Most of us assume there is a social contract between cities and the police: we pay them a lot of money, and in exchange they keep us safe.
For three weeks in February, residents of downtown Ottawa got to see first-hand the folly of that assumption. As a right-wing convoy occupied the city centre—noise at all hours, residents harassed, service workers put at risk by anti-vaxxers refusing to wear masks—it was clear the police did not have our backs. It was up to residents to take care of each other, which they did with neighbourhood walks, mutual aid, legal initiatives, counter-protests, and blocking trucks from entering the downtown.
The Ottawa Police Service’s excuse for inaction was some variation of “we need more money.” But the OPS budget is already a whopping $344 million. That’s about 10% of our total municipal budget and it’s one of the only departments that can count on reliable year-to-year funding increases: it got a $12 million top-up this year.
If that much money isn’t enough to ensure basic safety measures, then maybe policing is not the right approach. What might we do instead?
For starters, we can deny vehicles such easy access to the city centre. Converting Wellington into a tramway and making surrounding streets accessible only to pedestrians, buses, and cyclists would achieve this while making our neighbourhoods quieter, less polluted, and nicer to live in.
We also need to tackle the far right’s ability to garner so much support. Mistrust in government was at the heart of the convoy. Upper levels of government must address this by fixing long-neglected social and health care programs, but we can begin to foster safety and belonging, rather than isolation and resentment, in our own city by reallocating money and responsibilities away from police into public services.
Affordable housing and supportive housing-first programs like Options Bytown would provide stability to those who are actively, or at risk of becoming homeless. Free counselling, treatment services, and a mental health response team separate from the police service (as Toronto is doing) would mean reduced interactions between police and people experiencing mental health issues. Improving and expanding public transit would reduce car traffic, accidents, and the need for police to manage either. Cities cannot run deficits and must either raise taxes or reallocate existing funds. We wouldn’t need as large a police force if we addressed the gaps in our social safety net to create a truly safe, healthy, and liveable city.
Even at its best, police work often involves managing the social issues that politicians don’t want to touch: homelessness, addiction, mental illness, and poverty. Through a cycle of confrontation, arrest, and incarceration, police move people in need out of view while deeper policy failures go unchanged.
This tends to make many folks less safe as recent OPS scandals illustrate. The death of Anthony Aust during one of OPS’s many “no knock raids” into people’s homes; drawing weapons on a group of unarmed Black youth; the arrest of 12 Black and Indigenous activists for blocking a single intersection while protesting the police budget—the list goes on.
Edmonton city council seems to be coming to grips with this. That’s why it voted to decrease the city’s 2022 police budget by nearly $11 million, with the intent of directing it towards community services and homelessness programs. As one Edmonton city councillor put it, “We’re paying way too much for the wrong services, at the wrong time, at the wrong place.”
True freedom means a society with the social and community scaffolding to meet peoples’ needs—to keep them safe, nurtured, and enable them to thrive. This could and should be a vital issue in this fall’s municipal election.
It is vital that Ottawa doesn’t take a short-sighted approach by increasing police funding in the name of peace and security. Doing so will undermine our ability to truly achieve it.