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Once just a radical slogan, the call to “defund” the police has moved swiftly into the mainstream since the birth of the protest movement arising from George Floyd’s sickening death. What does it mean?

In its most moderate form, governments would simply spend less on police and shift the savings to programs aimed at the sources of poverty and crime. Two city councillors in Toronto are urging council to cut 10 per cent from the police budget of more than $1-billion and devote it to “much-needed community supports.”

In the more extreme view of those who are pushing it hardest, it is a way of delegitimizing, even dismantling, police departments. They see the police as nothing less than brutal occupiers in some of the neighbourhoods they patrol. That is unfair to the many decent, capable men and women who wear the uniform in Canadian communities.

Even so, the new focus on policing is overdue and welcome. Police forces have grown bloated, bureaucratic and hidebound. They resist change and bridle at criticism. They spend far too much time on minor tasks that could be better accomplished by others. They gobble up public money, making it hard for cities to afford other essential services, from parks to transit to sheltering the homeless.

Worst of all, they are often disastrously inept at dealing with the marginalized or vulnerable people they encounter in their work. Long before what happened to Mr. Floyd shone a spotlight on police brutality in the United States and around the world, Canadian police were in the headlines over a series of interactions that led to unnecessary death.

Robert Dziekanski died after four Mounties tasered him at the Vancouver airport in 2007. Sammy Yatim was shot dead by a police officer on a Toronto streetcar in 2013. The hard-to-watch new video of Indigenous leader Allan Adam being tackled and punched by police outside a Fort McMurray casino is bringing new demands for reform of police practices.

In the past, police chiefs have responded to those demands mainly by saying they will examine their procedures and bring in more anti-bias training for officers. It’s not nearly enough. Policing in Canada needs sweeping reform.

Police need to be more accountable to elected leaders and the public. They need to be less defensive and secretive when facing scrutiny for bad behaviour. They need to be far better at de-escalating confrontations and avoiding the use of force. They need to grow leaner and nimbler.

They need to stop doing some things altogether. It is not all clear why police officers with guns on their hips should be dealing with a mentally ill person in crisis, as so often happens on city streets. A much-admired program in Eugene, Ore., called Cahoots (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) sends casually dressed mental-health workers and medics to the scene instead of a blaring squad car.

It’s not clear why well-paid, expensively trained cops have to go to every car accident or break-and-enter either. Why dispatch them to see a homeowner whose garage was robbed when the thief fled hours ago and the main task is simply to take notes on what happened and what was lost?

Britain has been experimenting with using civilian support officers to perform some of these less challenging roles, a form of “soft policing.” Toronto’s outgoing police chief, Mark Saunders, has argued that police should not be wasting their time on things such as directing traffic, handling noise complaints or standing in for crossing guards.

“Unbundling” the police would peel off some functions from all-service forces and give them to other agencies more suited to the task. That would free up the cops to focus on the thing we need them for most: fighting serious crime. Sad to say, there is still a good deal of it, despite falling overall rates. Toronto has seen a surge in the number of shootings over the past few years.

We still need the cops. But they need to change, and soon.

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