The coming municipal election may prove to be a turning point for public safety in Montreal. While the two largest parties have emphasized increased police funding and little else, new ideas are sprouting up from three other parties that suggest a more holistic and community-based approach to public safety.
The politics of fear have played a central role in the current campaign and have produced a narrow vision of public safety. From the start, Denis Coderre and Ensemble Montréal have instrumentalized a spate of recent shootings to argue the city is no longer safe — and that current ruling party Projet Montréal is to blame. While short on specific policies, Coderre has frequently said the SPVM should have 250 more police officers and needs to be “better funded.”
Valérie Plante and Projet Montréal, while denying that Montreal is an unsafe city, also claim more police funding is needed, largely to combat gun violence. The party’s $110-million public security plan includes $96 million in new funding for police and a commitment to boosting funding every year as personnel and other costs rise.
Boosting police funding to respond to gun violence is a remarkably shortsighted move. Gun crime represents a tiny part of overall crime (less than 1 per cent), while responding to criminal matters in general represents less than half of overall police work. Even if police resources were needed to combat gun violence — and they really aren’t — the rest of the police budget should be subject to debate.
This debate is happening. In recent years, cities across North America have been rethinking public safety in impressive ways, and Montreal is no exception. Part of this involves looking at the kinds of safety issues that arise in cities and considering the kind of responses that are best able to address them. In the vast majority of cases, police are simply not the best response. The most obvious examples are mental health crises, homelessness, and drug overdoses — situations that require specialized care rather than law enforcement.
Rethinking public safety also means looking at situations that are presently criminalized and asking whether this prevents harm. Sex work, for example, would be far safer if it were not criminalized, while the harms that sometimes arise from using drugs are best addressed through a range of harm reduction services, not police repression.
While the two largest parties are hitched to the status quo, three others are moving in a different and better direction. Mouvement Montréal, for example, is pledging to reallocate at least $100 million in police funding to other services, including social housing, sports programs, and social services. Rather than using public money to police the homeless, Mouvement proposes to use this money to provide supportive housing. Rather than paying to police the symptoms of poverty, exclusion, and mental illness, Mouvement wants to address the root problems.
Two borough-level parties are also bringing new ideas. Both Quartiers Montréal (based in Villeray-Saint-Michel-Park-Ex) and Courage Montréal (based in Côtes-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce) are proposing to redistribute a portion of police funding to other services.
Quartiers, following the example of Seattle, wants to analyze the city’s 911 calls to see what kinds of responses different kinds of calls really require and hold a public consultation to develop a “tiered” response system.
Courage aims to eliminate “nuisance” bylaws that, rather than promoting public safety, unfairly target marginalized communities. Both parties advocate using a portion of police funding to create unarmed, civilian responses to a range of situations such as mental illness, bylaw infractions, and gender-based violence.
As these examples suggest, rethinking public safety does not mean ignoring the many kinds of harm, including gun violence, that exist in our city. Instead, it means looking closely at these harms and caring enough about preventing them that the current, police-centric approach is viewed as part of the problem itself.