The past three weeks have witnessed an increasingly bewildering debate over police funding in Montreal. Listening to the major actors in the debate, from Projet Montréal to the SPVM, it seems none of them is prepared to make the bold changes in terms of public security that the city needs — changes that are demanded by the defund the police movement and widely supported by the public in Montreal and beyond.
The current debate began in December, with Projet Montréal’s proposed 2022 budget. The latter included a $45-million increase to the SPVM budget. In dollar terms, this is the second-largest budget increase in the history of the SPVM and the largest increase for any police force in Canada this year. Much of the increase will be used to hire 122 new officers, adding to what is already the largest police force per capita among large Canadian cities.
Next, in early January, the SPVM revealed that it went over budget in 2021 by a whopping $51 million. The service also claimed that the proposed increase for 2022 would only allow it to hire 60 new police officers (not the 122 Projet Montréal claimed) and proposed shutting down neighbourhood police stations (PDQs) to deal with budgetary challenges. Siding with the SPVM, the Fraternité des policiers et policières de Montréal claimed the city had to either cut PDQs or hire 250 more police officers to make sure they are well staffed.
The SPVM’s proposed cost-cutting measure perhaps intentionally narrowed the current public debate to focus on the costs and benefits of PDQs. Since many Montrealers appreciate the PDQs — something that became evident when the PDQ in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce was closed in 2020 — the proposal largely strengthens the argument for increased police funding. While Mayor Valérie Plante says she trusts SPVM director Sylvain Caron to make the right decision, numerous city councillors and commentators have come to the defence of the PDQs, saying that closing even a few of them would mean an end to foot patrols, bike patrols, police-community partnerships, and community policing in general.
The debate about PDQs is impossibly shortsighted. For one thing, it confuses PDQs with policing practices like foot patrols and police-community partnerships. These practices were all introduced in the 1980s, at least a decade before the PDQs were implemented in 1996. Many commentators, including city councillors, also seem to believe that the PDQs allow police to build relationships with community organizations and residents, when in fact the work of relationship building is entrusted to a few specific police officers. The officers attending community meetings and building relationships are not the ones issuing tickets and making arrests down the street. There may be good reasons to preserve the PDQs, but police-community relationships are another matter.
The more important problem is that the debate about PDQs forecloses broader questions about police spending. As long as people are busy debating the merits of PDQs, no one is forced to explain why the SPVM, already larger than any other metropolitan police force, needs even more personnel or funding. No one, moreover, is forced to explain why the police are the go-to solution for nearly every public security issue in the city.
A broader debate would need to reckon with the many compelling proposals emanating from the defund the police movement, some of which North America are already putting into action. To be clear, defunding the police does not mean forcing police to do more with less or sacrificing public security to stop racial profiling or police violence. It means examining the work we currently expect police to do and asking whether this work actually needs to be done and, if so, whether the police are the best positioned to do it.
Since 2003, for example, the SPVM has maintained a city-endorsed policy of issuing tickets for various “quality of life” infractions like sleeping on a bench or drinking alcohol in public. Over 40% of these tickets are given to homeless people, an action that makes life more difficult for homeless people while contributing nothing to public security. The city could easily rescind the “quality of life” bylaws and advise the police to stop targeting homeless people. It could then reduce police funding in proportion to the decrease in police work and spend the money on services that actually benefit homeless people.
More broadly, cities like Seattle have examined 911 calls to consider whether the police are actually the best response. Over 50% of calls, the city found, have nothing to do with criminality and would be better addressed by a non-police, civilian service. This is especially true for mental health calls, where the risk of police violence is exceptionally high. Montreal took a tiny step in this direction in 2021, creating a civilian team called ÉMMIS to respond to certain situations in the Ville-Marie borough. This model, as Seattle showed, could be massively expanded, with around 50% of calls addressed by a team like ÊMMIS.
At a time of exploding police spending, along with continued problems of racial profiling and police violence, we need a broader debate about how to provide public security in Montreal. It’s increasingly clear that public security is not synonymous with police, that the police cause insecurity for many people, and that North American cities will inevitably rely much less on the police in the future. The question is whether Montreal will make a change now or double down on the status quo.