This is the full text from the "Community Safety Beyond Police" presentation that we gave on Friday, Feb. 3. The link to the video can be found here. The subtitles for the video are auto-captioned and this text is more accurate, and contains hyperlinks for further learning.
We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered this evening on Treaty 1 territory, the original and occupied territories of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene Peoples, and homeland of the Métis Nation. Like all numbered treaties, the spirit and intent of Treaty 1 has been consistently ignored and undermined by settler-colonial governments through land theft, family separation, mass incarceration, and much more. We also want to extend our acknowledgement of Indigenous title to the land to also acknowledge the source of our water, from Treaty 3 territory and specifically Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, and the source of our power from Treaty 5.
Introduction by Daniel
Good evening, and welcome to our workshop “Community Safety Beyond Police”. Before we begin a few housekeeping items (talk about where bathrooms are and other logistical things). Thank you to the Thunderbirdz for peacekeeping this evening.
A brief introduction to who Winnipeg Police Cause Harm is, Winnipeg Police Cause Harm was founded in September, 2019, following several killings by the Winnipeg Police Service of Indigenous and Black people including Chad Williams, Machuar Madut, Sean Thompson, and Randy Cochrane.
We do not advocate for police reform, but rather the defunding and abolition of the WPS and reallocation of their funds to sustainable, community-led alternatives.
We are a leaderless, horizontally organized group that is anti-capitalist, anti-carceral, anti-colonial, and anti-oppressive. Our approach to our work is intersectional. We strive to apply these values in our organizing work, our interactions with each other, and in our personal lives.
We are in humble solidarity with all peoples and communities who are harmed by the Winnipeg Police Service. All our work is volunteer-based.
This evening is meant to be a jumping off point to help inform and move forward the conversation about what community safety beyond police can look like in Winnipeg. We’re hoping to provide you with information that you can use to build your understanding of policing, how it is built to maintain the status quo, and how we can work together to build new systems of community safety that shift our mindsets and reality away from a punishment focused system and towards a more compassionate system that actually creates safety for all.
After our presentation we are going to hear from some groups that are already doing work to create actual community safety, after which we’ll have an informal discussion time. Please save any questions or comments until this point.
This is not meant to be a definitive, exhaustive source, but more of a jumping off point from some things that our group has been thinking about in order to create more discussion, dreaming and action.
Brief history of police/prison abolition by Silas
We’re constantly told that police prevent crime. But there’s no real connection between policing and lower crime. In many situations, police have got more resources at times of low crime. And we’ll talk about shortly how the concept of crime is itself very iffy.
But first, a bit of history. Policing has its roots in colonial and racist oppression. The very first modern police force was created in Ireland, by the British to maintain colonial rule. In the US, policing evolved out of vigilante patrols to catch runaway slaves. In Canada, police (NWMP now RCMP) were relied on to crush Metis rebellions, dispossess Indigenous peoples, and enforce colonial programs like the pass system, residential schools, and suppressing ceremonies like the potlatch and sundance. Police also played a central role to suppress many anti-colonial and working-class uprisings. Here in Winnipeg, federal police and special constables violently suppressed the 1919 General Strike.
Despite what they claim, police continue to play this same role in society today. They exist to uphold a very specific social order where a small number of people hoard most of the money and resources. We can see this play out in lots of different ways, like displacing or incarcerating people who are unhoused, using criminalized drugs, or who resort to stealing to meet their basic needs. Police are also often used to break labour strikes for higher wages or better working conditions.
But as long as policing and prisons have existed, there has been resistance: enslaved and Indigenous peoples evading capture, movements against police killings, courageous blockades like the one in Wet’suwet’en against a pipeline. Black feminists organizing against gender-based violence in the U.S. helped create transformative and anti-state responses, like Critical Resistance starting in the late 1990s. Here in Winnipeg this work has been led by the likes of Justice 4 Black Lives, Eishia Hudson’s family, Copwatch, and Bar None.
The ideas that we’re talking about tonight are not new. People have been exercising resistance to policing for centuries. But they’ve also been fighting to build new worlds in which police aren’t necessary. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore puts it, “Abolition is about presence, not absence. It’s about building life-affirming institutions.”
