With a proposal that insists on all kinds of community engagement—even from those wholly opposed to the idea— Halifax's board of police commissioners moved the process for community consultation on defunding the police forward this week.
After a messy start, the board's request for a committee made up of community stakeholders to look at a definition of defunding finally has some legit direction.
The committee's chair, El Jones—appointed by the board's chair Natalie Borden "because of her standing in the community" as an expert and advocate—presented a proposal to the commissioners that outlined a road map for not just defining what "defunding the police" means to the board of police commissioners, but a plan for how meaningful work can be done that reimagines police services and the role of police in Halifax.
Talk of reimagining was sparked by the public and violent killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto, and other injustices that led to a global movement which largely focuses on the experiences of Black and Indigenous people who have been mistreated by police forces here in Halifax, and Canada-wide.
Jones reminded the board that though the widespread discussion of defunding the police is new, it received a presentation last winter from Jones herself and other advocates for reallocation of police and carceral resources, Harry Critchley and physician Leah Genge.
The proposal's vision builds on HRM's community and race relations policy, and requires that community members can actually understand what's being discussed and proposed and engage meaningfully–not just from people who agree with defunding police or police reform, but "people who disagree completely," as well, adds Jones.
Jones says that the real discussion will be about what this looks like in the community, not just what the definition will entail. That's where the contention and disagreement lies and as a result, is where meaningful debate and decisions will be made. (Like how the majority of HRM councillors said they support the Black Lives Matter movement, and the majority also said that HRM shouldn't defund the police).
Jones says people often ask "how are we going to move from this thing that we have to this thing that we know nothing about?" as if the act of reimagining the role of the justice system in our lives is unheard of—but she says we already have a really great example right here in Nova Scotia.
When the threat of COVID-19 became real, advocates from all areas of Nova Scotia's justice system worked with the province and courts to release 41 percent of provincially incarcerated people and provide supportive housing—which ended up costing about half of what traditional incarceration would have cost. Funding for the program hasn't been renewed, but Jones says it's a perfect example of how many organizations working together can act quickly to reimagine a system and make meaningful changes.
The road map proposes a committee with representatives from diverse communities across Halifax, including OmiSoore Dryden, the James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie, Leah Genge, a representative from the Decade of People of African Descent Coalition, a representative from the Nova Scotia Policing Policy Working Group, representatives from the Mi’kmaw community, the 2SLGBTQ+ community, a housing and homelessness representative, youth representative, gender-based and intimate partner violence representative, and a newcomer/refugee representative. She stresses that representation from often overlooked communities like the disability advocacy community is crucial too, considering that 50 percent of incarcerated women are living with a disability. (A Coast reader responded to our Instagram Story about the representatives and suggested the committee also have a paramedic on it, saying "paramedics often respond with police & have first-hand knowledge of their role.")
The plan also outlined a need for community consultation, public hearings, presentations from stakeholders that can be watched by all members of the community, a jurisdictional scan of best practices across Canada and internationally, and a need to have all members of HRM participate in the conversation.
As it's proposed, Jones' insistance on broad public consultation will test the municipality's capacity to facilitate it, especially when this subject in particular relies on input from HRM residents who the municipality has traditionally struggled to reach with its outreach.
After Monday's approval, board chair Natalie Borden will strike a mini-committee of comissioners who will meet soon to discuss a budget and the details for the project, while Jones continues work to assemble the committee.
The mini-committee will return to the board in December with a plan for funding the work, and we'll go from there.
Jones imagines when all is said and done the committee will come back to the board with a series of short, medium and long term suggestions, and the board will then have to decide what to do with that info.
"I see it as recommending, building, emphasising what we have and talking about, if a budget shift were to occur, these are the places that it could productively and usefully go," says Jones.
"We can productively start documenting and engaging and creating space for these conversations, and people may pick them up or they may absolutely not," says Jones, noting that the work will provide clear recommendations but what happens with them isn't up to her.