Discover more from The Orchard
NDP wants it both ways on public safety
Criminologists Temitope Oriole and Kevin Walby offer differing views on the NDP's plan to hire equal amounts of police officers and social support workers.
At an April 16 press conference in downtown Calgary, two of the city’s NDP MLAs announced the party’s public safety policy it’s going to run on in next month’s provincial election.
Justice critic Irfan Sabir (Calgary-Bhullar-McCall) and municipal affairs critic Joe Ceci (Calgary-Buffalo) said a victorious NDP will hire more police officers than the UCP government, but they will be coupled with an equal number of support staff — social workers, addictions counselors or community outreach staff.
The UCP announced on April 4 that it’s “putting more boots on the ground” in downtown Calgary and Edmonton by hiring 100 more cops, who will be split evenly between the province’s two largest cities. It also announced $8 million to create a dozen more crisis teams, which partner a police officer with a mental health worker, in each city.
The following day, Municipal Affairs Minister Rebecca Schulz highlighted six NDP candidates’ entirely reasonable comments critical of police culture, baiting the NDP to shore up its pro-police credentials.
In response, the NDP promised to hire 150 new cops across the province and 150 more support workers to form “integrative teams,” which Sabir framed as “300 frontline partners working together with a focus on safety and support.”
I’ve published four stories this week. If you want me to be able to continue doing this work, please consider a paid Orchard subscription.
He said policing was just one part of the puzzle to solving pressing social issues, alongside commitments to housing, and mental health and addiction treatment.
Sabir promised the NDP would reverse the UCP’s $32-million cut to the amount of traffic fine revenues municipalities receive to help pay for policing to fund the bulk of this $40-million plan.
Ceci, a former Calgary city councilor, promised to maintain the Alberta RCMP, in contrast to Premier Danielle Smith’s musings about creating a provincial police force, citing a “need to invest in front-line policing.”
The NDP wants to have it both ways, presenting themselves as more pro-police than the UCP while acknowledging that issues of social disorder cannot be policed into oblivion.
My email to NDP spokesperson Malissa Dunphy requesting comment, and for them to put me on their damn media list, went unanswered.
Oddly, this policy announcement isn’t on the NDP’s “Alberta’s Future” website, where the party has outlined all of its other policy commitments, including those which have yet to be announced, such as its affordability platform.
The UCP countered the NDP proposal by offering $5 million to the Calgary Police Service (CPS) and $17 million to the Edmonton Police Service (EPS) for mental health and addictions programming, but just $1 million of those funds to the CPS and $4.4 million to the EPS are going towards outreach partnerships between police and support workers.
So that’s $40 million for police and community support teams from the NDP and $13.4 million from the UCP.
Temitope Oriola, a University of Alberta criminologist and Edmonton Journal columnist, told The Orchard the NDP’s plan strikes an appropriate balance between policing and addressing social issues, calling it “robust and reasonable.”
“I say that because the plan goes to the heart of the matter, through direct engagement with both short-term and long-term solutions, particularly in relation to root causes,” Oriola explained.
The UCP plan, by contrast, which is heavily skewed towards sending more officers to patrol downtown, is overly simplistic, he said.
That’s because public safety “is not, strictly speaking, a policing problem [but] a constellation of social problems.”
“Deploying police officers in strategic locations can, in fact, provide relief, but it’s a temporary relief,” Oriola said.
“Their mere presence can help with deterring certain kinds of criminal activity — illegal drug use and all kinds of violent interactions, but that can not be our primary or only solution.”
The question for the NDP policy is one of implementation. The respective responsibilities of the police officer and social worker on each team will have to be outlined clearly.
“If they’re not mapped out, given policing’s well-known hyper-masculinist culture, they will go and try to take charge,” Oriola said.
“Oftentimes that means using the familiar instruments of force, rather than verbal engagement and de-escalation that many of those incidents actually require.”
He admits this requires a change in policing culture, which he said could be addressed through recruiting officers who have high educational attainment in fields like nursing or social work.
Kevin Walby, a University of Winnipeg criminologist who co-edited the essay collection Disarm, Defund, Dismantle: Police Abolition in Canada, is skeptical of the NDP plan, which he doesn’t see as sufficiently distinct from the UCP approach.
He told The Orchard that in a partnership between police and social workers, the social workers inherently play a junior role.
He said this dynamic was reflected in the Victoria Integrated Community Outreach Team (VICOT) established in the B.C. capital in 2007.
The idea behind VICOT was that it would temper some of the excesses of policing in Victoria by having social workers accompany police officers.
By the Victoria Police Department’s (VPD) own admission in a 2016 report, VICOT became increasingly dependent on police, which lead them “to develop care plans that include participation of police.”
“In practice, the network was co-opted by police and it became police-centric,” Walby said. “It undid itself.”
The VPD, of course, saw this as a positive development. The aforementioned report said an enhanced police presence allowed the teams to “accept more high-risk clients.” The VPD used that as an opportunity to seek more funding, exacerbating the very problem VICOT was intended to address.
Walby added that social workers themselves have played a key role in Canada’s colonialist system, taking Indigenous children away from their parents and placing them into settler families from the 60s Scoop to the present. “It’s a carceral enterprise in many ways too,” he said.
The chaos and disorder on the streets of Canadian cities is real, he emphasized, but this is a product of a long-term erosion of community support systems, not insufficient resources dedicated to policing.
“People are really struggling all across the country, so yes, transgression is going to go up, but policing them harder and criminalizing them more is not going to actually lead to a safer, healthier society,” said Walby. “In fact, that might lead to exactly the opposite.”
If these issues could be addressed by further police funding, then they would be getting better, not worse, since police budgets are consistently growing, further siphoning away social services.
“People are raised to have this impulse. It's in popular culture, it's in the way people parent, it's in the way that people talk about things at parties, it's at school. ‘If there's a problem, call the police, that's what you do,’” Walby said.
“But that's actually not necessarily what people should do. People of colour, poor people, when they call police things can go really badly.”
Our society is addicted to policing as a solution to social ills and this addiction needs to be kicked like a smoking habit, Walby argues.
The NDP has bought into the “talking points of conservative parties on criminal justice issues” for the sake of electoral expediency, he added, likening the NDP’s stance on policing to its support for the oil and gas industry.
“We know that oil and gas is not good for the planet at this point and we need to transition out of it. If you're a party with some integrity, just speak the truth,” Walby said. “It’s the same thing with policing.”
Edited by Stephen Magusiak