What is crime? The root causes of crime? by Carter
As mentioned above, lets talk about what crime actually is.. There’s a lot of harm in this city: murders, assaults, theft, etc. These are all very real things with very real consequences. The problem is that the police don’t actually address the reasons that many of them occur. Instead, they often worsen the situation.
A lot of what is described as "criminal behaviour" are responses to poverty, trauma, and lack of resources. It’s a result of people’s needs being unmet. Some laws specifically target people in poverty. People are forced into dire situations and then resort to harmful things to survive. These actions don’t always make sense or aren’t something that seems rational or helpful, but they’re very much shaped by the conditions of society in which people lack housing, food, income, and so forth.
The problem is that the so-called "criminal justice" system makes things even worse. People who get arrested and locked up can lose their housing, jobs, and community. This can make it even harder to live in society and force people into cycles of harm. Incarceration itself is extremely violent, dangerous, and traumatic. This means that people who are eventually released are forced to live with an even tougher set of circumstances, which can often lead to things like substance use or participation in criminalized trades to get by. And policing usually targets people who are already poor and marginalized, especially Indigenous, Black, and other racialized people. The current system exacerbates rather than directly addressing the social, economic and racial inequalities at the root of what is called "criminal behaviour."
The criminalization of vulnerable peoples severely harms the families and the support systems that are really needed for help. Here in Winnipeg, there are specific by-laws that target these communities, such as panhandling by-laws and the unauthorized removal of shopping carts, to name a few.
The police and other law enforcement are the ones who get to define what is suspicious. A lot of this has to do with discretion, or the officer’s freedom to determine an outcome for a particular event. Let's say that the police have not hit their quota in regards to issuing tickets in a particular time frame. That particular officer can use their discretion to create that event into a ‘crime’ which at a different time or with a different officer would deem it to be ok. Unfortunately, it is usually against these vulnerable communities.
There are also many instances, such as wage theft by employers, that are illegal but do not carry the same weight as the ‘criminal behaviors’ mentioned previously. Another instance considered criminal but not investigated adequately is the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit crisis here in Canada. With these examples, we can see that ‘criminality’ is centred around power, or who holds the least amount of social wealth.
We have to remember that from its very creation, policing in Canada was used for racist and colonial purposes and continues into today.
When we talk about ‘defund the police,’ we must remember that the police or the criminal justice system do not address why the crime happened, or the factors influencing the person to commit the crime. We want to reallocate or move the funds that are put into the police into areas that will directly address the root causes of ‘criminal behaviour.’ This could mean more money into social housing, food security, harm reduction, and better support for individuals.
This term abolition wants to redistribute the money into areas or programs that focus on fixing the social and economic issues that create harm in the first place. By doing this, it also gives communities the ability to define what safety means to them, and to give them the tools and resources to help them battle poverty and to give support to everyone. There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution, but a combination between the removal of the conditions that necessitate ‘crime’, a culture of community well-being, greater mental health care, and much more. Abolition is as much about destroying harmful institutions as it is creating ones centred around compassion and love.
What do the police claim they do vs. what they do/don’t do by Daniel
A lot of time, energy, and money has gone into crafting an image of police to make them seem more effective and essential than they actually are. I’m sure we could all name dozens of “hero cop” tv shows or movies that portray police as taking dangerous criminals off the street on a daily basis. The reality is quite different.
Police spend most of their time either being called to respond to issues that they are not trained to respond to, or going around looking for “crime” in otherwise harmless situations. For example, the most common type of call is “check wellbeing” making up nearly 10% of all dispatched events. Police’s main tool is violence and violence is never helpful to someone experiencing a mental health crisis. There are many accounts of police actually causing harm or death when responding to a mental health crisis. They more often than not bring an aggressive and combative response, and have the ultimate power to kill someone if they feel it is necessary (it is never necessary). Police bring violence and the threat of incarceration and deprive communities of resources through their budget and salaries which perpetuates cycles of poverty, incarceration, violence, addiction, etc.
