It’s been three years since the historic global uprising in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police. The international reckoning over the deeply entrenched racism, brutality, and questionable utility of our policing institutions still lingers fresh in our minds.
In Canada, we saw protests against the Toronto Police’s role in the death of Regis Korchinksi-Paquet, the RCMP’s failure in the April 2020 Nova Scotia shootings, and countless instances of police shooting people, like D’andre Campbell, who was in the midst of a mental health crises.
A lot has transpired in those three years since, none of which has been a reduction in police budgets. After all, who could forget Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s response to calls for defunding the police? He came out against the idea and instead said a focus should be on better training.
"What we do need to do is have higher standards. We need to focus in on more training," he said.
As if we needed more proof that right-wing talking points about disciplined cops and “law and order” were hollow excuses. Ford has now actually admitted they don’t want educated people in the role.
Last month, the premier announced the province would be removing post-secondary requirements to become a police officer. In addition, Ford announced that tuition will be made free for police officers who go through the training. His reasoning for this new push? People feel unsafe. This is especially interesting considering that data shows police actually don’t prevent crime.
Maybe Ford feels that the powerful and the wealthy are the ones who feel unsafe at the rising ire of working-class people. Perhaps it’s directed towards an institution that functionally only exists to protect property?
Tuition being made free for police officers is an interesting choice on its own. These past few years have seen students in Ontario struggle at previously unseen levels. Food insecurity has risen, the housing market has made it incredibly difficult for many to find accommodations, and international students have especially faced difficult circumstances.
As a student myself, I have many anecdotal examples of classmates, or myself, who have experienced these hardships. Some work full-time hours alongside school to be able to afford to live.
Now if you’re looking for free tuition to be made available to students studying engineering, city planning and the social sciences, don’t hold your breath. And it goes without saying this offer will not be extended to nurses and doctors, despite an ever-worsening crisis in health care.
Ontario Solicitor-General Michael Kerzner specifically even derided the idea that an “arts degree” would be beneficial at all to becoming a police officer.
The closest program to this initiative is the “Learn and Stay” grant, which reimburses nursing students for their tuition if they work in their city of study for two years. It’s important to note that this is in the context of Ford appealing the decision by Ontario’s Superior Court that found Bill 124, which restricts raises for public sector workers to 1 per cent per year, unconstitutional. This, in addition to the increased role of private health care clinics, makes the issue far more than just a move towards free tuition. Will similar restrictions be applied to applicants of this newly-free police tuition? My bet’s on no. If anyone’s willing to take me up on this bet, I can also sell you a bridge in the Greenbelt.
It should go without saying that free tuition for most university or college students is actually a good policy, and one that the left should broadly support.
But much like confusing labour unions with police unions, we should reject the notion that left-wing policies applied to fundamentally undemocratic institutions will magically force them to be less authoritarian. Allowing for more young candidates to enter into a violent system of repression with less barriers, less training, and less life experience, is not a progressive move.
Is it possible that studying global and national history, and the police’s role in perpetuating injustice, may actually deter people from applying to become officers?
A key purpose of post-secondary education is to develop critical thinking skills and an understanding of basic history. If you have firmly-held beliefs, universities and colleges are often the places to examine and challenge those beliefs, and sometimes create a deeper understanding and defense of them. If that criticism doesn’t hold up, students develop a new, more nuanced understanding of the world.
Now cops won’t be required to develop these skills.
This isn’t to say that you can’t intellectually develop them on your own outside of the classroom — far from it — but maybe the prerequisites to wielding power and weapons against the average person should require, at the very least, some institutional foundation.
And of course this is just within the context of how policing works in the current system. Defunding and abolition are much more effective options in preventing crime — especially abuses perpetrated by police officers. Debates in the media about the future of policing shouldn’t exclude these options, especially when police have proven themselves to be incapable in protecting communities.
Even by the low bar set by the status-quo, it’s a dangerous move.
The message sent by the government of Ontario is clear: become a cop if you want free tuition, and skip that whole post-secondary degree. No need to develop advanced critical thinking skills or understand the legacies of settler colonialism.
At a national level, the RCMP currently exist mainly to protect fossil fuel interests, so a deeper understanding of complex topics like climate science is presumably equally discouraged.
What’s the worst that could happen with loosening requirements for police officers? They become part of a force that targets racialized people more? They threaten to murder their tenant and sell their kid? They twice ignore reports of horrific animal abuse? They get drunk at your precinct’s fully-stocked and licensed bar then crash into a delivery truck? They shoot and kill an 18-month-old baby? The likelihood of these exact things happening again are statistically improbable anyway.
That’s just a handful of examples of police abusing their power. How exactly is lowering the threshold for these positions supposed to improve anything?
Even since the start of the pandemic, the world has watched how policing in Canada and the US has only got more militarized, and has subsequently responded with force and aggression to any pressure from the public to change at an institutional level. It hasn’t been good. And continues to be terrible.
Has the entirety of the past few years been erased from collective memory? Ford hopes so, because fear-mongering about dire situations in order to funnel more resources and less qualified applicants into the maw of our policing institutions sounds like business as usual. This will not improve any of our situations. It will, however, improve them for police officers.