After the police murder of George Floyd the slogan “defund the police” was catapulted into the mainstream. The concept of defunding police has been around for a long time but hasn’t really been at the forefront of society’s collective consciousness, in part because we’ve traditionally ignored and dismissed the complaints and warnings of people who aren’t white men. Now that it’s a popular idea, governments across the country are starting to consider defunding the police and what that might look like. In Halifax, the Board of Police Commissioners has struck a committee to look into defunding. That may not seem like much, but it’s how things get done in a democratic bureaucracy.
A brief history
There is a very long list of how and why the police have let people down, which basically begins at the start of policing. Take for example the city of Toronto. When the police in Toronto were first founded in the 1800s most of its officers were Protestant. Most of the people arrested were Catholic. Toronto didn’t have its first Catholic police chief until 1989. In 2016, the year in which Toronto stopped the racist practice of carding, 75 per cent of its police force was white. Toronto Police appointed its first Black police chief in 2020.
The history of police abusing their power is as long and storied as the history of the police. We know, thanks to the private diaries of liquor inspectors in the 1920s, that during the prohibition years police in New Glasgow allowed people to break the law and be in possession of alcohol so they could nail them with large fines. In modern times policing hasn’t gotten much better. Before legalization, Black Haligonians were five times more likely to be arrested for pot, despite the fact Black people are less than four per cent of the city’s population. Even though pot use is largely the same for Black and white people, police were enforcing it more against Black people. Might this discrepancy have something to do with police officers in Halifax stopping people because they were Black?
The police in Halifax became a full-time police force in 1864, with annual reporting to council at least as early as 1872. That relationship has been formalized and legislated over time and is now governed by the Police Act.
Why the police won’t be defunded
The first, and really only roadblock for defunding the police, comes from the Police Act. The act stipulates that the police chief is the one who writes the budget and the Board of Police Commissioners can only provide high level direction to the chief. In theory, and in practice this is a great idea. Kind of.
The police, by design, have real power to do two absolutely unthinkable things on behalf of the government: confinement and violence.
Unlike anyone else in this country the police are legally allowed to take away someone’s freedom, and should the situation call for it, hurt or kill citizens on behalf of the state. Last year, for example, there was one time where violence was required, but there was also one time where police just went in “guns blazing.” (SIRT recently concluded the officer was justified in killing Richard Wheeler on his side deck because RCMP claims he “raised his gun” at them, though a neighbour interviewed on the day of the incident told the press he just took an airsoft pistol out of his “waist area” and was immediately shot.) Another time in 2020 they responded to a mental health call and killed someone on accident. And in 2018 police tasered a teenager to death even though her mom had called for paramedics instead.
But, this separation of power comes at a cost, and it’s why the police won’t let themselves be defunded.
Right now, every city councillor currently has the priority of making our streets safer because drivers are speeding and hitting pedestrians. HRP currently has a dedicated traffic division of 10 officers who work primarily Monday to Friday, 9-5. We also know that HRP are spending $260,300/yr legally (but very greasily) convincing people to give up their Charter rights. Councillors can’t just order the police to put the two officers from its polygraph team on traffic enforcement, for all the same reasons they can’t order the police to reassign all the fraud officers right before accepting a briefcase full of cash.
The police use this power dynamic to absolutely shamelessly bully our politicians into increasing their budget. Chief Kinsella has said repeatedly at budget meetings that the police simply can’t afford to do the $60,000/yr training mandated by the Wortley report without extra funding. Not having an additional dedicated court disposition clerk, $85,800/yr, is actively putting people or the city at risk (we can’t know for sure how because the vulnerabilities mentioned by Kinsella were discussed in-camera) but they say they can’t fix that without new additional funding either.
In order to make sure they get this money they can effectively hold street safety hostage, and it’s not a secret that they do. Deputy Mayor Outhit and Councillor Mancini have warned their council colleagues that if they cut police funding the first thing the police will cut will be traffic safety.
In other words, if the police don’t get the budget they ask for, they’ll cut funding to one of council’s two top priorities. Just sit with that for a second and reflect, because it’s bleak.
Police can, and seem to, subvert our democratic will to consolidate their power in this city.
Luckily, perhaps there’s hope to be found at 5161 George Street, Suite 400.
Audit the police?
The problem with our current policing setup is that both the police and politicians need checks on their power when interacting with each other. The scales have shifted over time, to the point where police now hold a lot of that power. The only thing that was capable of finding out the police were lying to their oversight body was not the oversight body, but Halifax’s auditor general.
The whole situation is far too ‘Political.’ In this context political does not mean some false equivalency about the #BlackLivesMatter vs racism discourse. It means our politicians require real checks on their power but are now being held (legislatively) hostage by the police using those checks. And for their part, the police have demonstrated that they are unwilling or unable to fix their issues without boatloads of more money. This was a problem before COVID and is even more pressing now as governments need money for economic recovery. And there’s the fact the city just has so many better things to spend our taxes on.
Unfortunately, the auditor general may not be the silver bullet it seems like it should be.
Even though just about anything is auditable, it’s hard to say what an audit of the police would look like. The auditor general’s office would have to look at the police and figure out how and what to audit before being able to speculate on whether a police audit would be useful in any way.
At this stage, it’s impossible to know if auditing could be a solution to the problem that is the institution of policing. It feels like a desperate break-glass-in-case-of-emergency hail mary — and it is — but it’s starting to feel like nothing else will work. Something needs to be done. Because the institution’s callous disregard for the wellbeing of its uniformed members and the people they’re supposed to serve and protect is destroying and ending lives. We’re paying more and more of our tax dollars for the privilege of the RCMP or HRP annihilating the lives of people in this city. It needs to stop.
A former Naval Officer turned journalist, Matt Stickland is committed to empowering his community to ensure that everyone has access to the information they need to make their city a better place.
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