Police also undermine, deter, and penalize access to life-sustaining services. In Vancouver, there’s a long history of police sitting outside the Insite safe consumption site in the DTES, and even if such a presence doesn’t result in arrests, it can still deter people from using it. The same goes for transit, libraries, schools, and so forth. This means that in order for these public services to succeed, police have to be removed from the picture. Data from the city on the Millennium Library’s usage highlights this, as in 2017/2018 the library received around 850 thousand visitors, however when screening methods were implemented in 2019 this number dropped drastically to 608K. That means there were approximately 150 000 visits that should have happened but didn’t, while the number of serious incidents only went down by 180.
We’re told that police create safety, but in reality, the “safest” neighborhoods are the least policed and not coincidentally, tend to be wealthier than more heavily policed “less safe” neighborhoods. What actually creates safety is not police, but access to resources that help people break cycles of poverty, violence, and addiction.
Police consistently claim that they are strapped for resources and can’t possibly do anything more without more money and that even a penny less would be detrimental to their entire operation. But 90% of the police budget goes towards salaries and benefits. Most cops make over 100k. So what they mean is that they are unwilling to take a pay cut to their already generous salaries to give themselves more resources and that they must take resources from other city departments since the city has finite sources of revenue. But what do we actually get for all of the resources we invest in police?
In 2021 the WPS had a total clearance rate of 28.5%. This means that 2/3rds of the time when the police were called, they did nothing about it and usually caused harm while investigating. A crime being “cleared” means that charges were laid, not that the right person was charged, a conviction was reached, or that any kind of justice was served. These clearance rates themselves are skewed. The clearance rates for traffic, drug, and “other” types of crimes are near 100% since those types of incidents can instantly be “cleared” once they are noticed. Someone is seen speeding, they are given a ticket, someone is found to be in possession of or selling drugs, they’re charged.
The clearance rates for property crime is 10% and for violent crime is 60%. Property and violent crime are more often than not the result of unmet needs such as poverty, lack of addiction support, psychological issues, ect. Police cannot meet these needs and being incarcerated makes it harder for people to access supports that can actually address the root causes of why they felt the need to resort to crime.
Police cannot prevent crime. They come after, usually bringing violence, and never creating long term safety. When someone is given a speeding ticket, they have already created danger by speeding. If someone is selling drugs, arresting the dealer does nothing to help people who use drugs. Oftentimes drug busts actually create danger since it limits supply and dealers cut their drugs with other substances (like fentanyl) to meet demand. This causes poisonings, deaths, and more harm to vulnerable people.
To be clear, this is not advocating for just letting people do whatever they want. An abolitionist mindset is understanding that actions have consequences, but that seeking to only punish people for causing harm really does nothing to create safety. Abolition is also about realizing that we are caught in a cycle of giving more and more money to police while defunding anything else. Only abolition and the reallocation of police’s resources to life sustaining services can break this cycle.
There’s a famous quote from Angela Davis:
“Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.”
In Manitoba the majority of people in prison are legally innocent. In 2019 (most recent stats available) nearly 3/4s of people incarcerated in Manitoba were in remand which is when someone is in temporary detention while awaiting trial, sentencing or the commencement of a custodial disposition.
Cops have a lot of choice where, how, and when they enforce laws. The majority of people are arrested because of the discretion of police. The police make an active choice to go after the same people and communities maintaining cycles of poverty, violence, and incarceration that create the appearance that police are needed.
Police also make themselves seem essential though the media. Pay attention next time there is a high-profile story that is critical of the police or whenever the city budget is being made. Almost without fail there will be stories highlighting a big drug bust, or an exceptional series of violent crimes that are meant to stoke fear and make it seem like more police are the only answer to the “dangerous criminals” that are lurking everywhere.
In reality police did nothing, and most of the time couldn’t have done anything to prevent these situations, when they have more resources than ever and crime is caused more often than not by people’s needs not being met, not because they are “bad” or “criminal” in nature.
