LAW AND REORDER
‘Defund the police.’ It’s become a rallying cry for some, a source of fear for others. But what does it actually mean, and where does it lead? In a new series, we explore the hopes and challenges behind one of the year’s most provocative ideas
“Defund the police.”
It has become a rallying cry across North America, a slogan shouted at demonstrations, scrawled on protest signs and writ large across major streets — including in bright pink letters on College Street, just outside Toronto police headquarters.
In the six months since the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd set off an international reckoning over racism and police violence, the phrase has moved in from the periphery, inspiring debate at city councils, legislatures and police boards — and, in some places, change.
It’s undeniably controversial, but for many, the three-word phrase doesn’t tell the whole story — it’s shorthand not just for what they don’t want, but for the powerful idea that there’s an alternative:
Defund police, then fund something different.
“The pathway to making progress here is not imagining that we can reform policing. It’s reducing the scope of policing,” said Alex Vitale, American sociologist and author of “The End of Policing,” which details the expansion of police powers and explores alternatives.
The “defund” movement across North America has brought into the mainstream the idea that governments can and should move to develop “real interventions to enhance community safety, without having to rely on the criminal legal system,” Vitale said. Some are on their way.
Here’s what Toronto can learn from the successes — and challenges — in four places cutting a new path forward.
In Milwaukee, where violence is a public health issue
It was one of Milwaukee’s deadliest years in a decade. In 2015, a sudden rise in bloodshed saw the murder count in the Wisconsin city of 600,000 increase by 70 per cent, from 86 in 2014 to 145 — adjusted for population, a total more than seven times as high as Toronto’s record 93 homicides in 2018. Something had to change.
Milwaukee parents, youth and community advocates gathered with elected officials and city employees to hammer out a plan they call the Blueprint for Peace — a program that removes policing as the central agency combating violence. Instead, treating it as a public health crisis requiring an allhands-on-deck approach.
“It was challenging the status quo of relying on, or centring, police in the conversation of public safety — but centring public health, addressing root causes and uplifting justice and healing,” said Reggie Moore, the director of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention.
“As a city, we’ve been ahead of the curve in reimagining public safety.”
The idea of treating violence like a disease is not new. Cure Violence, a model developed in the 1990s in Chicago, is among those credited with the idea that, like a communicable virus, violence is preventable, and strategies can be introduced to stop or interrupt the spread. The concept has been adapted internationally, including in Scotland, where a dedicated violence reduction unit has helped produce a drop in homicides in Glasgow, once dubbed “the murder capital of Europe.”
“When we talk about violence as a public health issue, it really is sort of balancing looking upstream, while also affecting immediate interventions that can have real-time impact,” Moore said.
A community organizer raised in Milwaukee public housing, Moore was approached to lead the city’s Office of Violence Prevention in 2016.
The same year, a steering committee was assembled to identify the factors behind the violence — including unemployment, the war on drugs, mass incarceration — and define six key goals, which include stopping shootings, supporting children, youth and families and promoting economic opportunity.
The city’s police chief was on the committee, but was just one voice among 30 members, including community activists, youth and survivors of violence.
“Because policing had been the go-to, having a conversation and a strategy around a broader perspective of public safety was … definitely was a journey” for the police, Moore said.
One idea that had to go: The all-too-common assumption among politicians that “a cop on every corner” makes citizens feel safe. The office of violence prevention conducted a survey of more than 1,000 youth asking how they define a safe community. Police presence rarely came up, and could have the opposite effect, Moore said.
The Blueprint mobilizes a range of public services and agencies, including hospitals and schools, and encourages residents to take a leading role in violence prevention. The program employs men and women with lived experience on the street — and credibility — as violence interrupters to detect then stop bloodshed. It also involves partnerships with hospitals, including a trauma centre that treats over 400 gunshot victims a year, aiming to connect violence interrupters with victims to reduce the risk of retaliation and support recovery.
