Footage of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officers sparked world-wide movements against institutionalized anti-Black racism and the brutal injustices routinely conducted by police against the poor, people with mental health issues and people of colour. In Toronto, outrage at police involvement in the tragic death of a young Black woman, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, has mainstreamed bold calls to disarm, defund and decouple policing from mental health and social services.
Policing has extended into civic life to “protect” where governments have failed to serve. In my work – community mental health and addictions – the encroachment of policing and imprisonment in lieu of adequate social and economic supports is stark. The mishandling of deinstitutionalization has been linked with the increased criminalization of homelessness and people who struggle with mental illness.
Mobile Crisis Intervention Teams (MCITs) help address mental health crises when there is concern that someone risks causing serious harm to themselves or others. Co-staffed by mental health nurses, MCITs improve certain outcomes when compared to police-only teams by reducing involuntary emergency departments visits and contact with the corrections system and lowering rates of arrest and injury. People generally report these interactions as caring and respectful. Unfortunately, there are only six teams in all of Toronto, meaning they aren’t always available when needed.
Many people I work with spend their adult lives trapped in a revolving door between shelters and prisons. Community mental health workers often find ourselves in morally distressing scenarios when we fail to scrap basic necessities together for our clients or when we rely on police to respond to crises that could be greatly reduced if people weren’t living under conditions of gross neglect.
Toronto’s archaic “Safe Streets Act,” for example, imposes thousands of dollars in fines for “loitering” and panhandling when shelters are full and people have nowhere to go. A 2016 John Howard Society study found that one in five men in provincial custody is homeless at the time of incarceration. It also found that when compared to the general population, inmates have dramatically worse health outcomes, higher suicide rates and are 58 times more likely to be admitted to a psychiatric facility shortly upon release.
As concentrated and racialized poverty grows, affordable housing waitlists balloon and shelters burst at the seams, already inadequate funding for welfare and mental health programs stagnate and healthcare funding is slashed. We’re told the budget is tight, yet funding for police services has been shielded from this same attrition.
Of course, healthcare practitioners must also reckon with issues of racism and inequality perpetuated through the healthcare system. In community mental health, this means addressing issues like why I see so many more young men of colour spending time in prison instead of hospital when they are unwell.
Current reform proposals don’t address the root causes of police violence or the harmful psychological, social and economic consequences of our unforgiving and retributive justice system. Studies also show bias training and body cams do virtually nothing to prevent brutalizing or deadly encounters with police. And while Canada is reluctant to disarm police forces, several OECD countries have and people are much safer for it. I know I would feel less conflicted about calling the police to assist my clients if officers weren’t carrying deadly weapons.
Gregg Caruso, a philosopher of moral responsibility, borrows from the Social Determinants of Health framework to offer insight into how the social and economic conditions influencing disparities in health outcomes also influence disparities in violence and crime. For example, housing and access to healthcare often overlap as determinants of increased contact with the corrections system and victimization: people who are poor, homeless and those struggling with mental illness are at increased risk of being victims of crimes as well as being arrested for crimes such as disorderly conduct and property theft.
It’s not as though certain groups of people are overrepresented in prisons due to some congenital predisposition toward crime. Crime is an index of oppression. Blame doesn’t reside with individuals but on the poverty-to-prison pipeline, underemployment, decades of welfare retrenchment, colonization and the ongoing effects of racist legislation and policy design. When considering what even constitutes a punishable offense, financial sector bailouts offer further proof that crimes like “looting” or theft only seem apply to those with lower incomes.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposes gaping holes in our social safety net and the movement to defund and disarm police further orients us to remedies. Underfunded and under-resourced community members have long dedicated themselves to transformative justice and community safety with considerable success. Inspired by these models of non-violent crisis intervention and conflict resolution, new programs have drawn additional methods from chronic disease management and public health to promising effect. Still, robust alternatives will require democratic participation, bold imagination and serious financial contributions from all levels of government.
I’m hardly the first to argue that real justice requires more than “police reform” or redirecting existing funds from police budgets to mental health services. It will require a massive investment in strong universal programs. In other words, tackling police violence, reducing inequality and decreasing crime will necessitate a redistribution of wealth and political power. It may also be more costly than policing and punishment. But that isn’t a reason against enacting change. It’s a reason for rejecting cost efficiency arguments to advance essential freedoms and human dignity.
A truly just system of organizing public life values life and guarantees everyone access to food, water, housing, childcare, education and health care. Only then can we hope to heal such deep wounds of economic injustice and racism.
*A version of this is also published in Policy Options.