A Nation-Wide Increase in Municipal Police Budgets
The murder of George Floyd in 2020 by two Minneapolis police officers sparked a wave of protests across Canada and around the world. The outcry from protestors demanded that municipal governments “defund the police” – referring to a process whereby police budgets would be cut and the funds reallocated to other forms of social services and intervention that would prevent the occurrence of crime in the first place. New research reveals that the “defund the police” protests do not appear to have reduced funding for municipal law enforcement. On the contrary, Canadian mayors have steadily increased municipal police budgets over the past two years. Municipal leaders have justified the expansion of their police forces by citing an increase in the rates of violent crime, which according to Statistics Canada includes homicide, sexual assault, and hate crimes. Greater police presence, they argue, will lead to greater community safety. However, the available evidence suggests that expanded police presence is an ineffective way to reduce community violence. The evidence we see instead points to how mayors should have listened to protestors – that cities should invest in people rather than police.
Ken Sim, Valerie Plante, and John Tory – the mayors of Vancouver, Montreal, and the former mayor of Toronto, respectively – have all committed to expanding police budgets in the name of promoting public safety. Sim, whose candidacy was endorsed by the Vancouver Police Union, campaigned and won his bid for mayor on the promise of adding 100 police officers to the Vancouver Police Department. Meanwhile, Plante has called for Montreal to hire an additional 250 new police officers in an effort to reduce an increase in “gang violence” in the suburbs of Montreal. Montreal chose to increase funding at a greater rate than any other city in Canada. Not only did the SPVM receive an increased budget last year but they spent more than was allocated, going over their budget by nearly $30 million. This year, they will receive a $63 million increase bringing the total Montreal police budget to 787 million funded in part by an increase in municipal taxes. Whether Toronto will follow suit remains to be seen. At a recent special budget meeting of the police board in Toronto, Chief Demkiw requested an additional $50-million increase to the Toronto Police Services current budget of $1.1 billion claiming a lack of funding has made it difficult to meet their service goals. Mayor John Tory was poised to approve the request, which he believed was the only way to address violent crime in the city.
Across the country, in 2021, Canada saw a five per cent increase in the rate of violent crime as measured by the Crime Severity Index compiled by Statistics Canada. The Crime Severity Index measures several different kinds of crime including assault, homicide, sexual assault, and hate crimes. The recent increase of violent crime has been driven primarily by two factors: an 18 per cent increase in the rate of sexual assault cases reported to police and a 27 per cent increase in the number of hate crimes. There was also a three per cent increase in the homicide rate. The messages that municipal politicians create from crime statistics are incredibly pliable. Tamara Nopper, abolitionist and professor at Rhode Island College, notes that “[i]n the end, crime data is always a tool of police propaganda. If crime is low, the police are doing their jobs. If crime is high, we need to give more money to the police. The police always win.”
There are three important questions to ask in order to determine whether investing in expanded police presence is the best response to the increase in violent crime in Canada:
1. Does expanded police presence effectively address the increase in different types of violent crime (homicide, sexual assault, hates crimes)?
2. What are the social ramifications – especially for BIPOC communities – of expanded police presence?
3. How does policing compare to other options when it comes to addressing violent crime?
Although the National Post claims that “Canada’s rising murder rate is the most reliable indicator yet of a Canada that is continuing to experience an across-the-board surge in violent crime,” homicide in Canada is relatively uncommon. While the homicide rate did indeed increase by three per cent, it accounted for only less than 0.2 per cent of all police-reported violent crimes in 2021. In the same article, the National Post concedes that despite the increase, Canada’s homicide rate is amongst the lowest in the Western hemisphere. This ultimately undermines the extent to which the country’s homicide rates may constitute a “reliable indicator” for a “surge” in violence.