There’s also life coaching for people identified as being at high risk of being victimized by or involved in gun violence. Mentorship played a huge in determining Moore’s path; the YMCA’s Black Achievers afterschool program “literally saved my life,” he said.
Although police are de-emphasized in the plan — the Office of Violence Prevention is part of the city’s health department — law enforcement still play a role because they are needed to investigate and solve crime. Three of the plan’s strategies are directed at improving public trust and addressing systemic violence involving police, including training on crisis intervention and fair and impartial policing.
Moore stresses he supports the movement for police accountability, but says there’s also the need to help victims of violence, including the mothers grieving their children lost to gun violence.
“Understand that these individuals deserve some level of justice and accountability for those who harm them,” Moore said.
Three years into the 10-year plan, there have been big improvements, followed by setbacks. Between 2017 and 2019, there was a steady fall in nonfatal shootings and a year-overyear decline in homicides; last year, the city saw 97 murders, down from 145 seen just four years before.
This year, Milwaukee has experienced a spike in violence that’s played out across the United States amid COVID-19. Homicide rates have surged in 21 American cities including Milwaukee, according to a report released this month by the Council on Criminal Justice. This summer saw a 42 per cent increase over the same time period last year; the authors say COVID-19 may be impeding both proactive policing and “the anti-violence efforts of street outreach workers and other non-police actors.”
And the murder count in Milwaukee has risen above 200, the city’s highest yet, according to local media.
Does that mean the public health approach isn’t working? Or is it that the office’s $2.1million (U.S.) budget — less than one per cent of the city’s approximately $300-million police budget — can only go so far? It could take years to see concrete data on the effectiveness of these programs.
For Moore, the trends are a sign of the desperate need for more funding to be injected into the public health approach. “We don’t have a lack of ideas and a lack of priorities; we have a lack of resources,” he said.
Whether additional funding comes from a reduction to the police budget — “I leave that to the community and politicians.”
In Oregon, where police may not be the first responder
The calls start as soon as Michelle Perin shuts the door of her CAHOOTS-branded ambulance. They don’t stop until her shift has taken her all across the mid-sized Oregon city of Eugene.
About 60 to 70 calls per day summon Perin and her colleagues to anything from a welfare check on someone passed out on the side of the road, to a stop-in on a mentally ill person who wrote something suicidal on Facebook, to — yes — an emergency involving a person in crisis armed with a weapon. A crisis worker and EMT, Perin will often respond first to these calls, instead of a police officer.
“People are like, ‘You can’t send a social worker and a medic into a volatile situation.’ Well, we can,” Perin said. “And the energy is very different when we get there.”
The CAHOOTS program (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) has been operating in Eugene for more than 30 years, and now also in the neighbouring town of Springfield, serving a total population of about 230,000 people. The model pairs a crisis worker with a nurse or a paramedic to respond to mental-health crises and calls involving addiction or homelessness. No one carries a weapon.
It’s among the non-police emergency response models now attracting international attention as city councils and police boards — including Toronto’s — seriously pursue alternatives to sending cops to mentalhealth calls. In recent months, the small team has been receiving international queries about CAHOOTS, an experiment that started in1989 and that last year fielded nearly a fifth of Eugene’s 911 calls.
Indeed, just like police officers or firefighters, Perin and her colleagues are called via 911. Dispatchers have the option of determining which first responder is best equipped to handle the situation, and if it involves mental health, it’s often CAHOOTS.
According to a recent report released by the White Bird Clinic, the organization that operates CAHOOTS, the program has saved $8.5 million in public safety spending per year. The program’s annual budget is about $2.1 million — funded in part by local government and private donations — while the combined annual budgets for the police departments in Eugene and Springfield are $90 million, according to White Bird.
Perin, 45, has been with CAHOOTS since 2016, when she began working on days off from her job at a psychiatric facility, seeing the gig as a hobby. She eventually quit to work full time at CAHOOTS as both an EMT and crisis worker — “I just really resonated with the work.”
