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Photo by André Querry

Defund the police: Governments should listen to the people and the streets

Quebec is investing $7.5-million into the SPVM anti-gun squad, which targets the Black community for crimes that don’t involve guns.

Who polices the police? This question has been asked repeatedly over the years, most often in moments when the public is calling for police reforms and seeing no response from the municipal or provincial bodies that oversee the police. Recent events in Montreal, as a movement to transform policing and public security grows, ought to raise the question again.

The past six months have seen frequent protests against police violence and racism, a growing movement to defund the police and reinvest in communities, and a remarkable shift in public perspectives on public security. Two protests in May and June drew over 10,000 people to the streets of Montreal. The Coalition to Defund the Police, formed in June to coordinate existing and new efforts to reimagine and remake public security practices, has mobilized 65 member groups and outlined 10 concrete demands.

A CROP poll in September found that 39 per cent of Montrealersare in favour of defunding the police (strong support for an idea that is new to many people) and so many participants in an August pre-budgetary consultation called for defunding that a “comprehensive reflection” on the issue was recommended by the city commission that oversaw the consultation.

Are government bodies listening? There are some signs of change at the municipal level. The Montreal Executive Committee has until the end of November to respond to the budget commission’s recommendation and serious discussions appear to be happening. The only change at the provincial level, in contrast, seems to be a stronger commitment to a status quo that Quebecers, and Montrealers in particular, want to see overturned.

On Tuesday, Quebec announced that it would provide $65-million in new funding to police departments to combat gun violence. Not a dime would be provided to the various social programs that communities affected by gun violence have been demanding, programs that address violence at the roots.

The SPVM quickly announced that it would use half of its share of the provincial money to expand its anti-gun squad. My research on this squad, released last week, found that 74 per cent of people arrested and charged by the squad were Black, largely for offences that had nothing to do with guns. Accounting for their weight in the Montreal population, this means that Black people were 42 times more likely to be charged by the gun squad than white people.

On the issue of violence, the views of the province are miles away from the protests in the streets and the emerging public consensus. The new funding is likely to intensify police harassment of Black Montrealers and augment arrests for minor offences like drug possession that occur across Montreal but that, for people not profiled by police, seldom result in an arrest. Indeed, an SPVM officer quoted by La Presse on Saturday made it clear that the police believe guns are more common in poor, racialized neighbourhoods.

The officer’s comment is instructive. For one thing, the results of the anti-gun squad contradict this view: while 42 per cent of white people targeted by the squad were charged with gun offences, the figure drops to 29 per cent for Black people. More importantly, if gun violence is believed to be more common in poor, racialized neighbourhoods, then why is the solution to augment their oppression by sending in extra police officers rather than using public money to fight poverty?

The strength of the movement to defund the police lies precisely in the way it reimagines issues of public security. Our police system is locked in a 19th-century view, where the way to prevent harm is to find and punish those who commit it.

This view was always at odds with approaches to security in Black and Indigenous communities, and we now have decades of practical examples showing that violence is better addressed through non-punitive programs that meet people’s material and psychological needs, mediate conflicts before they become violent and hold people accountable when they harm others. To defund the police means, among other things, to support such efforts with public money currently misallocated to the police.

An updated approach to public security, increasingly demanded by Montrealers, requires a government that is willing to recognize how systemic racism is embedded in policing, as well as short-sighted, archaic ways of thinking. Policing the police, in the current moment, means disinvesting from the police as the primary and best response to the harms people experience and fear and investing instead in programs that support community well-being and the economies of care and mutual accountability that we have always starved of resources.

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