in the context of on-the-street realities.

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The seeds of our current situation were sown in the 1980s when Riverview began to close, and the decades following witnessed various schemes fail without adequate funding or coordinated support. Economic downturns and an out-of-control opioids epidemic left us in chaotic crisis. The broad community support services promised at the beginning and during this sad journey never appeared.

People are living on the streets today for many reasons, temporarily, drug dependent, and with mental health issues that range from manageable to severe.

Blend into this mosaic unique societal challenges linked with discriminatory action towards Indigenous, Black, People of Colour and the LGBTTQ+2 community.

A vacuum existed and local governments turned to their police. And bear in mind many of these issues are not restricted to the street, but affect all parts of society.

Into all of this the police became the default social service agency, picking up the pieces where services didn’t exist, weren’t available or only their ability to respond quickly could provide a response. This increased challenging work led to increased budget requests. But the incremental increases received left the police grossly unprepared. They were trained as crime fighters, we asked them to double up as social workers.

Two issues. First, we have not dealt strategically in community. Second, police training in crime prevention, investigation and resolution can become inappropriate when force is introduced in these social environments. The police/community relationships break down.

We call in the police for violent crime, burglary, mental illness, drugs, trespassing, loud music, barking dogs, urination, left-over needles, domestic violence, a bar fight, camping on streets, murder, management of homeless camps, threats to care homes, and on.

What is amazing is how much police work does not concern itself with crime.

The defunding argument misses this seminal point with a simplistic mantra fix for a complex societal problem. The crying need is for more support services to deal with mental health and addictions matched with enhanced police resources to drive cultural change.

Creative staff working in the field, always with limited resources, developed creative solutions. The Vancouver Police Department and B.C.’s Ministry for Children and Families have for many decades had a police officer teamed with a social worker. This team intervenes in domestic violence and family upheaval, working together in a collaboration that draws on the skills, authorities and functions of each agency. This model has been copied in other Lower Mainland municipalities.

The pandemic forced action and the government provided homeless people with rooms in hotels, wisely accompanied with hurry-up-effort to provide additional social services. Kudos to government — this is the direction for a province-wide model.

But, the answer is not defunding police budgets.

First, there is not enough money that can be removed from policing to come anywhere near what is required.

Second, there is not a large group of people sitting at home today waiting to be called to perform this new model work. They will not magically appear to manage mental illness combined with anti-social behaviour. Nor are schools preparing graduates in social work equipped with the mediation skills essential for this role, along with sensitive integration judgement with an up-trained police.

Third, there is no strategic plan or implementation blue print. Often new social service approaches flounder because implementation of new policies is not “put out an idea and they will follow.” Instead implementation requires resources, policies, staffing, training, inter-agency development and attention to thousands of other details.

In the 1990s the government adopted the Gove Inquiry recommendations and created the Children’s Ministry. Mistakes were made, valuable lessons learned.

Today, government should retain an eminent authority to draw up a strategic plan/blueprint for presentation to this fall’s legislative session. Long-term success will require bipartisan support.

The implementation could be done with a mixed task force given broad authority and a strong leader. Within a year, a working model in place; within three years. a fully functioning provincewide scheme.

The police would be willing partners as they (and the public) do not want front-line solutions to social problems to involve guns and handcuffs.

We need to build a civil society based on respect for all parts of the community, and as an essential underpinning is the support for those we entrust with our safety in an unsafe world.

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