Last week, a group of community activists and scholars in Halifax released a 217-page report—the most detailed blueprint yet issued on how to defund, disarm, and dismantle the police in Canada.

The group, serving as the Define Defunding Police subcommittee of the Board of the Police Commissioners, was chaired by professor El Jones, and conducted public consultations and gathered more than 2000 responses to an online survey.

The report provides a plan for how to redirect funding from police to a variety of organizations, agencies and community groups, and outlines strategies to pursue police accountability.

The Breach’s Senior Video Producer Sara Wylie spoke to Tari Ajadi, one of the report’s authors, by video.  Ajadi is an activist and PhD candidate in Political Science at Dalhousie University who has published articles in The Globe and Mail, The Chronicle-Herald, and The Tyee

The interview has been lightly edited for concision.

Can you explain what this report is and what was the incentive behind releasing it?

So this report is really an attempt at engaging the public in Halifax Regional Municipality about the idea of defunding the police. It emerged from a wellspring of advocacy over the past few years that’s been trying to hold police forces in the municipality in the region to account. This certainly amplified after the murder of George Floyd, as well as the murder of Chantel Moore, Regis Korchinski Paquet, and many other people in North America. So a group of advocates decided to get together and try to find a way to reimagine public safety in our community.

In your report you talk about “detasking” the police. Could you explain what that means, and what would the impact of removing the police out of certain situations look like?

Detasking the police means identifying areas where the scope of policing has gone too far—where the police are not equipped or not able to fully disperse their duties. They rely on what it is that they know, which oftentimes is an enforcement mentality. So it’s about taking those responsibilities and putting them back into the hands of the people that are most appropriately equipped and trained to actually deal with those issues.

For example, in dealing with sexual assault and sexual assault reporting—where many survivors do not feel comfortable and do not feel safe engaging with police forces—we could potentially have third-party doing the reporting. 

Or it’s engaging with unhoused communities, where sending seven or eight different cruisers to a tent might be imposing and cause some real harm, lasting harm—as we’ve seen in Halifax over recently with violent encampment evictions.  

Why don’t we instead adequately fund service providers to make meaningful connections with people so we can get them into housing as quickly as possible? It’s about reframing the way that we think of public safety, so that enforcement isn’t the knee-jerk response.

Could you explain what that other half means? What does ‘re-tasking ‘ mean? 

Re-tasking is the other half of that equation. It’s saying, okay, well, how do we now take the resources that were placed into police forces as a kind of automatic response by different governments over extended periods of time, and put them into community organizations that are best placed to make innovative and meaningful interventions into helping to support community members—regardless of where they are. 

That could mean funding different spaces for supporting people that are unhoused. It could mean creating safer streets infrastructure, that could mean supporting access to transportation. There are a wealth of ways that we can reimagine our cities and our communities to look a little different and to look a little safer, if we don’t automatically respond with policing.

In the report, you describe “civilianizing” enforcement. What does that mean and in what scenarios would you civilianize certain services?

Because the police are the hammer in search of a nail, every social problem large or small is pretty much automatically directed to this one model of enforcement.  So for example, if you have a noise complaint because your neighbour is throwing a party, then we’re sending police officers. And what does that do? That potentially brings up trauma from previous incidents; it increases the kind of situation where people within our community——particularly for Black and Indigenous—often get stigmatized and stereotyped. 

So can we think about law enforcement a little differently? We could also go back to the beginning of the pandemic, when the way we tried to protect the health of people in our community was to send police forces to stop people from walking in parks. It just was a completely unnecessary use of the most significant power that we have in our community, which is a monopoly on legitimate violence. And so we’re using that monopoly on everyday citizens for something as simple as walking through a park. 

It’s these kinds of scenarios that we start to imagine how things might be done differently in the future.

Could you explain the important difference between police reform and what defunding means? Why don’t we want to reform the police?

Efforts at reform have been undertaken across different generations. There are so many different reports that we cite in this defunding the police report that speak to a need for police reform. But what ends up happening is that typically reformist agendas don’t address the root of the problem: the way that police forces are constructed, the institutional logic of the police. So the norms within the police force, the way that this force has functioned and continues to function—those things really matter, and they need to be addressed at the root. Reinvesting in our community is also really important. 

The other piece of defunding that’s so vital is the idea that actually our community matters and our understanding of community safety matters, and we can’t keep using the police in whatever form they’re in to address our broader community safety needs.

In your report, you discuss why you are not advocating for retraining police and adding police body cameras. Why don’t you advocate for those measures?

We did not call for additional training for the police and we are very much against body cameras. We’re against both for similar reasons, but there are slightly different ways these things manifest. The idea that increased training will somehow improve police outcomes hasn’t been borne out (in part that’s because the police forces themselves aren’t really collecting the evidence, so we have no measure of efficacy that would suggest that the trainings are doing something to change outcomes). Certainly anecdotal evidence on the ground doesn’t suggest that the decades of different training regimes have transformed much, if anything, about the way police forces do business. 

Body cameras are a similar red herring. One might assume that placing a camera on a police officer might improve accountability. In practice, there’s no evidence that demonstrates that outcomes change. In criminal cases more often than not, body camera evidence doesn’t do much.

Partially, that’s because the architecture of policy as it relates to body-worn cameras is often quite knotty and often quite difficult to access. We’re already having trouble accessing policies related to use of force. I think it’s pretty safe to say that it’s going to be quite difficult to access body camera footage of police misconduct. I don’t know why we would presume that the police forces that have demonstrated themselves untrustworthy over generations would suddenly become open and accountable once they wear body-worn cameras. 

