Sept. 15, 2020

Let's talk about reimagining better policing that reflects racial communities

Join us on Sept. 17 for this critical online conversation and discover what’s next

Defunding the police has become an often-misunderstood term that has triggered divisive debates in Canada and the U.S. It’s a growing sentiment in response to the death of George Floyd this past May.

The University of Calgary aims to advance the conversation on Sept. 17 with a one-hour webinar, Defunding the Police? What Next, as part of Alumni Month.

“I think we need to begin with a better understanding of what people are really talking about when they use words like ‘defund’ and ‘abolish,’” says one of the event organizers, Don McSwiney, BA’86, manager of communications and marketing with the Faculty of Social Work.

“The goal of our event is to really get to the heart of these issues.”

The upcoming event, held via Zoom, is a joint effort between the faculties of Social Work and Law, bringing together a panel of social and legal authorities, including:

  • Mark Neufeld, chief constable, Calgary Police Service (CPS)
  • Dr. David Este, PhD, professor in the Faculty of Social Work
  • Dr. Regine Uwibereyeho King, PhD, associate professor, Faculty of Social Work
  • Lisa Ann Silver, LLM’01, associate professor, Faculty of Law

Each was chosen for their interest, experience and academic expertise in the justice system, racial minorities and mental health, says McSwiney.

In essence, defunding the police is the idea of reallocating police budgets toward other areas such as social and mental health services, education and housing.

“People have been woken,” says Este, a third-generation African-Canadian. “For decades, the relationship between police services and African communities has been contentious.”

Este was involved in a study from 2003 to 2009 in which racial profiling by police in major urban centres emerged as a dominant theme. “These issues aren’t new, they’ve just been magnified” by channels such as social media, he says.  

“It’s not about abolishing the police,” adds Uwibereyeho King. “(It’s about) reconsidering how much investment is put in police work, and considering other social programs,” to help support police services, such as in situations that involve mental health issues.

Silver, who has done extensive work in justice reform and served on the Calgary Police Commission from 2012 to 2018, says it’s about giving voice to all communities.

“As a society, it’s our responsibility to work with these communities. ‘Defund’ to me is: why do these communities feel that police over-, or, in some cases, under-police?” she says. “How do we give these communities a space to talk about this?”

In early September, the Calgary Police Service (CPS) submitted a report titled Commitment to Anti-Racism, Equity and Inclusion to Calgary’s City Council. The document states, in part: “We, the Calgary Police Service (CPS), acknowledge that systemic racism, discrimination, and marginalization exist in our Service and manifests in how we deliver services to the community.

CPS also conducted public consultations on the issue in July. The feedback received included: police are not the appropriate first response for all calls relating to mental health and addiction; some funds currently directed to CPS should be reallocated to community agencies so police can focus more on vital crime-related police work; and police officers should be removed from schools and replaced with social and mental health supports.

Recommendations in the report include public oversight on police actions and that all CPS employees “should receive unconscious bias and anti-racism training throughout their career.”

When asked how the report will move community relations forward, Neufeld says in an email: “We hope that by implementing these changes and working with members of the BIMPOC (Black, Indigenous, Mixed and People of Colour) community that we will be able to build back the trust that has been lost. This trust and confidence is vital, but I know we can’t just ask for it; we need to show commitment and action to gain it back.”

Este is encouraged by the momentum on the issue and hopes it will lead to meaningful change. But, he says, “I think people need to be careful. Even if the police service budget was reduced, it’s not the panacea.”

There is an explicit need to review the areas in which police services need training, he adds.  

Uwibereyeho King, who survived the Rwandan genocide, focuses on reconciliation and forgiveness in her academic work. What’s needed, she says, is the reallocation of some police funds, to prevention programs such as after-school recreation programs for kids vulnerable to becoming victims of crime, or to social programs that help parents in racialized communities find jobs. She cites the story of a 12-year-old Black boy who stole a backpack and sold it to buy bread for his family. “Why does this kid have to steal to feed his family?”

Join us on Sept. 17. Register now.