The National Post article goes on to raise the alarm regarding gang violence. According to the summary of the Statistics Canada report on crime in 2021, gang violence accounted for one quarter of the 788 homicides in Canada last year. In the same year, Mayor Plante allocated funding to hire 28 new police officers working specifically to address “gang violence.” The term “gang violence” itself is worthy of further examination. First of all, there is no clear and consistent Canada-wide definition of the term “gang.” Secondly, mobilizing policing on the basis of “gang violence” moves focus away from other factors that contribute to the homicide rate – such as domestic violence and poverty – and risks contributing to racial profiling of Black and Brown youth. Some have questioned whether the term is a dog whistle, much like the phrase “inner city crime” before it. Benoit Décary-Secours, a researcher at the Centre de recherche sur les inégalités sociales à Montréal (CREMIS) found that “for the past 30 years in Quebec, the ‘street gang’ has been used as a type of scapegoat to justify police spending and intensive and aggressive policing of minorities living in poor urban areas.” Finally, the scale of “gang violence” in Canada has not been firmly established. The statistics on gang violence in the Statistics Canada report are inconsistent. While some sections of the report indicate that almost a quarter of all homicides in 2021 were gang related, another table of the same report shows that homicides linked to “criminal relationships,” which include gang violence, accounted for only 10 per cent of all homicides in 2021. The reason for the discrepancy is unclear.
The vast majority of homicides are interpersonal or the result of domestic violence – committed by either family members or acquaintances, rather than someone with whom they had a criminal relationship. It is therefore not surprising that evidence is mixed regarding the effectiveness of reducing the homicide rate by expanding police presence on the streets. A 2020 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that adding more police officers can reduce the homicide rate, not because of increased arrests, but because police presence acts as a deterrence to street based violence. That said, the research added several caveats. Among other things, researchers concluded that their findings did not hold true in cities with large Black populations. When it comes to preventing street-based crime, police presence is only impactful when “vigilance is linked to articulable behaviours of suspected crimes occurring.” This is to say that crime rates do not go down when police look to scan civilian populations for something specific and identifiable instead of simply patrolling a given area. Stops that were effective were those possessing “probable cause:” where officers observed actions indicative of individuals engaging in drug transactions or violent crimes. Stops were not effective when based on furtive movements, objects carried in plain view, evasive actions, suspicious bulges, or crucially, someone “fitting the description.” The phrase “fits the description” has become shorthand for racial profiling because of the frequency with which it is used by police officers as an excuse to stop Black men in particular.
Compared to the homicide rate, according to Statistics Canada, the rate of hate crimes in Canada rose significantly last year, increasing by 27 per cent. The definition of hate crimes in Canada includes both physical and non-physical aggression aimed on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. Mayor Ken Sim referred specifically to the increase in hate crimes against Asian Canadians in his bid to expand Vancouver’s police force. A survey by the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter (CCNCTO) and a grassroots organization called Project 1907 found that anti-Asian hate crimes overall went up 47 per cent in 2021. Black Canadians remain the community most likely to be the victims of hate crimes and are targeted more often than any other racial or religious group.
Regarding hate crimes, analysis done by Arizona State University concluded that law enforcement responses alone do not constitute an effective response. They found that the most effective approaches included a combination of increased police presence and public education but also changes within police departments such as prioritizing hate crimes and offering special training to police officers. Simply deploying more police officers has a limited impact on the prevalence of hate crimes given that they are motivated by complex social power dynamics rather than financial gain or interpersonal conflict. A police officer in the right place at the right time might be well situated to interrupt public hate-related assaults, but will be ineffective in preventing other types of hate crimes such as workplace harassment. Hate crime prevention is another question altogether requiring a solution that addresses the root causes of these complex crimes.
The single largest contributing factor to the rise in violent crime in 2021 was the increase in the rate of sexual assault. The rate of sexual assault reported to police increased by 18 per cent in 2021. That said, it is only seven per cent higher than in 2019. Women account for 80 per cent of those reporting sexual assault and domestic violence in Canada. Indigenous women, disabled women, queer women and immigrant women are especially likely to experience domestic violence.
Evidence for the effectiveness of policing as a method of reducing rates of sexual assaults is also mixed. Of sexual assaults reported to police, only one in nine are likely to result in a conviction. Additionally, sexual assault is most often committed indoors and by someone known to the victim in contrast to other crimes which might be deterred by increased police patrols. Whereas a burglary or robbery might be interrupted as part of a probable cause stop, whatever “articulable behaviours” might precede a sexual assault are likely to happen out of public view. The relational context in which sexual assault generally occurs further muddies the water. Eight of ten sexual assault victims are acquainted with their attackers. In a third of all cases, their attacker is a current or former romantic or sexual partner.
