COMMENTARY: Before we defund the police, maybe we should check their call lists

In the aftermath of this year’s historic anti-racism rallies across the United States, Canada and the rest of the world, the movement to “defund” police departments is ramping up.

The campaigns call for governments to scale back or even eliminate budget funding for police services, and direct public dollars instead to social services like mental-health, drug-addiction and anti-poverty programs.

The movement places Canadian police departments in a tricky situation, especially with the continuing focus on officer misconduct and police training that critics see as inadequate.

Police departments have been careful in their responses, saying they would welcome additional funding for social services that would lessen the increasing demands on front-line cops.

Talk to any big-city police officer these days and you’re bound to hear stories about how so much of their time is taken up with problems associated with mental illness, addiction and homelessness.

“We’re happy to engage in those conversations,” Vancouver Police Department Deputy Chief Howard Chow told me when I asked if police want help with calls related to mental health and other growing social challenges.

But Chow also has a sobering reality check for anyone who thinks it would be a simple matter to just slash a big city’s police budget: the rising number of police calls for service.

Chow was on duty last Friday night when he decided to take a random computer screenshot of the Vancouver police department’s incoming call list.

The list — which he posted Twitter — showed 57 calls-for-service holding in the system as dispatchers worked to prioritize cases.

The calls included a paramedic seeking assistance in a suspected stabbing, an assault at a foster home, a construction worker reporting someone threatening him with a knife, a restaurant reporting a break-and-enter, a vehicle break-in at a downtown parkade, a woman reporting an assault by an ex-boyfriend, a man lying on the sidewalk punching himself and bleeding from the head, and 50 other calls.

“It’s a typical snapshot in time,” Chow told me, explaining how police must triage their responses.

“Unfortunately, some callers will end up waiting many hours for our attendance, as more serious incidents come in,” he said. “A new call for service comes in every two minutes.”

The Friday night call list included many incidents that would appear to fall in the category of calls related to poverty, mental health and homelessness.

Vancouver now has Canada’s largest homeless encampment in Strathcona Park, where police are called frequently to deal with trouble.

The problem, Chow pointed out, is that most mental health calls include threats to public safety.

“Eighty-four per cent of all mental health calls we go to involve danger of violence or some criminality that require police to be there,” he said.

“The reality is, there’s no other agencies that are out there right now to deal with some of these aspects.”

Even situations that appear less dangerous often require a response by a police officer, not a social worker, he said.

“Sometimes you’re dealing with a situation at 3 o’clock in the morning when no one else is available,” he said.

“Or you may have a caller who says, ‘I’m concerned about my 84-year-old neighbour who hasn’t been seen in a week.’ The police still need to go there because how are you going to get access? How are you going to breach the doors? How are you going to secure the scene afterward? No other agency is enabled to do that.”

And then there’s just regular old crime, which is up dramatically in many Vancouver neighbourhoods.

“We’ve seen spikes in commercial break-and-enters. We’ve seen spikes in street-level assaults and violence. Anti-Asian hate crimes saw an 878 per cent increase because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve seen an increase in violent crime in 16 of our 24 neighbourhoods.

Throw in the escalating opioid addiction crisis and the VPD call list paints a picture of a department run off its collective feet.

“It’s been a busy year for us,” Chow told me. “We haven’t been able to scale back.”

Defund the police? If anything, the current situation in Vancouver and many other Canadian cities presents a strong argument for increasing police budgets, not the other way around.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

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