Policing our way to safety: when inequality devolves to civic collapse

Toronto is about to elect a new mayor, and with it an opportunity to chart a new course toward equality
Photo by Martin Reis
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Our last visit to Sudan was in 2017. We visited family in Khartoum and Omdurman, enjoying the long desert nights of conversation, laughter, music, and storytelling. We took my sons exploring to see the incredibly well preserved and seemingly never visited pharaonic temples, pyramids, and hieroglyphs of Meroë and Karima. We swam in the Nile in Port Sudan. We saw our ancestral home of Atbara. At that time, I knew in my soul it would be our last time in Sudan for a long while. The writing was on the wall, inequality would soon devolve into chaos.

In the capital you’d see the fall out from the genocide in Darfur and the failed-state of South Sudan. Dozens of small orphaned boys wandering in tight groups, gathering garbage to burn for warmth when night fell, a look of bewilderment on their faces, stunned by the sheer magnitude of their own poverty. Girls of the same age were nowhere to be seen, leaving a dark shadow on the imagination of anyone who dared wonder where they were. Contrast this to the gleaming white marble of the Presidential Palace on the Nile, the convoys of Mercedes G-Wagons, the banquets of opulence and decadence. I had never been so absolutely sure of the catastrophe of danger to come as I was then; the inequality had gone too far, and it would cause everything to burn.

Inequality is a powerfully destabilizing force that cannot and will not coexist with safety.

Inequality is a powerfully destabilizing force that cannot and will not coexist with safety. There is a limit on how far the gap can widen before a sinkhole opens and everything falls in. Sudan is an extreme and violent example; we also see inequality devolve into civic collapse in slower motion, for example with the donut-holing of Detroit in which the city economically imploded from the downtown outwards.

The affordability crisis threatens to see Toronto repeat this pattern.

But we have a gift: an unexpected mayoral election triggered by the infidelities of John Tory. On June 26, we have this great opportunity to take stock, rethink, and move forward with an intention to create real safety and economic stability in our city: a foundation upon which Toronto can thrive.

We need to ask: when we are safe, why are we safe? When we are unsafe, why are we unsafe?

The City of Toronto spends close to 25 per cent of taxpayer dollars on funding Police Services, the Police Board, and the Police Parking Authority. The movement to defund police calls for reducing police budgets and reallocating funds towards alternate, more effective methods of providing communities with safety and security.
Defund the Police Canada

These questions are too often addressed with the utmost lack of curiosity by politicians. Plato once noted that “there will be no end to the troubles of a State until philosophers become kings, or kings become philosophers.” This is accurate — we need our leaders to have the capacity for nuanced thought, deductive reasoning, insight and wonder. We need politicians who are capable of thinking back to a time more than five minutes ago, who are engaged in truly understanding the decades long, slow burning cause behind the effect.

Our collective safety is the direct result of policy decisions made by our leaders. When we see yawning inequalities — tent cities, increasing homelessness, toxic drug supply deaths, and mental health crises, we too often decry “policy failures” while in reality, each of these outcomes is actually the direct result of a policy success — policy that does not protect basic human rights in an actionable manner.

Each time we approach a budget, we expose our priorities by what we chose to spend a limited amount of resources on.

Are our politicians philosophers? Have they examined our fears and threats and addressed them thoughtfully to propose evidence-based solutions that address the root causes of our issues? Or have they merely looked five minutes into the past and decided the police were the solution to every threat we face? Mentally ill man on the TTC? More police. Encampment? Call the police. Drug crisis? Get me the police. Poverty and homelessness? Send in the police.

In Toronto our politicians have consistently chosen to hoard resources in the police budget at the expense of every other social service, and then decry the fact that there is no-one to call but the police so of course they need more money. The police claim they are aware that they’re not the solution to social woes, and should not be responsible for managing the fall-out of poverty, however their actions in demanding increased budgets at every opportunity belies their intentions — the TPS budget remains a black hole feeding itself, siphoning money away from needed social services and supports.

Safety is the cornerstone of a functioning city. The safest communities are not the ones with the most police, they are the ones with the most privilege. And it is critically important to remember that this privilege was constructed intentionally and systematically over centuries for only some people. Canada is a country that is founded on a relationship of explicit non-consent with Indigenous and Black people. The structural violence remains a driving force in inequality.

Toronto Police during the G20 protests.

We talk about defunding the police for two reasons: first – to improve real safety, and second – to reduce harm.

First, improving safety means using the limited resources we have to reduce inequality.

We need to focus on housing, adequate social supports, improved infrastructure, supporting families by providing high quality childcare, education, and nutrition: the social determinants that keep us healthy and stable.

We need to develop and implement an anti-poverty policy that ensures every community has hope. We cannot police our way out of inequality. Montreal Police Chief Freddy Dagher has suggested extreme measures, such as officers experiencing an “immersion” or going undercover to “experience” homelessness, can profoundly change attitudinal conflicts with certain communities. Yet, why engage in such an effort to fit a square peg in a round hole? We cannot police our way out of homelessness — these efforts and resources should simply be reallocated to evidence-based community led solutions.

Second, reducing harm involves acknowledging the deeply rooted anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism embedded in all of our institutions from education to employment to housing to healthcare to policing. While this systematic racism is not unique to policing, defunding the police can improve safety for Black and Indigenous communities — communities that were not able to define themselves before racial bias defined them.

