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“Do I believe we can have a police-free future in our lifetime? Absolutely”: Policing expert Robyn Maynard on how defunding would work in practice

By Lara Zarum| Photography by Daniel Neuhaus
“Do I believe we can have a police-free future in our lifetime? Absolutely”: Policing expert Robyn Maynard on how defunding would work in practice

For years, social justice activists have been calling on governments to defund the police—and now, amid ongoing protests, that demand has catapulted into the mainstream. Robyn Maynard is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto who focuses on race- and gender-based state violence, and the author of the 2017 book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. Toronto Life spoke to her about how defunding the police might look in practice.

Over the last few weeks, the public demand to defund the police has grown louder and louder. What’s the connection between police brutality and police budgets? Over the last 20 years, as we’ve seen police budgets go up across the country, we’ve also seen an increase in police killings. The current response is not about racist incidents, but about the racism of policing itself, and that’s why the calls to defund are different this time. They’re asking us to think about public safety differently and in a way that does not involve the police. Policing has always been a kind of racialized control: the RCMP was created as part of a means to clear the plains, and it was part of the project of Indigenous genocide. As long as there have been police in this country, over-policing of Black communities has been a reality. You can look at arrest records in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and see the policing of Black women in public space, because they were criminalized under vagrancy acts and prostitution acts. Policing was about enforcing a particular economic order, and entrenching economic inequality.

Instead of abolishing the police, some people advocate putting funds into community policing initiatives or new equipment. What do you think of that solution? It’s important to understand that, particularly in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, there had already been extensive reforms, including body cams and what’s called “implicit-bias training”—reforms that increase police budgets. Floyd’s death makes it clear that those small reforms are not changing the realities of police officers harming, and at times murdering, Black people. Adding body cameras to the mix—having more video documentation of Black people being killed by police—is not an acceptable solution. The call to defund recognizes the inherent harms of policing itself. It’s not only about defunding; it’s about reinvesting differently as a society with our public money.

Toronto’s police budget is $1.22 billion per year. How would you like to see that reallocated? It’s about redirecting that money into community-led anti-violence initiatives and safe and secure housing for all, as opposed to continually policing and displacing homeless people in the streets, for example. We could overturn bylaws that make homelessness illegal, in terms of encampments and people sleeping in public. Given the ongoing gentrification of Toronto, the city is becoming less and less equal—an inequality that’s on racial terms—all the time. Instead of addressing those inequalities, we police them. It would save lives if we dismantled, defunded and demilitarized the police immediately, and redirected those funds toward community-led anti-violence initiatives: 24-hour childcare; safe beds for people experiencing alcohol and drug intoxications; health promotion programs; restorative justice workers trained to manage conflict and mediation; making the TTC free instead of funding transit enforcement, which is another kind of violence.

After George Floyd’s death, activists called on Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey to defund the police; a week later city council announced its plan to disband the police department. Around the same time, Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson was amplifying the call to defund in Toronto. A week later, city councillor Josh Matlow introduced a motion to do just that. Why do you think these changes are happening so quickly? We’ve seen releases of jail populations in the context of Covid-19, and that’s something that would have been unimaginable before the pandemic. People would have thought that the sky is falling, to release these prisoners in the name of protecting them from Covid-19. We know it’s not permanent, but the idea that we could stop deporting people and stop mass immigration detention—it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to show us these things were possible. The mass protests we’re seeing right now are happening precisely because people don’t want to go back to the old version of normal, which was so violent and exclusionary for Black people, for Indigenous people, for migrant communities. Do I believe we can have a police-free future? Absolutely. Do I think we can do that in our lifetime? Absolutely.

Matlow’s motion would defund the Toronto Police Service by 10 per cent. Is that enough? I think we need to aim much bigger at this time. The Toronto Police budget has been increasing; I believe it was three per cent just last year. Cutting 10 per cent would barely undo the increases of the last few years. According to the municipal budget, for a $3,000 property tax bill, about $700 of that is going to police, and about $150 is going to Toronto Community Housing. We can do better than 10 per cent.

In a perfect world, would you support abolishing police entirely? I believe it is possible for us to both imagine a police-free society and bring it into the world. These ideas are not novel. People like the American activists Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie, as well as Black Lives Matter in Los Angeles, have been pushing for divesting from the police budget and investing that money into communities, and bringing solutions to violence under community control. I think demilitarizing and disarming is part of that. A recent study shows that deployments of SWAT teams have risen in Canada over 2,000 per cent over the last 37 years. There is an increased reliance on using SWAT teams in Toronto, Winnipeg, Ottawa, for things like executing warrants, traffic enforcement, and responding to mental health crises.

What might be an alternative to calling the police for someone in crisis? We’re seeing the absolute failure of policing to manage the needs of people with mental illness appropriately or safely. Over the last 20 years, according to a CBC report called “Deadly Force,” 70 per cent of people who were killed by police across the country were people living with mental illness. People who were in crisis—in many cases, people who were Black, as we’ve seen in the case of D’Andre Campbell and Regis Korchinski-Paquet—called for support and ended up dead. These issues have broader and more complex solutions. We could bring in people who are trained in crisis de-escalation. Community health outreach workers can make $40,000 a year, which in a city with this kind of rent is poverty wages. And those are positions that are always insecure, where people are often reapplying for their own funding every year and don’t know if the contract will be renewed. What would it mean to invest significantly in developing a rapid response that does not involve armed officers or the possibility of death?

Many police calls are also drug-related issues and overdoses. So what would it mean to change our legislation? What would it look like to decriminalize drug possession and drug sales, when we saw over 90,000 arrests in 2017 for simple drug possession? What would it mean to instead work on having safe beds for people who are experiencing intoxication, more harm reduction funding? When you look at the amount of funding that goes towards public health as compared to the Toronto Police, it’s a massive difference.

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What about everyday crime—robberies, murders, traffic stops? How would they be handled? A significant portion of what we call crime is poverty-related. We need to decriminalize poverty, and then we would get rid of the vast majority of things we call crime. It’s not that we don’t need safety. But police have not brought us that safety, and we need to look elsewhere. Take gender-based violence and rape. We know how endemic gendered violence is in our society. Women’s shelters are continuously full, and there are ways to change that—think about the push to have the Ontario school curriculum address sexuality and consent. Those are ways of intervening in gender-based violence through education. There are so many possible solutions out there that are denied, underfunded or are unable to get off the ground. Instead we just continue to invest in police and prisons, knowing that they don’t work, refusing to imagine that something could take their place.

What you’re describing sounds like a total societal transformation. How quickly can this change come about? Anybody who’s involved in social justice is continually told that these kinds of demands are impossible, unreasonable, require 20, 50 years. But that is a political choice. Waiting means that people will continue to die. If we were genuinely determined as a society to rethink safety, this is something that could begin to happen right now. Black communities have been decrying police killings for generations. We’re rejecting the notion that we need to wait any longer.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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