Viewpoint: Police reform needed in Canada

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By JAN SLAKOV

Imagine you were concerned about the mental health of a friend or family member and asked the police to go check in on them, and the person ended up shot to death. 

This can help us realize why some Indigenous or other racialized people have not wanted to call on the police for help, even when they have serious crimes to deal with.

Given such serious problems, does it make sense to climb on the “defund the police” bandwagon? For me, the answer is both “yes” and “no.”

“No,” because some of the problems arise when police forces have inadequate resources for the jobs they are asked to do.

“Yes,” because much of what needs to be done to make our communities safer could be done more effectively with less reliance on policing. (Examples: more social inclusion and mental health supports such as Salt Spring’s Art Jam program; safe, affordable housing; overhauling drug addiction approaches, etc.)

At a deeper level, the slogan “defund the police” is dangerously simplistic. Racism (and other “isms”) permeate our whole society, not just the police. And if we hope for a healthier justice system we need to look at underlying problems. How can we expect a fair justice system when our economic system is so terribly damaging?

We know that Canada’s top 100 CEOs earn, on average, 171 times as much as an average worker. It’s hard to imagine the situation could be getting worse, but it is: Since 1990 the collective wealth of billionaires has sky-rocketed by 1,130 per cent, and the percentage of taxes paid by the wealthiest has declined. Besides economic inequality, our system is too reliant on pillaging the earth and the world’s poorest people. Efforts towards racial and social justice must be linked to efforts to restore ecological health, to protect human rights, to create a healthy economy, to demilitarize our society, to deepen our commitment to fundamental rights, to nonviolence and other core values.

Addressing problems with policing is a key part of the movement we need to build. A good number of well-informed people, including author Paul Palango, police psychologist Mike Webster, retired judge Wallace Craig and MP Elizabeth May, have warned that the way the RCMP is structured is dangerous. It is a paramilitary force which can too easily come under the control of politically powerful interests. It fails to adequately protect its members and our society.

Despite the structural problems, among its members are some of the finest people one could hope to have as police officers. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to work to reform policing in Canada. That may require disbanding the RCMP and creating totally new policing organizations. How about a group that included police (at least retired police) and other citizens who are prepared to work for a healthier justice system? We might call ourselves PEOPLES: “PolicE, Others, Pursuing Life-Enhancing Solutions.” Just coming up with a good name could be fun, challenging and helpful!

 – contributed by Jan Slovak

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