‘All of it’: march organizer calls for WRPS defunding

By Phi Doan

After the massive turnout for the KW Solidarity March for Black Lives Matters, many have been left wondering what the next steps are for the movement.

The day before the march, the ACB of Waterloo Region (one of the organizers) put out a statement calling for the defunding of the Waterloo Regional Police Service (WRPS), and to reinvest it into community programs and supports instead. 

Following the protest locally—and across the world—discussions around defunding police services have taken centre stage. Many are dismissing the very notion of such a radical proposal. Others are wondering how such a radical idea would even work. Why not try to reform the service, rather than tear it down?

“Reform is just another way to legitimize policing and increasing funding,” said Fitsum Areguy, an activist and one of the organizers behind the KW Solidarity March for Black Lives Matters. “We don't need to change policing. We need to slowly defund, and at some point, dismantle policing.”

The next steps involve supporters continuing the call to defund WRPS and contact their elected officials. A template-letter is being circulated around on social media with additional background information on their demands. 

Their demands goes as follows:

  • We must defund, at the absolute minimum, $29.3 million– an accumulation of the past three years' worth of WRPS budget increases. Last year, even city council noted this is weighing down the Regional budget.
  • We must invest these resources in community-led health and safety initiatives instead of future investment into the WRPS.
  • End the School Resource Officer program and the Community Outreach Program, and instead invest in education, increased mental health and social services, and a culturally-responsive curriculum.
  • Invest in social support equity initiatives such as increased access to affordable housing, harm reduction services, accessible rehabilitation, conflict resolution services, reintegration services, and other vital community-based support systems.

Areguy says we should be viewing abolition as ending the conditions under which institutions—like prisons and policing—became the solution to problems. It's an idea he credits to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, an abolitionist and prison scholar who has been calling for the end of the prison system for over three decades.

Much of their work has been built on groups before them. He specifically names the black, queer women who founded BLM (Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors), local organizations (Congress of Black Women, Canadian Caribbean Association), and credits Ruth Cameron, fellow march organizer, for informing and broadening much of his views.

He says if one took time to really read their proposal—and what others have on the subject—defunding the WRPS is not nearly as radical an idea as it sounds. Especially, if people consider how much money is being spent on the police service.

The 2020 regional budget saw $200,143,000 dedicated to the WRPS (19.9 per cent of the total budget). The majority of which is paid through property taxes. The average household pays around $2,101 in property taxes, with nearly third ($663) going to the police service. The majority of the police budget goes towards payroll.

Meanwhile, as activists noted in their letter, this is more than Public Health ($40,588,000), senior services ($39,981,000), housing services ($80,972,000), and the library ($3,214,000) combined. During budget talks, councillors have even noted the ever-increasing cost of the police service.

Money that could be better spent on addressing the causes of crime, rather than the continued surveillance and punishment of black people and poor racialized communities, according to Areguy.

“People are not criminal to their core. Crime is because people aren't able to meet needs. So, if we're able to meet those needs, then crime goes down,” he said. 

Instead of spending money to hire another armed officer, the money could be better spent on community programs like affordable housing, income supports and other social support equity initiatives.

Meanwhile, Regional Councillor Elizabeth Clarke posted a message regarding the over 600 letters she had been received following Wednesday's march. 

While she recognizes the goals of the march and its supporters, as a regional councillor, she says they have little influence over how the WRPS sets its budget. The Ontario Police Services Act prohibits municipal governments from involving themselves, leaving police budget talks in the hands of the Police Services Board.

She ends her statement with a defence of WRPS officers she had worked with over the years in the homelessness sector.

Areguy says it's not an issue of good cops or bad cops, but a problem of the police institution. That people have been programmed to turn to police as a cure-all-in situation they are either ill-equipped for, or have no business being in. He points to their continued carding practices disproportionately targeting black people, sexual harassment within the force, interactions with the homeless, and checking up on mental health calls. 

“It's the entire institution, it's something that is upheld by white supremacy and colonial-settler myths and understanding,” he said. “If police officers want to do the right thing, they should resign and look to other roles in the community, where they can do what they do, without being armed. Without being a cop.”

He calls it a “failure of the imagination.” That a region known for innovation can't envision a future where we solve social issues without a police presence. Especially a future that's being seriously considered by the Minneapolis City Council, the same city where George Floyd was killed by a white police officer and sparked protest across the world.

Still, the call to defund the police is often met with concern. What if a brawl breaks out in downtown Kitchener? What about domestic violence calls? Waterloo will likely return to tackling the unsanctioned street parties on Ezra Avenue, once the pandemic is over.

None of these issues will be fixed overnight, but activists don't expect police departments to be torn down anytime soon either. They just recognize that the current status quo isn't the solution. And in many ways, is part of the problem as well. 

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