Ottawa Citizen Editorial: Viewing police through a wider public safety lens

Ottawa Citizen Editorial Board

Diverting part of the force's annual funding increase toward public health is a discussion worth having.

An attempt was made at Ottawa Council this week to “defund the police.” At least that’s what the mayor called it. It failed. But the conversation isn’t going away, and a controversial trial verdict expected in the coming days will

highlight it even more. Politicians need to do better than merely run for cover.

The motion – crushed in a 20-4 vote – came from councillors Shawn Menard and Catherine McKenney, standard-bearers for just about any social-justice cause you can name. But there was thoughtfulness to this particular proposal: In a year when under-resourced Ottawa Public Health officials warn of a broken system, why not, they suggested, transfer some of the spending increases intended for the police over to the health pocket? They didn’t suggest taking money from the constabulary, but rather allotting it a smaller budget increase than now proposed.

Nor did Menard pitch this as some sort of punishment for police in an era when they are accused of systemic racism. Rather, he wanted the money directed to an agency whose job includes confronting issues that can, if tackled properly, buttress public safety: the opioid crisis, for example, or mental health challenges. And, oh yes, COVID-19.

It isn’t an unreasonable stance, but still, it was beaten back swiftly. In part, council fears that the “defund” movement, which has gathered strength in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, might lead to an erosion of public trust for police here. Tampering with the budget increase might signal a lack of confidence in the force, some say, just when it needs public (and financial) support the most to reform itself.

But that’s missing the point. When heavily armed officers with flash grenades storm into a 12th-floor apartment, the result being a young Black man jumping to his death; when an officer pulls a Black man over for a licence check that turns out to be spurious; when a racially charged meme circulates within the police department; when a deputy chief is accused of sexually harassing female employees; when an officer allegedly records and mocks women in custody – these are what lead to a lack of public confidence in police. Viewing the police budget through a broader public safety lens does not.

In any case, the “defund” discussion will leap back into sharp relief next week, with a verdict in the manslaughter trial of Const. Daniel Montsion, charged in the death of Abdirahman Abdi four years ago. Whatever the outcome, all eyes will be on the police. Politicians had better take note.

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