As protests following the death of George Floyd continue across the United States and around the world, one of the loudest rallying cries has been to “defund the police.”
Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s death, alongside others, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmed Aubry, sparked an international call for change in how police forces function, particularly in relation to Black people.
In Canada, conversations have been elevated at all levels of government about if and how police reform would be possible.
“With premiers, I highlighted the need to take concrete actions on discrimination and make real change so Canadians feel safe in their country,” prime minister Justin Trudeau said last week.
But there’s a big difference between reforming police services, defunding them and straight-up abolishing them. Every word carries unique connotations and consequences, but they aren’t mutually exclusive. Defunding the police can lead to abolition, and reforming the police could pave the way for defunding.
Here’s what you need to know about the calls for action, and the language political leaders are using to respond to them.
What does defund the police mean?
Put simply, defunding the police means steadily decreasing the budget allotted to police services and diverting that funding to other resources, such as community, mental health and other supports.
In an op-ed for HuffPost Canada, Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson argued that having a conversation about defunding the police is essential to stopping the killing of Black and Indigenous people.
“Defunding the police can free up funding that we can reinvest in services that provide real safety for both kinds of communities,” Hudson argued. “The communities that are constantly exposed to police violence should not be deprived of effective safety and security services simply because more privileged communities feel safer when calling the police is an option.”
Some are calling for a total defunding and abolition of the police — more on that later — but many are asking that we send more money from police departments to other areas including social housing or transportation.
In many Canadian cities, including Toronto and Vancouver, police account for the largest chunk of municipal budgets. This year, the City of Toronto budgeted $1.2 billion toward police services, while the city of Vancouver invested $340 million — more than one fifth of the city’s operating budget.
Vancouver city councillor Pete Fry told the CBC this week that he’s received over 2,000 emails calling for defunding the police. Fry said fully defunding the police would be complex, but he and other councillors are looking towards diverting resources.
“We need to start making those new investments now so we can gradually move away from the kind of police model that we see today and allow the police to focus on catching real bad guys,” said Fry.
What does reforming the police mean?
Police reform is about more accountability for authority figures and building better relationships between police services and the community. It can come alongside partial defunding, or it can be about changing how police budgets are spent.
In the U.S., activist group Campaign Zero recently released its “8 Can’t Wait” initiative, which lists eight policy changes aimed at police departments. The list includes bans on chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles, among other changes.
Here in Canada, Trudeau’s call for RCMP to mandate body cameras would be considered an act of police reform.
“It is something that is, in my opinion, what we need to move forward with,” Trudeau said last week.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has repeatedly called for a federal ban on racial profiling and carding by police. Carding is a controversial practice where police randomly stop people, disproportionately Black people and other people of colour, and ask for identification. Recent studies show it still happens in Toronto.
“From that first contact with a police officer, all the way to the sentencing of a crime, the unfair treatment of racial minorities is evident across Canada,” Singh said in 2018. “No one in Canada should be treated any differently in our justice system based on what they look like.”
What does abolish the police mean?
But for many, simply decreasing the funding of police services or reforming existing structures isn’t enough. Those are the critics calling for abolition of the police.
“What do you do with an institution whose core function is the control and elimination of black people specifically, and people of color and the poor more broadly? You abolish it,” Mychal Denzel Smith wrote for the Nation in 2015.
Abolishing the police means getting rid of what we traditionally understand to be a police force. Police and broder prison abolition was pioneered by thinkers like Mariame Kaba, Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.
“Defunding the police can free up funding that we can reinvest in services that provide real safety for both kinds of communities.”
“There is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan,” Davis said in 2014. “There is so much history of this racist violence that simply to bring one person to justice is not going to disturb the whole racist edifice.”
Many calls for police abolition advocate for a transformation or reform after the police are abolished — re-building the public safety system from the ground-up. But for abolitionists, the existing system must first be torn down.
Moves toward abolition are already starting in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed. City council voted to support disbanding the city’s police department and replacing it with a new public safety model — but that model has yet to be developed and it’s unclear how similar it would be to existing police structures.