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“These issues aren’t new, they’ve been magnified”: Combatting structural racism

By Duhaa Rahamatullah, October 28 2020—

On Sept. 18 the University of Calgary hosted a webinar entitled “Defunding the Police? What Next?” bringing together a panel of social and legal authorities to discuss the growing sentiment behind the concept of defunding the police and combatting structural racism in the police force.

Essentially, the concept of defunding the police serves to reallocate police budgets towards alternative resources and preventative programs such as mental health services, educational opportunities and housing facilities. Host Ellen Perrault, Dean of Social Work at the University of Calgary, facilitated a conversation with panelists to uncover the relationship between combatting structural racism and the reallocation of police budgets, as well as to re-conceptualize the role of the police force in society. 

“I left my garage door open and my neighbour couldn’t reach me. My neighbour called the police. When I saw the police at my door, my first instinct was to hide. Why? The police were here to protect me, why had I come to fear them?” shared Dr. Regine Uwibereyeho King, an associate professor in the Faculty of Social Work.

When we compare the relationship of the police force with white Canadians to the police force’s relationship with members of  BIMPOC (Black, Indigenous, Mixed and People of Colour), we know systemic racism exists, explained King. Whereas white Canadians turn to the police for their safety and protection “Black men experience fear and panic when interacting with authorities, even when innocent, because [they] have come to expect police brutality” said King.

Similarly, there is a significant overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the prison population — Indigenous peoples account for over 40 per cent of the provincial prison population, yet under four percent of Alberta’s total population, according to Dr. Lisa Silver, an associate professor in the Faculty of Law. In hopes of ameliorating the relationships between the Black and Indigenous communities and the police force, Social Worker Dr. David Este reminded the audience of the key to any effective intervention: communication over a sustained period. Ideally, with reciprocal education between the two communities, strong, safe and trusting relationships may be nurtured. 

In terms of reallocating police funds, the goal is not to abolish the police, but to create a safer community and to understand why we are funding the police. What is their job? Are there viable alternatives that may contribute to enhancing the diversity, equality and racial justice in our society? King suggested the facilitation of preventative programs as an alternative to the overtasking of the police force. For instance, she encourages the organization of grassroots programs, mentorship facilities and youth-serving agencies that will ultimately enhance the safety and security of the community. Similarly, Estae recommended funding other institutions to decrease public interaction with the police.

“In responding to instances of intimate partner violence, social workers may take the responsibility of trying to deescalate the situation,” said Este, as opposed to mandating police officers to interject in any way they deem fit. Ultimately, Este believes the involvement of other institutions and authorities will decrease the number of people who are unjustly treated by the police. 

On the other hand, Chief Constable Mark Neufeld from the Calgary Police Service claims Canadian officers to be among the finest in the world, and disagrees with the defunding of the police as a “punishment for doing a poor job at responding to the communities’ needs outside of the scope of the professional mandate as police officers.”

Constable Neufeld argued that the overtasking of the police force ultimately results in an “inability to engage with communities positively and appropriately, and thus weakened relationships, facilitates poor problem solving and eroded trust and confidence in the police force.” Instead, Neufeld suggested working towards fair and equitable policing by redefining the role of the police, as opposed to cutting their resources.

When asked what percentage of the current police force budget should be reallocated, Neufeld claims 86-87 per cent of the budget is allocated to community, and thus, “the idea that we can have a large scale reallocation of budget is not a feasible idea in the long term.” In essence, delegating the current roles and responsibilities of officers as first responders to other institutions like mental health, addiction, homelessness and suicide prevention, will allow the police force to deal proactively with offenders and strengthen their relationships with diverse communities. 

Lastly, Silver urged the de-legitimization of police officers when needed. She said we must acknowledge the racist policies and ideas that our police force and justice system are built upon and hold our authorities accountable. In the recent case of George Floyd’s death, the inconsequential amount of admission of guilt or acknowledgement of the racial discrimination was discussed and how those things resulted in a lack of justice. It is crucial that these acknowledgments are not only made but embedded into anti-racist laws and policies.

“These aren’t new issues, they’ve just been magnified,” said Este, and although we cannot change the past, we can prepare for the future he said, by confronting our current state, educating ourselves and beginning to understand where our issues are and how we can work towards making a change, one step at a time. 

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