Additionally, the increase in sexual assault rates may be attributable to police behaviour rather than an actual increase in violence. Over the last five years, the number of reports of sexual assault dismissed by police as “unfounded and baseless” (as opposed to “unfounded and false”) has dropped by half. A claim of sexual assault is dismissed as unfounded when police believe a case does not meet the elements of a crime or was improperly coded as a sexual assault. Cases dismissed as unfounded are not included in Statistics Canada reports, meaning that the statistics may not reflect the total number of sexual assaults reported to police but rather the total number of sexual assaults reports that the police agreed to investigate. Therefore, increases in the rate of sexual assault according to Statistics Canada could reflect an actual increase in sexual violence but may also reflect the increase in the number of cases which were not dismissed by police.
The Potential Ramifications of Increased Police Presence
In determining the effectiveness of increased police presence to address the rise in violent crime, it is important to consider the impact of expanded police presence on the lives of racialized Canadians as well as rate of crimes committed by the police or police on civilian violence. The NBER research found that increased police presence could act as a deterrent to homicide in cities without large Black populations, but also found that more police meant more traffic stops and arrests for “low level” crimes, both of which are deeply harmful to marginalized communities. The association between traffic stops and racial profiling is well established. BIPOC are disproportionately likely to be the subjects of “random” traffic stops. Whether this is the result of conscious or implicit bias is unclear. A recent ruling by a Quebec judge went so far as to say that traffic stops are unconstitutional. A similar relationship has been established between racial profiling and arrests for low level crime – racialized Canadians are disproportionately impacted.
Black Canadians are the community most likely to be the victims of a hate crime but also the most likely to experience violence at the hands of the police. A 2020 report found that Black Torontonians are twenty times more likely than other residents to be killed by police, accounting for 61 per cent of all police shootings in Canada’s largest city.
Between 2020 and 2021, the number of Canadians shot by the police went up by 25 per cent. In 2021, police killed 37 Canadians. Of police shooting victims, 40 per cent were Indigenous and another 25 per cent were members of other racialized communities. These statistics had to be compiled by The Canadian Press as Canada does not keep race-based statistics about police violence at a national level. Some of these deaths occurred during violent confrontations with police but civilians have also been killed in cases where police had been sent to check on their safety. For example, Chantel Moore, a young Indigenous woman, was shot to death by police during a wellness check. Furthermore, Statistics Canada data shows that homicides where the victim was a racialized Canadian took longer to solve, particularly if the victim was an Indigenous woman.
The analysis done by Arizona State University regarding how to reduce the rate of hate crimes also mentioned the importance of monitoring hate groups. This is significant for Canadians as a 2021 report by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism found that highly organized transnational white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups were recruiting active or former military and police officers in Canada. Significant rates of participation by police officers in white supremacist groups calls into question the effectiveness of policing as a response to racially motivated crimes.
Research from the United States found that sexual violence is the second most common type of reported police violence and that its victims are disproportionately Black women and girls. A national study in the United States found victims of sexual crimes by police were typically minors. Police officers are also disproportionately likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence. Domestic violence occurs in roughly 28 to 40 per cent of police households compared to 10 per cent in the general population.
It therefore comes as no surprise that calls for police abolition and defunding are led by members of Black and Indigenous communities and advocates for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. These groups argue that there are more effective ways to address the sorts of violence that their communities experience.
Alternatives to Policing
There are options other than policing for addressing community violence both as it happens as well as through prevention via upstream approaches which aim to reduce violence by addressing the root causes of community violence such as poverty and trauma.
These approaches are not punitive or carceral in nature and most do not involve law enforcement. Instead they focus on creating opportunities for inter community support through training and education as well as on meeting the basic material needs of the most vulnerable members of society. Given the ubiquitous presence of policing, it is difficult to evaluate alternative approaches but there has been promising research into several upstream interventions. Community-based violence intervention programs, summer jobs programs, raising the minimum age to drop out of school, greening vacant lots, more streetlights, more drug treatment, better gun control, and raising the alcohol tax have all been found to reduce crime rates. So have Medicaid expansion, access to mental health care, and guaranteed basic income programs.