Moreover, the camera approach is a way to line the pockets of a series of technological companies that make their bones off of not just body-worn cameras, but also tasers. It’s part of a kind of broadening infrastructure that also includes surveillance and facial recognition. These are things that we’ve seen throughout police forces in Canada. One might go back and think about Clearview AI and think about all the data that’s being collected of people’s faces, to see why that might be a problem in the future. These aren’t ways that we can keep our communities safe.

Could you talk about what happened last summer in the interaction between the encampment and the police? What is the connection between affordable housing and policing that you’ve made in the report?

So last summer on August 18th, just after the provincial election here in Nova Scotia,  the Halifax Regional Police decided to raid the encampments of unarmed people living across the municipality, in different encampment sites across the city. This happened at the crack of dawn with no notice and nowhere for any one to go. Despite the claims of the police at the time, no one had anywhere to go. Very quickly word got out—community organizers and just everyday community mobilized and got down to the site very quickly. 

It was a bizarre scene. We were in front of the old Central Library locking arms, trying to make sure that police officers—who had taken off their name tags, who were wearing Thin Blue Line badges—didn’t tear down these tents that people were living in.

Not only was the use of force unnecessary and unwarranted but they also failed to secure the area, so we were right downtown in Halifax, right next to the old Central Library. There were Harbour Hoppers—a local tour bus—driving by down the street as this was going on. 

There were people going and conducting their daily business as this was going on. It was far from the kind of violent and hateful scene that the police officers tried to pretend it was. But after a while, despite many attempts by protesters to de-escalate, police officers decided to break out pepper spray, to hit people with bikes, and to try and clear the area so that the encampment could be torn down. 

They ended up pepper spraying a ten-year old child amongst many other people. And yet they claimed after the fact that we were armed with sensory irritants—like milk. These are the kinds of specious claims that are often made after such intensive violence. 

Shortly after, there were more community mobilizations in different sites in the city where we protected shelters that had been built, to make sure that unhoused people had a place to stay. Thus began the People’s Park, which is currently still standing on the corner of Dublin and Chebucto streets. 

So as it relates to the report, we know that our unhoused populations likely have the most contact with police forces of any members of our community. That contact is frequently violent and is frequently unwarranted. We are looking in the report at a way that we could keep everybody safe. 

So we recommend strongly for affordable housing, because we recognize that the right to housing is one of the most fundamental aspects of community safety. Without having a roof over one’s head, one feels fundamentally unsafe. And this is at the core of how we might conceive of our basic needs as a society. And so it’s so important that we seek to move away from enforcement and invest in giving everyone a place to stay. a place that they can call home.

What does reinvesting in community services look like? When we hear “defund,” the media focuses on taking money away, but not where else that money could go—like affordable housing. What else is that actually going to look like?

So there’s a series of community organizations that help to essentially fill in for where the state has deinvested and it’s not just affordable housing. That’s also things like a decriminalization of drugs, and safer consumption sites. It certainly means issues like mental health care. It can look like support for those that are survivors of sexual assault and gender based violence. It can look like playgrounds, and community libraries. 

I will just say here that libraries have really been stepping into the breach in our communities and offering a wealth of services to help support people in ways that many other organs of the state have not. 

As much as policing is a phenomenon that causes harm in and of itself, it’s also the sharpest point of a broader state architecture of austerity. And so what this structure does it to we pull money, pull resources, pull funding away from people that need it most—away from a broad based model of community well being—and parts of that money go into policing, to protect the assets of the rich and other people who might suffer as a result. 

Could you talk a little bit about Halifax’s history of police racism and violence?

Nova Scotia is the place in Canada with the most historic black communities. It’s a unique place in Canada—people of African descent have been in Halifax for many generations, for over four hundred years, and the police have been used as an engine of repression against those communities for almost as long as those communities have existed. 

So we have evidence going back in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, going back to the days of slavery, of particular models of policing. It didn’t look the same, but these models operated to restrict the movements of people of africa descent, and to restrict the movements of indigenous communities within Nova Scotia. We can also look to the RCMP as an engine of settler colonialism—these are intertwined processes.

Police accountability is one of the pillars you have laid out, as it fits into this as a piece of whole. How do we keep the police accountable?

It’s a big question and a difficult one. There have been plenty of attempts. The challenge with keeping the police accountable, really rests on two things: one, our governance mechanisms and two, our ability to access information. 

We need to start treating them like they are public servants—except also lethally armed. We are not beholden to them, they should be beholden to us.

We have the Board of Police Commissioners in Halifax, that’s comprised of civilians and composed of counselors. It has a duty under the Police Act to produce policy that responds to community values. But throughout its entire history, I don’t think there are many examples of where that actually happened. What we have instead is a sanctioned open season for police to really do pretty much what it is that they like. And that emerges from a broader social context where policing is perceived as a neutral good. 

Many readers might know about “copaganda”—the Law and Order Special Victims Units, the NCISes—that show the police as these heroes that are constantly solving murders, and are jumping into action to help out. In fact, that is not what policing looks like. The police are a municipal body there, a municipal agency are just like the libraries, just like the fire service. And we need to start treating them with the kind of scrutiny and the kind of accountability that all of those other organizations are treated with. 

We need to start treating them like they are public servants—except also lethally armed. We are not beholden to them, they should be beholden to us. So that’s one piece of the governance puzzle. 

The other piece of the governance puzzle is information. One of the things that the police have been allowed to get away with for a very long time is completely obscuring what it is that they do. It’s incredibly difficult to get any data, or any policies as it relates to the police, at least in Halifax. Data and information doesn’t fundamentally transform the way the organizations do business. But data can be a really useful tool in organizing ways and developing approaches that might be different. And so without that data it’s really difficult to redress where the root causes are of the harm as being caused. 

Accountability is a very broad and challenging piece of this effort, because again the institutional norm of policing is to not be accountable. This is where we have a challenge, but we persist. We’ll keep pushing.

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