She received 500 hours of training that focuses on de-escalation and crisis intervention, including learning how to carry herself in a non-confrontational manner, to quickly establish a rapport with someone who may be suicidal or a risk to others.
“We’re trained in making people feel safe. And so that’s very different than an officer who’s trained in coming in with authority,” Perin said.
There’s no denying that some days the job involves risk, and Perin has been on calls where someone with a mental-health issue is armed with a weapon. But instead of feeling exposed, Perin says the absence of her own weapon works to her advantage. It changes the dynamic of an interaction with someone in crisis, she says — a police officer arriving with their gun drawn can ratchet up tension, while the presence of an unarmed crisis worker offering help can do the opposite.
“A lot of times it de-escalates just because CAHOOTS showed up,” Perin said.
In situations where someone poses a potential risk, staff employ skills including using distance to separate themselves from someone who may cause harm. But they are also taught to examine whether the presence of a weapon necessarily means there’s risk — “we’re assessing, what does this really
mean? … Is it a danger, or Is there just a dangerous thing involved?” Perin said.
In 31 years, CAHOOTS has never had a serious injury or death of a staff member.
Although the creation of CAHOOTS means officers are now removed from certain calls, the team does work in tandem with police. That includes having the option to call for backup, though that’s infrequent; of the approximately 24,000 calls handled by the program in 2019, police were requested about 250 times, a White Bird report says. Perin says that is often when someone is a danger to themselves, such as a person who is in traffic and refusing to leave.
Other times, a dispatcher will send police to a dangerous call initially, then send in CAHOOTS to follow up. Perin was on one such call involving a woman who was suicidal and armed with a knife.
The officer arrived and successfully talked the woman into putting the knife down and coming out to talk. Then CAHOOTS took over, spending an hour and a half counselling the woman, connecting her to social supports and creating a plan for next steps.
“Nobody got hurt,” Perin said. “Nobody went to jail.”
In Oakland, where there’s a ‘chief’ of violence prevention
Guillermo Cespedes’s experience is vast, spanning nearly a dozen countries and four decades, including a recent stint as Los Angeles’s anti-gang czar. But his lengthy resumé does not include a day in law enforcement.
Nonetheless, the community groups pushing for a city department dedicated to violence prevention wanted its director to have an authoritative title. With that, Cespedes, a trained social worker, became the city’s first chief of violence prevention.
“It is a first step on behalf of the city to really elevate violence prevention to the same level as enforcement,” Cespedes, 70, told the Star from Oakland, Calif., a city of roughly 430,000 people.
Cities that create a dedicated and resourced violence-prevention unit move away from simply reacting to crime, reducing the reliance on policing and the justice system, said Ottawabased criminologist Irvin Waller, author of “Science and Secrets of Ending Violent Crime.” These offices can devote time and resources to evaluating what services are missing in communities impacted by violence, mobilizing other agencies such as schools, and proposing solutions.
Established in 2017, Oakland’s Department of Violence Prevention has a staff of 20 and is funded in part through a ballot measure that sees a percentage of property taxes and parking go toward social programs. The unit has a mandate to reduce shootings, intimate partner violence and human trafficking with ambitious goals, including an 80 per cent reduction in homicides in three years.
Like Milwaukee, Oakland takes a public health approach, using data as a diagnostic tool to identify where and when violence is happening, who is impacted and how to intervene.
Cespedes equates the work to installing fireproofing while putting out fires: Action must be taken to prevent imminent acts, like shootings, but there’s also crucial work to be done further upstream to address the social conditions that cause violence. It can be difficult to do both, he said.
At a citywide summit last year, Oakland residents offered ideas for how to do this, ranging from focused prevention efforts in areas as small as specific streets to developing youth programs promoting healthy relationships.
One focus for Cespedes is intimate-partner violence. That’s because the person at the highest risk of pulling a trigger is often the same person more likely to beat up their partner, he said.