Many of these programs focus on the prevention of crimes by attempting to address poverty. Addressing the presence of crime at its source is an approach outside the scope of most law enforcement, which is why increasing police budgets is a band-aid solution. Being a victim of or witnessing violence is a major factor in whether one goes on to perpetrate an act of violence oneself. Violence that is associated with property crimes such as mugging is closely associated with poverty; perpetrators are not violent by nature but commit these crimes in order to meet their material needs. Stress and isolation due to poverty also increase the likelihood of domestic violence. Domestic violence in turn contributes to poverty: the fear of physical abuse is a primary cause of homelessness. As a result, it stands to reason that addressing trauma and poverty is an effective way to reduce the rate of violent crime.
With community support, solutions that address poverty can be wildly successful in reducing community violence. Research done on gang activity in Canada demonstrates that the most effective interventions are not police related but the ones that address childhood abuse and childhood trauma broadly. The youth at the highest risk of gang involvement are those who are in foster care and/or have survived abuse or sexual assault. Programs that offer support rather than punishment such as mental health counseling, youth drop in centers and youth employment programs. One extremely successful example of such a program is social enterprise organization Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based program which offers youth employment in exchange for ending their gang affiliation is the largest gang rehabilitation program in the world. Homeboy Industries has supported thousands of youth in their transition from gang life to employment over the course of the last thirty years and have been an integral part of transforming a city once notorious for gang activity. Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago succeeded in reducing shootings and killings by 30 per cent after implementing Cure Violence programs in which community members are trained to interrupt street violence. Chicago’s CRED program which offers at-risk youth counseling, life coaching and employment saw a 50 per cent reduction in gun-related injuries in its participants.
Upstream solutions work for other, less street-based, forms of violence as well – specifically in cases involving discriminatory workplace harassment. The CCNCTO report on hate crimes found that more than 80 per cent of the hate crimes victims who responded saw public education, collective action or policy reform as desirable solutions. None of them wanted their aggressors to face punishment. In this way, anti-discrimination policies can help protect marginalized employees while public anti-hate education programs may work to prevent the occurrence of hate crimes in the first place. Programs similar to the ones developed to prevent street violence such as bystander intervention training programs can help equip community members to address street harassment and verbal assaults.
Finally, regarding sexual assault prevention, one campus-based program called “Enhanced Access, Acknowledge, Act” was developed at the University of Windsor and offered to first-year women. Women who participated in the program were 46 per cent less likely to experience a sexual assault than their peers. The program has since been offered at two other universities. The program focuses on empowering participants by training them to recognize and react to signs of danger. It does not involve law enforcement. Perpetrators of sexual violence are rarely punished by the judicial system and whether or not they are, survivors often require psychological support for the trauma they’ve incurred. That’s why many survivors of sexual assault are disinterested in carceral solutions and advocate instead for mental health support for survivors and funding for organizations such as Take Back the Night which work to prevent sexual violence through activism and education.
The pattern is clear: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure. Preventing violence before it happens protects potential victims and frees perpetrators from cycles of violence. Until municipalities are prepared to dedicate the same amount of funding to upstream solutions as they do to policing, our options will remain limited. In 2023, the SPVM will possess a budget of $787 million, more than 10 per cent of the total municipal budget for the year. Montreal does have a non-police mobile unit but they are set to receive a total of only $10 million in funding to be spent over the next five years. Meanwhile, the same budget allocated only $480 million to be spent on affordable housing over the next ten years.
Upstream interventions receive a fraction of the financing dedicated to expanding police presence, which is disappointing considering their relative potential to bolster the well being of residents. Hiring more police officers can be an effective way to address some forms of crime under specific circumstances but comes with major costs both financially and to the safety of BIPOC and other vulnerable Canadians. Without significant action taken to address violence against marginalized communities and women at the hands of the police, expanding police presence in Canadian cities may cause as many problems as it hopes to address.
Politicians, by virtue of our political system, are not focused on the future. They invest in solutions which will show short term results which can be pointed to during election periods regardless of long term consequences. In the absence of forward thinking political leadership, the responsibility falls on community members to apply pressure to invest in longer term, less destructive and, most importantly, evidence based solutions. This requires engagement – with politicians as well as with each other to advocate for and then implement proactive, preventative responses to violence. We know that upstream solutions which focus on public education, empowering community members and addressing the financial and social needs of vulnerable community members will not only address violence more effectively than policing but will improve the quality of life in Canadian cities across the board.