From Riot Squad to Social Worker: Police Pulled in Too Many Directions

From Riot Squad to Social Worker: Police Pulled in Too Many Directions
A police officer looks on as protesters march in solidarity with the George Floyd protests across the United States, in Calgary, Alta., on June 3, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh)
John Robson

There is a growing movement following the killing of George Floyd to “defund the police.” It would be easy to mock people like the president of Minneapolis City Council who said expecting the cops to protect you from a home invasion in the middle of the night was “privilege.” But given the urgent need for civil discourse in the face of this turmoil let me say that as terrible ideas go, this one has surprising merit.

The point here is not to get rid of the police. Well, OK, for some it is. There are those who really want to get rid of law enforcement because they are too daft to realize there is evil in the human heart or too wicked to want it constrained. And it would be as foolish to ignore the infiltration of these ideas into the protest movement as to ignore the legitimate concerns of the protest movement.

One of these is racism. Which of course is evil. I say of course because nowadays it’s so rare that we evidently have an epidemic of racism with few actual racists. When my local school board eagerly assures me it is guilty of systemic racism I flatly don’t believe it. I have met the teachers and whatever their failings, you could not find less bigoted people. (Plus if they really think it is true they should certainly have warned me, before accepting responsibility for the instruction of my children, that they were radically unfit for the task.)

Racism is so rare today that you can get fired for saying it is rare. But those who think abolishing racism would abolish crime, often with a sanctimonious air of thinking if only they’d been around in 1850 slavery would have been abolished on the spot, are fools. When Minneapolis councillors speak blithely of abolishing their police department and adopting a “new model of public safety” they can’t describe, they are gibbering. There will be stern people in uniform with guns to respond to serious breaches of the peace, and whether you call them the Minneapolis Police Department, a county police force, or Santa’s Elves, if you resist arrest they will subdue you and drag you away. I promise.

As for those who claim getting rid of law enforcement will benefit the poor and minorities, like the Minneapolis activist who sneered “We’re safer without armed, unaccountable patrols supported by the state hunting black people,” they are irrational, malevolent or both. As a few voices have warned, drastically defunding the police risks leaving the poor and non-white unprotected while sanctimonious liberals hire private security for their gated communities. But to deplore the vacuity or worse of those who really want to get rid of law enforcement is not to deny or excuse abuses of police power, some of which stem from a broken model of policing.

On that basis, reasonable defund proponents seem to me to have two things in mind beyond the obvious one that the police should not be brutal racists. One is that the police should not be paramilitary and the other is that they should not be social workers. The claim is not that we do not need social workers. On the contrary, it is that many things that currently involve police who look like the totalitarian riot squad from some dystopian film could be defused with a kinder, gentler approach.

I have seen cops directing traffic on the University of Ottawa campus wearing flak jackets and sidearms, whereas when I was a boy in Toronto one of our anti-American boasts was that our police didn’t even carry guns. And what really bothered me is that I was the only person who seemed to find the spectacle odd. (Gun controllers like former Justice Minister Allan Rock, later president of that same University of Ottawa, always said openly that only agents of the state should be armed. I wonder if he now sees the pitfalls.) But I also found it odd, some years back, to drive past a bedroom community north of Toronto on the 400 and see a local police car with the slogan “Meeting the changing needs of society.” Oh great, I thought. A social worker with a gun. Just what a person in crisis needs. Or a serious crime in progress.

I am the last to deny that a drastic threat to public safety can arise anywhere including a campus, from murder to terrorism, requiring an armed response. And in leaving distressed or delusional people to social workers we cannot forget that many forms of delusion come with the potential for harm to themselves or others. But social workers can decide when a situation needs a police response. And the idea of needing a firearm and body armour to get Canadians not to jaywalk is absurd and offensive.

So what does a real “defund” proposal look like? Well, when two Toronto city councillors proposed to “defund” the Toronto police force, they meant cut its budget by 10 percent, diverting the savings to programs to “enhance resiliency in marginalized communities,” including anti-racism education. And however you rate the probable effectiveness of such initiatives, I’d hope we can all agree that they should not be delivered armed and armoured, and that the Toronto Police Service could operate on 90 percent of what it now gets.

Thus the idea of defunding also arises from an important insight in “public choice theory,” possibly from people who never heard of it and don’t want to. Those familiar with how government operates will not be surprised to learn that when a police department faces calls for reform, it typically says it needs more money to retrain and reassign officers, then spends the money without improving its operations. (Hence Joe Biden, an old-time big-government guy, is edging away from those who want to cut police budgets, let alone abolish policing; you don’t have to love Trump to suspect Biden is not a dream candidate either.) Since bureaucratic agencies do not voluntarily relinquish power, a.k.a. responsibilities and the raises and promotions they bring, the idea is that cutting funding will force the police to focus on doing their core job and doing it better.

Let me stress that I consider police officers underappreciated. They make split-second decisions in frightening situations where action or inaction can have terrible consequences, for themselves and others. But they are also, like most of the public sector, overpaid, over-pensioned, and overprotected from job discipline including dismissal. It is no disrespect to law enforcement to say so. Or to say that police forces are pulled in far too many directions; the Mounties for instance give far too little attention to core responsibilities like terrorism, money laundering, and cybercrime, and among other things every province should establish its own police force.

If we could have a better world, not a perfect one, police would be less riot squad and less social worker. And in our current troubled world it is certainly an idea worth discussing without shouting or cancelling.

John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”