The WPS budget by James
Next, we’re going to talk a bit about the police budget in Winnipeg. Budgets are really boring. But they’re also really important in understanding how and why the police are as powerful as they are. There’s a great quote by Mariame Kaba: “The surest way of reducing police violence is to reduce the power of the police, by cutting budgets and the number of officers.” To do this, we need to understand what the police budget is.
Last year, in 2022, the Winnipeg Police spent $324 million in operating funding ($320 million authorized in the budget plus another $4.5 million in overspending). That was over one-quarter of the city’s operating budget, and was by far the highest funded department. For comparison, the entire community services budget — which includes libraries, parks, pools, arenas, and leisure programming — was only $116 million. The cops get almost 3x that amount.
Winnipeg spends the highest percentage of its operating budget on policing of any major city in Canada. In the year 2000, it “only” spent 16.9% of its operating budget on police. Now it spends 26.8%. This ever-increasing share of the police’s consumption of resources means less and less for almost every other city department.
Almost 90% of the police budget goes to salaries and benefits. Almost 1,300 cops now make more than $100,000 a year, with a new hire starting to earn six figures after only five years. That’s over $50/hour — after only five years! And there are lots of ways they can make more money than the baseline salary, like doing very lucrative overtime shifts at grocery stores. Their salaries only keep going up year after year. And then they have the audacity to complain about lack of funding!
If more police and higher police budgets meant more safety, Winnipeg would be the safest that its ever been — and maybe even one of the safest cities in the world. But it’s the complete opposite. Policing does not do what it claims to do but instead makes things far worse and reproduces the conditions that lead to violence and harm. It’s merely displaces and deepens cycles of violence and the only people who benefit are the cops and their cushy salaries.
Unlike every other city department, the WPS budget is completely immune to budget cuts. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, many genuinely essential city services like public transit and libraries suffered service cuts and layoffs. But the police budget wasn’t only untouched: they spent millions more than they were even authorized to!
Many city workers at rec facilities, libraries, and 311 are working part time and precarious positions for low wage and even sometimes minimum wage. And we know that many crucial social services for many oppressed people including youth have been gutted during the pandemic and much of the violence we’re seeing in the city at the moment can be directly linked to that.
But cops continue to get increased funding, expanding their already hugely bloated salaries. And many cops don’t even live in Winnipeg, meaning that their own property taxes go to other municipalities. This means the police are not only taking public resources from other workers and departments but out of the city itself.
City council has absolutely no plan to curb this police budget. A report that was supposed to be prepared in time for the last budget about making the police budget more sustainable wasn’t finished in time and it’s unclear if it was ever completed. At the same time, the city refuses to acknowledge, let alone seriously consider, calls for defunding police and reallocating its budget to other resources. In fact, it’s increasingly difficult to find information about police budgets, with the police removing all previous budget and statistical information from their website and available only upon request. So it continues to underfund and cut many other essential public services in order to continue funding some 1,500 cops and their six figure salaries and pensions.
This is why we as an organization call for defunding of police and refunding of community. The status-quo is utterly unsustainable and it’s imperative that the police budget is used to fund life-sustaining services that actually keep people safe.
What about reform? Why doesn’t it work? by James
By far the most common response to widely publicized incidents of police violence is the promise of police reform. Reform is an understandable desire but it’s one that comes with its own set of problems.
Reform is the idea that the issues of policing are not inherent to the institution itself and can be successfully removed or at least reduced through gradual changes. Part of this is the idea that police don’t need to be defunded and abolished: they simply need to have certain tasks removed from their list of responsibilities so that they can get back to doing “real” police work.
Some examples of this include calls for better training like de-escalation training or implicit bias training or new technologies like body cameras or so called less lethal weapons like tasers. Or think of the new and tiny pilot project that the cops started that pairs a plainclothes officer with a mental health worker with a small number of crisis situations.
They also include things like ensuring that new police hires are more representative of communities — including hiring more women and racialized people — or setting up oversight bodies like police boards. Even the call for more community policing or beat cops is a type of police reform.
These all sound pretty good, right? But there are many issues that crop up time and time again with these reforms.
