What does it mean to 'defund the police'?

The uprising against systemic racism and police brutality that was sparked by the murder of George Floyd has gone global. And the demands of the demonstrators are coalescing around a single goal: defund the police.

So what does that mean, to ‘defund the police?’

We support this demand and I’d like to explain why we do, and what it is.

Our communities have been under siege by a decades-long program of austerity. Health, education, and community services have been steadily defunded for decades--both to serve the conservative obsession with privatization and to reduce the taxes of the wealthy.

In place of those programs and services we have substituted policing. More and more, the police are handed tasks that were previously handled by social services and civil society.

For years the people who have been harmed by austerity have called for those services and community organizations to be brought back. The knee-jerk response that has always been thrown back is “well, how will we pay for it?” And now folks have found the line item in the budget where all the money is. Did you know that in Edmonton and Calgary, around 15% of the entire municipal budgets are going towards policing? Those two cities alone spend more than $750 million a year on their police departments. Edmonton is planning to spend over $80 million on a single shooting range for its police department. That’s almost eight times the city’s entire annual budget for homelessness and housing.

The proposals to defund police--such as the demands of Black Lives Matter Edmonton, as outlined in their open letter to Edmonton city council which has been sent by more than 10,000 Edmontonians since last Friday--are specific and concrete. They (and we are in complete agreement) would like to see police budgets reduced and for that money to be invested in other things, in the civil society organizations and public institutions that we have been starving of funding for years.

They’re asking for our police to be de-militarized. For our cities to stop spending obscene amounts on war-zone tactical gear, tanks, and helicopters. For the overall size of the police force to be reduced. And with the public funding that we claw back, we can invest in things that actually do promote public safety, and which actually do reduce crime, like housing people who are homeless and lifting up people who are struggling with poverty.

Not everyone agrees on how far this process should go. Some of us feel as though the end goal should be to abolish police and prisons entirely. Others feel as though we’ll always need police of some kind, so we won’t get rid of them entirely. And that’s okay, it’s okay that we haven’t entirely figured out what policing will look like once we have solved all of these problems. But whether you would just like to see the police demilitarized and kept in check, or abolished entirely, there is only one way to get to either of those goals. You defund them. You reduce their budgets and you take that money and you put it back into our communities.

That’s why we have been proud to support Black Lives Matter Edmonton’s call to divest from policing and reinvest in our communities, and we hope to support this movement in other parts of Alberta soon too.

I’ll leave you with these closing words: we owe it to these folks who are standing up to take them seriously. That means not just going with your gut or your knee-jerk reaction. If you sincerely and honestly want to be an ally to our Black and Indigenous friends and neighbors, take the time to actually read their proposals and actually consider the details. Don’t base your judgment on headlines and soundbites. The call to defund the police is bold but it is not impossible. We can have it now, today, if we want it.


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