Policing and Racism - Institute on Governance

Policing and Racism

2 minute read

In 1829, Robert Peel established London’s first professional police force. The “general instructions” given to the force included nine principles that remain models of sound policing to this day. To cite only the first two principles:

  1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
  2. To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

These two principles are at the core of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign that is gaining global attention and spurring anti-racism protests around the world. First, that the police are not a military force geared to repression. Second, that effective policing requires public confidence and trust.

In the U.S., municipal and state-level leaders in more than a dozen states have responded to anti-racism protests with policy measures that propose to reduce or redirect funding for police forces, and to reform or restrict aggressive and violent police behaviour. Minneapolis has gone so far as to say it will “dismantle” the police force. Defunding refers to a redirection of some police funding to social prevention initiatives. No one seems to know what dismantling means, though it presumably has more to do with police governance than a utopian-minded elimination of an obviously necessary function.

Is there scope to redirect police funding? We won’t rush to judgement, but the question is worth asking. Practices vary from city to city, but in many U.S. cities, large and small, police funding consumes more than 40% of budgets, versus 17% in Montreal and 11% in Toronto.(Interestingly, Minneapolis doesn’t appear to fall into the mega-police budgets category.) Toronto has 5,400 police; New York City with perhaps three times the population has over 36,000. And police have increasingly been equipped with military style hardware.

In Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau endorsed (on 8 June) the use of body cameras by RCMP officers as a “substantive solution to allegations of racism and brutality”. The Prime Minister also announced his intention to push this subject with provincial premiers and RCMP Commissioner, Brenda Lucki.

Trust in public institutions is a core principle of good governance; restoring trust is a slow and painful process that will take time. Let’s hope that the eventual outcome of the current upheavals is improved trust in the vital and honourable function of policing. After all, to quote Robert Peel’s seventh principle, “the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

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