In Canada, our laws, policies, institutions, markets, and value systems — the very structures that police are meant to serve and protect were not designed to address the interests and humanity of Indigenous and Black communities. Through centuries of aggressive stereotyping, Indigenous and Black people were dehumanized, devalued, enslaved and eradicated — creating the structural violence of marginalization we still see today. Racism is the most significant factor contributing to inequality in Canada.

Black and Indigenous communities do not write the laws that police enforce — a fact that is shockingly clear when we look at the outcomes. Black and Indigenous people are more likely to be the victims of violent crime and more likely to be harmed by the police.

In Canada, Indigenous women make up two per cent of the population and 25 per cent of women murdered. In the face of this genocidal crisis, police in Winnipeg refuse to search a landfill strongly believed to be where the bodies of several murdered Indigenous women are located — effectively creating a playbook on how to get away with murder.

Mentally ill man on the TTC? More police. Encampment? Call the police. Drug crisis? Get me the police. Poverty and homelessness? Send in the police... In Toronto our politicians have consistently chosen to hoard resources in the police budget at the expense of every other social service.

When Wet’suwet’en land protectors staged peaceful protests on their own land, the RCMP actively sought “lethal oversight” — a literal license to kill Indigenous activists. RCMP were encouraged to use “as much force as you want” as the police established a “media exclusion” zone.

In Toronto, the “highly disturbing” Ontario Human Rights Commission report detailed the reality of systemic racism in policing. Black people are 20 times more likely to be fatally shot by police, six times more likely to be attacked by a police dog, four to five times more likely to be pepper sprayed or tasered.

When it comes to rates of low level force, 38.9 per cent of incidents are against Black people. The Montreal police chief has acknowledged wide-spread racism — both conscious and unconscious — is a significant problem.

According to Dr. Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada, the over-representation of Black and Indigenous people in federal prisons is a “disturbing and entrenched imbalance.”

The institution of policing harms these communities in many ways. French philosopher Michel Foucault pondered the influence of perceived observation on behaviour, observing that the idea of someone watching you is as relevant to behavioural control as someone actually watching you: the threat of surveillance is equivalent to actual surveillance.

The police claim to agree with advocates that they should not be responsible for managing the fall-out of poverty, then why keep demanding budget increases?.
Collingwood Today

Policing capitalizes on this phenomenon by insinuating to Black and Indigenous communities that they are always being watched, be it through carding, or other random stop requests of questionable validity. Community-based policing is founded on the expectation that officers can use “intuition” to prevent crime — thus forcing police to use entrenched racial bias as a decision-making tool.

For communities with privilege, a police stop often translates to annoyance, irritation, or an indignation that can safely border on belligerence. For people from my community, a police stop is a completely different experience. It is a silently anxious terror, an acute awareness of the need to protect ourselves against how others, especially those with guns and power, perceive us.

There is a knowledge that this interaction we have no control over could devolve into humiliation or harm quite easily. The awareness of police surveillance and systemic racism is linked to increased rates of chronic disease, mental illness, and schizophrenia.

With the ubiquity of cell phones, the panopticon now goes both ways: the police are also being watched, and they do not like it.

In a fascinating and detailed 2019 thesis, “To Swerve and Neglect: De-Policing Throughout Today’s Frontline Policework,” former police officer Gregory Roy Brown details interviews of more than 4,000 police from Canada and New York City. An overwhelming majority — 79.2 per cent — stated that they perceive interactions with visible minorities to be “riskier” than those with white citizens.

For people from my community, a police stop is a completely different experience. It is a silently anxious terror, an acute awareness of the need to protect ourselves against how others, especially those with guns and power, perceive us.

Apprehension surrounding the personal and professional risk of becoming the “next viral video” and face of racist police brutality after having an interaction with a citizen of colour has lead to the phenomenon known as FIDO — “Fuck it, Drive on.” This is a serious issue: there is no justification that the line between “normal police conduct” and “catastrophic, career ending racism” should be so razor thin.

Thanks to budget allocations, the police now have the unattainable mandate of “policing our way to safety.” It seems our political leaders have lost the attention span to consider a problem in its entirety, and when a crime is committed they simply think “it’s because the police budget isn’t high enough.” This intellectual laziness is hurting us, and it is hurting our city.

Safety is the cornerstone of society. We can make decisions that will make us safer, thereby unified, caring, and successful by focusing on minimizing inequality. Thriving happens in safety. Inequality will leave us frightened, angry, and unsure. It will lead our city to fail.

We must use our limited resources mindfully. Every dollar allocated is a choice: we need to choose wellbeing. We need to choose schools, education, libraries, public infrastructure, safe housing, access to healthy food, clean water, an active lifestyle, socioeconomic and medical support. We need to stay as far away as we can from the sinkhole of collapse that has consumed so many other inequitable cities.

We need to choose a move towards equality.

Dr. Suzanne Shoush is a First Nations/Black (St’atl’imx and Sudanese) Physician, mother, and advocate based in Toronto. She is the Indigenous Health Faculty lead with the Department of Family and Community Medicine with the University of Toronto and a co-founding member of Doctors for Defunding Police.

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