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COLUMN: What happens if we defund the police?

Erica Scott and Randy Janzen offer alternatives from around North America
The CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Ore., works with city police on de-escalation, cultural competency and crisis intervention. Photo: CAHOOTS

Submitted by Erica Scott and Randy Janzen

West Kootenay People for Racial Justice

By now we’ve all heard the calls to defund the police.

But what does that mean? And what would it look like?

Inspiring examples exist around North America where communities have become safer and more inclusive by funding innovative programs that address the needs of people in crisis who require help, not law enforcement.

One such example can be found in Eugene, Ore. A program that was begun in 1989 by innovative social workers evolved into a life (and cost) saving partner to the Eugene Police. CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) workers get 500 hours of training in de-escalation, cultural competency and crisis intervention.

CAHOOTS personnel often provide initial contact and transport for people who are intoxicated, disoriented, or having a mental health crisis, as well as transport for non-emergency medical care. They are able to divert calls away from the police and EMT, freeing up police time and reducing the city’s budget overall. People who need help but may be frightened to call the police can still access assistance.

Another example comes from Yonkers, N.Y. The City’s YMCA developed a program called SNUG (GUNS spelled backwards) run by local youth. Their ability to connect with gang members, be accountable to community leaders, and build relationships (including with law enforcement) has led to an 80 per cent decrease in shootings in certain neighbourhoods.

The organizers joke that one street outreach team, whose members are trained practitioners in nonviolent tactics to de-escalate volatile situations, has 60 years of prison time among its members. The SNUG model emerged from an international organization called Cure Violence, which runs similar programs throughout the world, with strong research demonstrating the success of alternative (and nonviolent) approaches to community safety.

Yet another example comes from Winnipeg, where the Bear Clan Patrol, an Indigenous community organization, offers practical services in the most disenfranchised neighbourhoods including rides and escorts, food delivery, street patrols, and assistance with locating missing persons.

Its founder, James Favel, insists the program’s success stems from community members’ ability to become empowered, not be managed by outsiders, and also through its focus on addressing the root causes of violence.

“Community Development is not best-done 9-5, Monday to Friday,” says Favel. “Community Development is a 24 hours a day, seven day a week job.The benefits of the patrol are more than just the physical act of patrolling; it’s about becoming a stakeholder. It’s about becoming empowered and it’s about the mindset. We’re not the police and we’re not there to be adversarial, we’re there to protect and provide. And we do this in harmony with the communities we serve.”

Here in Nelson there are already a few alternatives to calling the police, some of which have only become available in the past few years.

For non-violent crisis, housing, or mental health issues requiring assistance, you can call Nelson Street Outreach (250-777-3993).

And you are now able to anonymously report or provide third-party information about sexual assault, by contacting the Advocacy Centre (778-463-5275) or Victim’s Services (250-352-5777). Unfortunately, most support programs like these are only open Monday to Friday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. If some alternatives to police were available 24-7 it would have a much greater impact.

Other local agencies that provide support are Stepping Stones (250-352-9876), ANKORS (250-505-5506), COINS (250-231-4968), and Nelson Community Services (250-352-3504).

Defunding the police can mean many things, but most importantly, it means re-imagining ways to work together using cost-effective strategies with the best possible outcomes. Examining success stories from other communities can help us to critically examine how best to allocate our resources in order to make Nelson safer for all.

READ MORE: Nelson Police: 802 mental-health related calls in 2020