The first thing is that these reforms simply don’t work. They don’t reduce police violence. Studies have indicated that racialized police are just as likely to exhibit the same racial biases as white police. We just saw this in the heinous murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. Cops wearing body cameras will still commit brutal acts of violence, knowing full well that they will be legally protected. Tasers still kill people, like Matthew Fosseneuve in 2018. And bean bag guns still kill people, like Chris Amyotte late last year.
We also know that regardless of the claims of reforms, many people will still avoid calling or interacting with police due to experiences of violence, discrimination, or neglect. For example, a recent study by the Southern Chiefs Organization found that 66% of First Nation people in Manitoba have avoided getting help from police because of racism. We also know that rates of reporting violence like sexual assault and other gender-based violence is incredibly low, in large part because survivors know that they won’t be taken seriously by police or that nothing will come of it in the long run. Another recent study estimated that only 5% of sexual assaults in Canada are reported, and two-thirds of people surveyed about it said they were “not confident in the police, the court process, or the criminal justice system in general.” This is especially true of people who are queer, trans, or of other oppressed gender or sexual identities.
This isn’t a situation that can be addressed through reforms as the institution is inherently violent.
Secondly, police are very skilled at evading or undercutting these reforms. Body cameras can be turned off or footage buried. Bans on certain restraints have been found to be ineffective and weakly enforced. Police board membership can be controlled through police security clearance processes. And training has no discernible benefit outside of PR for police.
Lastly, these reforms almost always mean more money for police. Millions of dollars are required to buy body cameras and millions more are needed every year to run them. These millions more dollars also provide a boost in reputation to cops, despite the fact that they don’t even work as claimed. Ultimately, police reforms mean more funding and powers to police, which takes away resources from life-sustaining services that actually keep people safe.
There’s another great quote from Mariame Kaba that sums it up well: “Ultimately, the only way that we will address oppressive policing is to abolish the police. Therefore all of the ‘reforms’ that focus on strengthening the police or “morphing” policing into something more invisible but still as deadly should be opposed.”
Police reforms should be thought of as a way to protect police from the only thing that actually reduces police interaction and violence: cuts to the police budget and redirection of funding to non-carceral alternatives. They present a comforting and attractive story that policing can be salvaged if only the right people, training, and technologies are introduced. But these reforms have never worked because they can’t work. They’re designed not to work.
Policing is an inherently violent institution and the only way to end its violence is to end it as an institution.
Ways to create safety in your own community by Trixie
When talking about safety, we need to think beyond just addressing immediate feelings of danger. Instead we should be seeking to create communities where we respond first with compassion, understanding, and a desire to help one another meet our needs so that dangerous situations don’t happen in the first place. That being said, we aren’t going to pretend that any of this is easy or a one-size-fits-all solution.
An abolitionist approach to community safety is about participating in an ongoing process of relationship that acknowledges that any attempt to create safety and meet our community’s needs will be imperfect. A common response to talking about community safety beyond police is an attempted got’cha of “what will you do when x,y, or z happens?” Abolition is not idealistic or naive, but instead acknowledges that in many of the “got’cha” scenarios, the current system doesn’t work, and in many cases is actively harmful because the goal is not really safety, but the maintenance of the status quo that has been created under colonial capitalism.
The key here is to work to meet people’s needs and prevent danger or harm from happening in the first place. We know we can prevent violence without any police involvement. It is far more effective to prevent harm without causing more harm as police usually do. The goal has to be to fundamentally change the larger social structures that cause “crime” in the first place in order to eliminate the need for police/the justice system as we know them today. This means things like building or expanding life-sustaining services like housing, harm reduction, food security, income supports, and non violent and anti-carceral crisis response. For example, there’s a concept, that exists in other communities, of 'violence interrupters,' who are credible messengers and respected community members who conduct daily outreach within their communities, de-escalate, prevent and intervene in potentially violent situations, and also respond after the fact to prevent escalation and retaliation.
These kinds of crisis responses that don't rely on criminalization and incarceration have turned out to be highly effective and lead to long term safety rather than simply relocating crises to jail cells. I challenge you to, whenever you hear news stories about “crime”, to ask yourself “what did this person need to not feel the need to act this way” instead of “what should the punishment be so that the person doesn’t want to do this again”?
