Blog: Special Series — Contemporary Pressure Points: Defunding the Police

November 23, 2020
Racism is prevalent within our current social, political, and economic realities. Its manifestation across and between systems (for example, health care, education, criminal justice, and policing) makes it necessary to highlight specific sectors where it has caused particular harm, or been particularly influential. We’ll focus the next two posts on a couple of areas that have been in the public eye recently: policing and education. We recognize that the presence of systemic racism within these two systems is not mutually exclusive (consider School Resource Officers), and that there is a complexity in the ways that they interconnect. However, this is an attempt at a brief overview of current issues and discussions to highlight how they connect to social issues such as poverty and housing.

Social Unrest

The concept of defunding the police force (that is, re-allocating/ re-directing funding from police services to community services) has been associated with dismantling systemic racism for many years. Recently, the concept has appeared in mainstream discourse with the release of recent videos in both the United States and Canada demonstrating police violence and excessive force against BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) civilians.

This past summer Albertans heard, watched, and read the stories about Chief Allan Adam and his confrontation with the RCMP in Fort McMurray, about James-Dean Sauter who was tackled in a Circle K here in Edmonton, and about several other by-stander accounts of what appears to be local police using excessive force on otherwise co-operative or non-aggressive suspects in Edmonton and its surrounding regions.

As a result, the public has focused on the need to improve police accountability & transparency. Investigative reporting indicates that use of force is disproportionately high towards Black and Indigenous people, compared to their overall population representation. Claims from police services that officers and practices are unbiased are no longer acceptable; racial profiling through ongoing activities like carding/ street checks harm communities rather than act as a valuable tool to crime prevention. These practices erode public trust, along with a community’s sense of safety and security.

We’ve heard time again that what’s needed is to defund the police—allocating those funds to community services that would better target issues such as housing, mental health, addictions, and community safety. But who really makes these decisions?

Structure & Funding

Here in Alberta, municipal police operate under provincial legislation. That means that the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) must adhere to the provincial Police Act (1988). This document regulates officer duties and responsibilities, administration and governance, officer complaint and discipline procedures, and the role of the Law Enforcement Review Board.

The Act dictates that the EPS is responsible for determining its own annual budget. This is developed in collaboration with the Edmonton Police Commission, an oversight body that governs the EPS and its annual planning & budgeting.

So where does municipal government come in? Specifically, the City of Edmonton plays a smaller role in police oversight by:

  • Appointing members to the Edmonton Police Commission,
  • Reviewing commission reports, and
  • Funding approved budgets.

The City has no say in how EPS spends operational money (so line items, such as uniforms, vehicles, or state-of-the-art equipment, are beyond its jurisdiction), but it does provide the funding by way of the City Capital Budget (typically through taxes). So if EPS requested $400 million one year, the City has the power to give only $350 million. And if EPS wants to spend some of that money on, say, a new armoured vehicle (although perhaps poorly timed), this expense would be planned for and approved by the commission.

Which leads us to events from this past summer. As a result of demonstrations against systemic racism and calls to defund EPS, Edmonton City Council agreed to withhold a previously approved $11 million budget increase (over two years). Police Chief Dale McFee argued against these cuts, stating that this move would affect EPS salaries, and result in job-loss for recent diversity recruits: “it’s last in, first out.” Funding to EPS still accounts for nearly 15% of the City’s Capital Budget expenditures (its largest item), amounting to $373 million in 2020. Although this move is more of a budget freeze than a budget cut, it does demonstrate that the City recognizes the need to redirect money to social and community services in Edmonton—in this case City Council indicated that funding would go to supportive housing and community programs. “We cannot police ourselves out of systemic racism or societal injustices and challenges like poverty, addictions, mental health and trauma,” Mayor Iveson stated.

Defunding the police would ultimately impact the intersection between health, poverty, and criminalization. Reducing engagement between marginalized populations and the police (and the criminal justice system as a whole) could help increase vulnerable folks’ access to housing, health care, education, and employment; re-allocating funds to community supports would improve appropriate responses to non-criminal incidences. Although the City has the power to defund the police, the effort would have little impact on the legislation of police behaviour, which is a larger systemic issue.

Behaviour & Reform

In order to see change governing police practice and behaviour, we would have to look to the Police Act, which hasn’t been updated since 2006. It’s up to the provincial government to review regulations and amend—or better yet, re-write and modernize—the Police Act. The (possibly) good news is that police reform is on the agenda for newly appointed Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, including a review and update to Alberta’s Police Act. Support to defund municipal police services, ironically, is not.

As one of its first steps towards reform, the provincial government very recently announced a ban on carding. This is great news on the whole, but is not as simple as it sounds: street checks will continue under new guidelines and reporting measures. It will be interesting to see what changes in behaviour, practice, and data are a result of this announcement.

Our Community

The police system is clearly a complex web of decision-makers and regulation. Change is needed to improve experiences between the public and the police force, especially as they relate to police accountability, and BIPOC individuals. Directing money away from the police service and shifting these funds towards social equity programming and services would only improve our city, neighbourhoods, and citizens.

The Edmonton Social Planning Council (ESPC) has long championed the need for improved services for marginalized communities, and we especially recognize—and support the City’s focus on—the benefits of supportive housing. The City has not failed in its promise to address these issues, but ESPC will continue to advocate for these changes, and to monitor the ways in which our city is served and protected.

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