This column is an opinion by Yvonne Sam, a Montreal resident and a retired head nurse and secondary school teacher who has spent decades writing on social issues for worldwide media. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
There have been increased public calls to defund the police in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and others at the hands of law enforcement officers. Meanwhile, police officials, community leaders and politicians have called for more anti-racism education and equipment, such as body-worn camera systems, all in the name of better relations with Black communities and other people of colour.
Defunding isn’t the answer, and while more equipment and community-relations education might improve policing, they are insufficient.
The integral problem with policing in Canada lies in the fact that we expect too much of front-line police officers and train them for roles that are in gross dissimilarity to the ones they actually play in society.
What’s needed is a thorough reform of the policing system itself.
Recruits are currently trained in military-style academies that concentrate to a large extent on the implementation of force and law. They operate within a culture that takes great pride in acting as warriors, in the sense of having a duty to protect others.
However, as part of their duties in the real world, police are also called on to be everything from traffic directors and neighbourhood patrollers, to social workers and mental health counsellors — sometimes all within a single shift on an average day.
The gamut of skills that we currently ask police officers to incorporate is totally unrealistic.
As a result, incidents commencing with civilians violating minor traffic laws, experiencing a mental health crisis, or displaying disorderly conduct or the effects of intoxication, sometimes end with the very same civilians, disproportionately Blacks, unnecessarily killed.
Policing must change, because we rely far too much on them to deal with problems that go beyond what they are currently trained, hired, and equipped to handle.
What would it take to fix this imbalance at the heart of Canadian policing — defunding? No!
We need to fundamentally rethink how we structure police resources and responsibilities.
A look at the organizational chart of major police departments, such as Toronto’s, would reveal that noticeably absent from the list of specialized departments are ones specifically responsible for dealing with issues related to social work or conflict intervention. It is a mismatch between what police are trained to do versus what society asks of them that has gone on far too long, and it will only lead to more disastrous consequences if not addressed and redressed.
The evidence of this mismatch is clear. Take, for example, the case in Toronto of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old woman who recently fell to her death from the balcony of her 24th-floor apartment minutes after police arrived in response to a call from her family who wanted them to take her to a mental health facility.
And the case in Montréal where police shot Nicholas Gibbs, who had a history of mental health issues, alleging that they had approached to break up a fight between him and another man.
These situations, like so many others, could have been delegated to non-police agencies, such as the Canadian Mental Health Association or a group like Toronto’s mobile health team, which are trained to calm things down and de-escalate.
Police are first responders, and they’re the ones called upon to deal with disturbances. However, they need better training to recognize and deal with situations involving mental health and substance abuse issues, and they need to be able to quickly call in specialized help to defuse them – and be expected to do so.
Part of reforming our police forces also means changing how the officers who make up those forces are recruited, hired and trained.
All police forces need to create specialized units to deal with issues and conflict mediation when handling situations involving special needs, such as substance abuse and mental illness. Officers for these positions can be recruited from the field of psychology and social work, and hired based on their capacity to calmly handle highly stressful situations. Trained primarily in crisis response, they’d have a mandate to peaceably resolve issues, and when possible, hand them over to the appropriate social services institution.
Likewise, some of the duties of police can be re-imagined.
For example, the much-applauded Cahoots Program in Eugene, Ore., sends a team of unarmed crisis specialists to address many non-criminal 911 calls without having to involve police.
In England, certain traffic-regulation functions have been designated to unarmed, non-police public servants.
Modernizing the role played by police in our society is far from being anti-police.
A thorough police reform should be the new norm, for all can see that the the enormous demands on front-line officers and the mismatch between what police are currently trained and asked to do has proven deadly.
This story is part of a CBC project entitled Being Black in Canada, which highlights the stories and experiences of Black Canadians, from anti-Black racism to success stories Black communities can be proud of. You can read more stories here.