MUN prof calls to defund the police in N.L., but justice minister not ready to cut funding just yet

Jonny Hodder/CBC
Jonny Hodder/CBC

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has led to calls to defund the police across the United States and Canada — including in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Delores Mullings, an associate professor at Memorial University's School of Social Work, says it's time to rethink the way police are funding in the province to prevent crime, rather than react to it.

"Defunding the police means, for me, taking away a substantial amount of the police budget and redirecting it into communities where it's needed the most," she said.

We actually need to take care of people before we start managing them and killing them because police are not equipped. - MUN Associate Professor Delore Mullings

"What I'm talking about is shifting funding to different places, and for me, it's an obvious choice."

Mullings said money currently spent on police could be reallocated to provide better housing, education and health care to people who need it, which would reduce crime rates — and the need for police — as a result.

"If we take care of some of those basic human needs, I would argue that you would see a significant reduction in the kind of poverty-related crimes that we see and we would have less need for the police," she said.

"We actually need to take care of people before we start managing them and killing them because police are not equipped."

N.L. not immune to police issues

Mullings said the actions of police officers in Canada and the U.S. show they are not properly equipped to deal with people in crisis. She said police funding could instead be used for more social workers and mental health professionals to do a lot of the work that has fallen to police.

"It's clear that they are not competent and prepared to deal with most of the calls that they're asked to deal with," she said, "particularly around people who are having mental health challenges, people that are already stigmatized through poverty, race and other social identity markers."

While the U.S. is at the centre of the calls for police reform, Mullings said Newfoundland and Labrador is not immune to some of the same issues faced south of the border.

I don't think anyone can deny that systemic racism exists in our society and obviously that would have to be present in our police forces as well. - Justice Minister Andrew Parsons

"We need to be mindful of not suggesting that because Newfoundland and Labrador is a smaller province, that they don't have issues of police brutality and police wrongdoing," she said.

"I've lived in this province for almost 12 years and over that time I have seen a significant — and in fact — an increasing dissonance and tensions around policing and police matters."

Mullings believes there's still a role for police in some way, but changes are needed to address the aggression throughout the police institution.

Money can be used differently, says minister

While Justice Minister Andrew Parsons says additional social supports should be put in place, he's hesitant to take money for those supports out of the police budget.

"I agree completely with the thought process that we need to do more when it comes to all the other aspects, when it comes to social services, when it comes to housing, when it comes to mental health and addictions and trying to fund those, but I don't think they have to be mutually exclusive," the minister said.

"When it comes to just straight up reducing a police budget, I don't know if that is going to truly help us. What I will say is, looking within that budget, I think that it can be used differently."

In the 2019 budget, the provincial government spent $129 million on policing, and while the province is facing financial pressures in every department, Parsons said he's willing to listen.

Mark Quinn/CBC
Mark Quinn/CBC

"We've always had this concern because of the fiscal state we're in, a lot of these ideas have absolutely nothing to do with money, it's just about changing our approach, changing our mindset," he said.

The minister said racism and prejudice are present in the province and his department and the police need to be aware of it.

"At this stage, I don't think anyone can deny that systemic racism exists in our society and obviously that would have to be present in our police forces as well," he said.

"When we look at the institutions, when we look at policing, yes, I think we have to realize that it is there and we have to be conscious of it … a lot of times, people think that we're in Newfoundland and Labrador, it's not here, but the fact is, it's everywhere."

Biases, but no issues of racism, says top RCMP officer

The RCMP's commanding officer in the province, assistant commissioner Ches Parsons, also acknowledged that anyone involved in police can have inherent biases, but couldn't point to any specific issues in his jurisdiction.

"In Newfoundland and Labrador, since my time here, issues around racism within the ranks of my officers and my civilian staff have not come to the surface," he said.

"So we do watch with very, very great concern those events which have transpired in the United States, events which have transpired on mainland Canada in terms of any impact that may have on our ability to serve our public here in this province better."

Mark Quinn/CBC
Mark Quinn/CBC

Ches Parsons said he believes defunding police or reallocating police funding is something that could be worth pursuing if it is helpful in bettering society.

"Programs that go after the root causes are very beneficial to society," he said.

"The police service cannot necessarily address a lot of these root causes … we are part of it, but it's part of a cycle and you want to break out of those cycles, so in terms of defunding or the reallocation of fiscal resources, that's something that has my attention."

We really have to talk to people and not just hear their concerns, [but] act on their concerns. - RCMP Assistant Commissioner Ches Parsons

Parsons said his officers now need to work with people in their communities to eliminate any biases officers have and address any issues.

"Right now, all the senior officers in the division are charged with getting out there into the community, hearing the concerns, bringing them back. And we'll make a decision as to what we can do to ameliorate any problems," he said.

"We really have to get out to the communities, we really have to talk to people and not just hear their concerns, [but] act on their concerns."

Officers will be taking part in presentations about the Black Lives Matter movement next week, Ches Parsons said, and he hopes to be able to take action very soon.

The assistant commissioner said there are not enough Black, Indigenous and people of colour on the force, both on the front lines and in management, and that he is "moving aggressively" toward making the RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador more diverse.

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