Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee. I'd like to thank you for inviting me to participate today as you continue your important study into systemic racism in policing services in Canada.
I note there are some new faces at the table since my last appearance, so very briefly, for those who may not be familiar, I’m appearing today as the president of the Canadian Police Association, which is the largest policing advocacy organization in Canada, representing more than 55,000 front-line civilian and sworn law enforcement personnel from coast to coast to coast. Our members are the officers and the communications professionals whom members of the public see in their communities and who are usually the first line of contact people have with their local police service.
As you can imagine, I have been following the proceedings of this committee very closely, and I think it’s important to begin my presentation today by acknowledging the very real issue of systemic racism in our institutions. I also think it’s important to acknowledge that this is not a problem unique to policing in Canada. The effects of systemic racism are apparent in many of our central institutions, from the media to academia, to the legal system, our health care system and even our Parliament and provincial legislatures.
We need to do better, and that statement goes beyond meaning just having witnesses appear and provide what they believe are the best definitions of systemic racism. From my perspective, whether or not my own specific definition of the problem matches that of any other witness is largely unimportant. The key is that what has become abundantly clear in the past two months is that some Canadians do not believe their police services represent them or treat them equally, based on the colour of their skin or their circumstances. As police professionals, we need to address that.
That being said, I also think it’s unfortunate that all police officers have been broadly targeted, both by activists and some political figures, as the ultimate source of the problem. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I've had the privilege of working in policing for over 30 years, and by virtue of my role as an operational police officer and as the president of the CPA, representing police officers locally, provincially, federally and internationally, I've had the ability to meet with officers in police services across this country and can say without a shadow of a doubt that Canadians have every reason to be proud of the professionalism and dedication that is shown by our personnel on a daily basis.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2017-18 Canadian police officers responded to almost 13 million calls for service. To put it another way, in the first six months of 2020, the Edmonton Police Service responded to 87,724 calls for service, which averages out to 20 calls per hour, seven days per week, 24 hours per day. These numbers only reflect specific calls for service. The number doesn’t even begin to capture such proactive police work as traffic enforcement, community outreach or targeted policing at identified hot spots.
I mention this to highlight the fact that there are overwhelming demands being placed on the men and women who make up our police services. The overwhelming majority of these calls and activities are handled without fanfare, with outstanding professionalism and without use of force. We carefully recruit and carefully screen our officers and then provide them with outstanding training in areas such as de-escalation, and this shows in these statistics.
I think it’s important for all of us to keep in mind that it’s entirely possible to recognize the strong work already being done by our police services, while also acknowledging that there’s more to be done and that there is room for improvement within our sector.
One of the remedies that have been suggested to address systemic racism in policing is the idea that it’s time to abolish police or defund policing. I’d like to take just a minute to respond to that idea.
The term “defund the police” is open to interpretation. For some, it's merely a hashtag. For others, it has many definitions: abolish the police, reduce police budgets, reallocate police funds to social services or move towards a social work model, replacing police officers with trained social workers or specialized response teams.
While there is universal acceptance of the need for reforms, arbitrary cuts to police funding are not the answer. Proposals to cut budgets by 10% to 20%, for example, have been put forward, with no plan for replacing the services currently delivered by the police. Also missing from the discussion is whether other health or social agencies can take on the added responsibilities.
I’d also note that if these cuts were to be imposed without an appropriate replacement plan in place, it will be the most vulnerable and marginalized Canadians who will feel the effects most acutely. It should also be noted that even with increased social supports in place, there will always be a role for front-line policing, particularly when the safety of the public is put at risk.
For example, ideally police would not be the first agency responding to mental health distress calls; however, it is ultimately unrealistic to expect that when someone presents a danger to themselves or members of the public, there would not be a police response, preferably working in concert with trained mental health professionals.
This is an approach that many police agencies have already adopted, with the use of mobile crisis intervention teams that pair a trained mental health nurse with a police officer, in order to rapidly address circumstances where it would be inappropriate for a uniquely police response.
Police associations and front-line officers want to be constructive partners in this important discussion. In fact, nobody would agree more with the argument that police officers shouldn't be the only agency available to respond to calls that generally aren't criminal in nature. Associations also want to be part of the solution when it comes to addressing systemic racism in our sector, but we believe it's important for those solutions to be evidence-based and supported by rigorous research and evaluation, and not be the result of misleading headlines and populist rhetoric.
If we want to have a productive discussion around the future of police spending in Canada, it's important to focus on the entirety of the social safety system. If all that happens is a review or a focus exclusively on policing, a lot of politicians, activists and consultants might feel as if they have accomplished something, but nothing will ultimately change. We need a more holistic or complete approach that engages all stakeholders, all three levels of government and the public, to ensure that Canadians can continue to have trust and confidence in their police services.
As I've often said, police believe that proactive policing and building community relationships are a better approach to addressing social issues and the root causes of crime. However, community policing is resource intensive and requires a consistent, sustained approach. Community policing's success hinges on an adequately funded and staffed police service, where officers have proactive or uncommitted time during their shift to engage in day-to-day culturally aware interactions in priority neighbourhoods. Budget cuts will weaken a police service's ability to engage proactively with the community and deliver community policing where it matters most: in Canada's most vulnerable communities.
I'd like to thank you again for the invitation to appear before you, and I look forward to questions.