Creating community safety beyond police is about working to live in a way that cultivates relationships with those around us, or at the very least responding with compassion, understanding the difference between feeling unsafe or just uncomfortable, and addressing root causes of harmful actions to actually help people instead of punishing them.
While community safety is easiest when life-sustaining services are well funded, we can still work to create safety in our communities through simple everyday actions and a shift in mindset about what safety means.
For example, if people are concerned about unhoused people camping in their neighbourhood; maybe there’s garbage piling up or sometimes people act strangely because they’re using drugs, the question to ask isn’t “how can we move these people out of here and punish them for being messy and using drugs,” but instead we should ask “why don’t these people have homes, and how can we get them a safe place to live?” In the meantime could the city send some workers to pick up garbage or could we volunteer to do it ourselves with the consent of the people living in the camp? Research who you could call instead of police if someone seems in distress and work to understand that just because someone is acting strangely, does not mean they are dangerous.
Here are a few simple, concrete actions you can take to work to create safety in your neighborhood without police. Again, these are not silver bullet guaranteed answers to every problem, but they are actions anyone can take to begin to shift the collective mindset around how we can create a community that responds compassionately to each other instead of defaulting responsibility for “helping people” to the police.
Getting together as a community is a great way to create safety. Get to know your neighbours. People who know each other are more likely to look after each other. People who have relationships with their neighbours actually feel safer because their neighbours are not strangers but rather people they can interact with.
Even simple things like acknowledging each other, and chatting once in a while builds community and creates connection which is the bedrock of safety in a community. A community network should be a place where members socialize with, learn from, and support each other. It should be a space where we can discuss our needs. Of course it is also important to recognize the power dynamics that can be in play in our community through things like level of education, occupation, economic status, race, religion, etc. We can’t assume that everyone around us will have the same needs and priorities. It’s important to learn about the social makeup of our neighborhood and to appreciate the diversity of our community.
An easy way to meet your neighbours is to try and find out where people are already gathering and get involved in a place that interests you. For example, community centers, school committees, sports clubs, a block party organization, etc.
Know what resources currently exist beyond police. Learn who you can call instead of the police. In situations of conflict or non-medical emergency, try to retrain the instinct to think of police as the default option. Ask yourself, what is the actual problem in this situation and what needs need to be met? Alternatives may not yet exist, but many do for several common situations. We have several resource lists available of alternatives to police for crisis support and winter weather responses.
Create a network. This can be easy to do especially in the era of social media. See if there is an existing online group for your neighbourhood or block. If not, you could create one and drop off a note in your neighbours’ mailboxes inviting them to join. One of the advantages of creating a network is that it’s easier to reach our neighbours, build community, or ask for help when needed.
Lastly, Increase public participation in the systems that shape our communities. A safe and healthy community has more resources, not cops. Who gets to decide what resources our communities have? For most things that affect us on a day to day basis, the mayor and city council. Decision makers are usually hesitant to move away from the status quo of only ever investing in police, even when they are told and shown that the police does not meet needs like housing, food insecurity, or poverty. Though it can feel futile, it’s still important to build power and make our needs known to the people who decide how our community’s resources are used.
The reality is communities have great ideas about spending money or how to invest in the things that make sense to them and meet their needs. That is why communities need to be empowered to create their own visions of community safety by having a say in how our communal, public resources are used. Ultimately, when we talk about abolition we talk about the shift towards care, compassion and empathy and how to ensure everyone has as much support as they need. Abolition is understanding a need for empathy and to move away from a punishment-centred system into one that centres compassion.
Outro by Daniel
That concludes Winnipeg Police Cause Harm’s portion of the presentation. We would now like to invite (group names) forward to share a bit about the work they have been doing to create safety in our communities. Following their presentations we invite you to stick around and talk more about the ideas we’ve been discussing in the presentations. We have the space booked for the whole night so there’s no rush to get out of here, but please feel free to leave when you need to. We have bus tickets available for anyone who needs, you can find them at (table). Thank you all for coming and have a good rest of your evening!