“Talking about reducing not just gun violence, not just gang violence — we will not move forward unless we are able to reduce that violence that takes behind closed doors,” he said.
Just over a year into Cespedes’s tenure, the results of the department’s work are complicated. The first quarter of 2020 saw a significant reduction in multiple violence categories. But since COVID-19 hit, Oakland has, like Milwaukee, seen a large spike in violence; for the first time in seven years, homicides rose above 100, local media reported, up from 78 in 2019.
The rise in violence has impacted the broader conversation about police defunding in Oakland, where calls to cut the police department’s $300-million budget have been complicated by the bloodshed.
Cespedes says the current societal conversation has created opposing factions when the way forward requires a balanced approach.
“We have proven that we cannot arrest our way out of it,” he said. “It’s also proven we cannot prevent our way out of it.”
Still, there remain big hurdles to elevating prevention to the same level as policing. Cespedes’s rank may carry the same authority as the chief of police, but his office has only a small fraction of the budget and staff — “we are still severely underresourced,” he said.
Nonetheless, the city is “on the cutting edge” of violence prevention, even if he and his staff are working it out as they go along.
“We really are building the plane as we’re flying it.”
In Finland, where it starts with housing
It began with an idea that is almost too obvious: The best way to help someone experiencing homelessness is to house them. And not in a shelter or a hostel, but in their own apartment.
So it was that in 2008, Finland began aggressively implementing Housing First, a program that’s seen a 65 per cent reduction in long-term homelessness. The Scandinavian country — the only European country where homelessness is on the decline — is aiming to end it by 2027.
“It’s very ambitious,” said Juha Kaakinen, one of the creators of the strategy and the CEO of the Y-Foundation, Finland’s largest housing nonprofit. “But I think that it’s possible to reach very near that goal.”
Across North America, police have increasingly been employed to deal with homelessness, anything from ticketing to dismantling encampments. That approach, some housing and poverty researchers say, is law enforcement overreach that both criminalizes a social problem and wastes public resources. At many “defund the police” rallies, protesters call for money from the police budget to be spent on housing.
“Certainly in Toronto, the use of law enforcement has been a big part of how we deal with homelessness,” said Stephen Gaetz, a professor of education at York University and the Director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.
Ontario has a “sordid” history of calling upon officers to deal with the homeless, Gaetz said, including the province’s Safe Streets Act, which criminalizes income-generating activities, like panhandling and squeegeeing.
Policing homelessness, it turns out, is costly. In Toronto, an average of $59,000 (Canadian) of public resources is spent on each homeless person with a mental illness, according to a 2017 study led by McGill University professor Eric Latimer. The research calculated the costs of services including shelters, hospitals and social assistance — but it was policing and court appearances that were the biggest expense, at $12,393 per person.
The paper concludes that a Housing First approach could offset costs — and, indeed, Finland’s approach has decreased public spending.
Acase study out of the Tampere University of Technology found that cost savings in one city were as high as15,000 euros (about $23,000) per person per year, when factoring in expenses including policing. The research also found a dramatic drop in arrests.
“In every case, when a homeless person gets a permanent flat, there are cost savings for the society,” Kaakinen said.
The starting point of the Housing First approach, which has been implemented internationally, is that everyone deserves a home of their own, and not a bed in a temporary hostel of homeless shelter. Treatment for social issues such as mental health challenges or drug addiction can come later.
To create homes, the government transformed temporary homeless shelters into permanent apartments, and Finland has adopted a policy of deliberately building accessible dwellings including requiring a percentage of new units to be affordable social housing. Since 2008, over 5,000 flats have been provided to people experiencing homelessness.
Although the housing strategy wasn’t a deliberate attempt to pare back policing, it has doubtless been a result, Kaakinen said. “It has had an impact on crime and the role of the police,” said Kaakinen. “The police themselves have said that they have seen a change.”