Rinaldo Walcott is a professor at the University of Toronto and the author of On Property.
It simply happens too often: A family member, a friend or even the person in question calls 9-1-1, and across Canada, police are often the first responders, even though so many of these crises – especially when they involve Black, Indigenous or other people of colour – end in either death or other kinds of harm.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health recently reported that it restrains Black patients 44 per cent more often than it does white patients, and 22 per cent more often than all others. A CBC investigation found that between 2000 to 2017, there were 461 deadly police interactions, and that 70 per cent of the victims suffered from mental-health issues. And as terrible as these statistics are, things get even worse when police are added to scenarios in which Black Canadians are enduring a mental-health crisis; in that 17-year period, Black people accounted for 37 per cent of the victims.
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Why is this the case, and what can we do to change this?
In my lifetime, we have gone from whispering about a person’s mental health, from the casual use of labels such as mad and crazy, to more openly speaking of our own and others’ mental well-being. We have learned that many mental-health maladies do not result in the affected person being violent. We have learned, at least occasionally, to treat mental illness with compassion as opposed to derision.
What has not changed, however, is the manner in which mental-health crises are managed and policed. Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30 of 2020, there were 55 police shootings in Canada, 34 of which were fatal. Many of the victims were Black, Indigenous or people of colour experiencing acute mental crisis. Forty-eight per cent of the shooting victims whose race could be identified were Indigenous; 19 per cent were Black. And according to The Canadian Press, “of the nine shootings that started as wellness checks, all were fatal and four were people of colour.”
We should know their names – the people enduring mental crises who were shot and killed by police. Ejaz Ahmed Choudry. Sheffield Matthews. Chantel Moore. D’Andre Campbell, who had himself issued the call for help. Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental-health issues should not be a death sentence, but in Canada, having one of these illnesses makes you more likely to die if you are in crisis, when police get involved, and when you are not white. This is unacceptable.
What is particularly striking is that some of these deaths took place when a movement to defund the police was gaining traction. Last summer, activists and municipal politicians called for reviews and cuts to police budgets. These days, however, calls to defund the police have been diminished to de-tasking them, with police chiefs and their boards committing to holding budgets at current levels.
The Toronto Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams program, which was started in 2000, is a small and limited project that involves mental-health professionals accompanying police officers. These teams work from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and can only be dispatched by police. Such a project requires more funding and a greater expansion if we are to transition to a world without police. What’s more, it must be the health care worker who makes the decision about when violence is required to deal with a mental-health crisis in any program. In the current program, that is not the case. The police force is not a health service; it is simply a force.
Police continue to be deployed on mental-health calls when they involve Black, Indigenous and people of colour because it has always been thus: such people are always understood as a possible threat, especially when they are “acting out of the ordinary.” This response is a holdover from slavery and colonialism, and continues to shape our social world with deadly effect.
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Reforms such as de-tasking the police will not solve the problem; the police we have right now are already the product of 200 years of reform. Black, Indigenous and people of colour know that police reforms have no measurable impact on whether they will die at the hands of the police. Indeed, the evidence is coming in that reforms such as police body-worn cameras have not affected police behaviour at all, as the death of Black Minnesotan George Floyd showed. The Canadian Press reported that “the Criminology and Public Policy journal published in 2019 looked at 70 other studies into body-worn cameras and found the technology had statistically insignificant effects on police and citizen behaviour.”
For these and other deaths like them to end, we need to go further: abolishing the police and instilling a new ethic of care, one not grounded in punishment but rather concerned with looking after all, and especially the most vulnerable among us. Compassion over incarceration, rehabilitation over condemnation.
There are more effective ways to handle crime and crises. To take only one example, prison populations in Norway, a country where no citizens have recently died at the hands of the police, have been in decline year over year.
The names of Mr. Floyd and Breonna Taylor – shot by police in her own home – are rightly remembered; it would be better yet, of course, not to have to know their names at all, to have them remain alive and anonymous. But reform will never be enough to make this happen: to make these deaths, and those unfortunately to come, mean something, we need to move toward an abolitionist future, and an investment in people rather than brutal disciplinary regimes.
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