Blue Line

“Defund the police?” — How did we get here?

July 31, 2020  By Joel A. Johnston

The past months have been difficult, to say the least, for policing in Canada – and indeed globally. The highly-public death of George Floyd, followed two weeks later by the highly-public death of Rayshard Brooks in a country in many ways far-removed from Canada have had a significant impact. Much of it has not been pretty.

Data has been manipulated by special interest groups to make it appear as though racism is at the root of all police interventions – which it is not. In almost every lethal force encounter, the police were put into direct contact with the person as a result of a complaint or call for service. In a fairly comprehensive review of fatal outcomes with police in Canada by a national media outlet, it was revealed that over a period of 18 years, 461 people died in police custody – of all causes. Included in this review were deaths as a result of natural causes, medical complications, overdoses, etc. during an encounter with Canadian police. Some of these cases involved no physical force whatsoever.

Fatal shootings comprised 329 of these encounters1. That’s an average of 18 per year. It is conservatively estimated that police in Canada have about 30 million contacts with the public every year. This equates to a ~.0000006 per cent likelihood of being shot by police in Canada – or about one in 1.67 million.

Further, the vast majority of these people were armed and imminently dangerous at the moment they were shot by police. Others were engaged in a violent fight with police during an interaction. Others were imminently endangering the lives of members of the public.


Fatal police encounters occur in Canada across the racial spectrum, with the majority involving Caucasian people (White ~50 per cent, Indigenous ~15 per cent, Black less than 10 per cent)2. Some, predictably, will do a “per capita” analysis and state that one race or another is “disproportionately represented.” It is a dubious argument.

This disproportionate representation also occurs with respect to the commission of crime and violence in Canada. Policing resources are deployed strategically. That is, police officers are not deployed evenly across the geography of any given area. They are concentrated in zones where crime is more prevalent (think gang activity, shootings, drug dealing, robberies, violent assaults, home invasions, break-and-enters, drunk driving, etc.).

Presumably people want to leverage the greatest benefit from the distribution of scarce policing resources. It makes little sense to assign police to stable, low-crime areas. People who live and operate in high-crime areas will inevitably have more frequent contact with police. This contact will include appropriate street checks, traffic stops and sometimes use of force encounters. The reasons behind why police need to be more concentrated in these areas and neighbourhoods is a question better answered by politicians who have created and/or perpetuated this reality through social-political-economic decisions across decades.

More than anything else, this review of fatal outcomes with police in Canada revealed that more than 70 per cent of these incidents involved mental health and/or substance abuse as key factors3. This reality is very instructive from a number of perspectives.

First, people who are either suffering from a mental health crisis or are engaged in substance abuse have a couple of things in common. They are often detached from reality. When they are engaged in dangerous behaviour such that the family or community is sufficiently alarmed, they call the police. This will not change. No community support worker or healthcare worker is going to attend to a situation where their personal safety cannot be guaranteed. The police attend. And the police do try to “de-escalate” situations when the opportunity is present. The police will spend hours “de-escalating” when the situation is contained and no one is in imminent jeopardy of being killed or maimed.

The second instructive point is this: the police were never intended to be the public service agency that dealt with mental health, substance abuse and homelessness issues. They were not originally trained for these roles. Yet the most challenging circumstances they face involve these issues. One might ask, how did this happen? It happened when governments over the past number of decades made the conscious political decisions to “defund” mental health care, substance abuse and addiction treatment, affordable housing and a number of other social programs.

There have been cries to defund – even dismantle the police. We caught a glimpse of what dismantling the police would look like with Seattle’s recently-reclaimed “CHOP” or “CHAZ” neighbourhood. Violence, shakedowns, murders, intimidation, extortion, drive-by shootings… The list goes on and this was only over a four-week period.

We have also seen what defunding looks like in New York City after its anti-crime unit was dismantled in June. Shootings have gone up 205 per cent since then, according to the New York Post.

To be clear, the police in Canada have never been properly funded. That is, as demands for policing services increased, funds were never commensurately diverted to policing. The defunding of mental health and addiction treatment and housing never resulted in additional funding to policing.

Perhaps it is time to call on our governments to “re-fund” all of the social programs they spent so many years defunding.

The public must be aware that “defunding the police” is not a viable solution to anything. There isn’t nearly the money required to restore mental health care facilities, addiction treatment centres and affordable housing to be found in policing budgets. Perhaps it is time to call on our governments to “re-fund” all of the social programs they spent so many years defunding.

Further, the need for policing will never disappear in a culture where inequity, mental illness, substance abuse, greed, crime, violence and confrontation are common. Unfortunately, the police have been directed away from many criminal activities that merit their immediate attention, all of which have physical, social, emotional and financial impacts on all Canadians.

The current cry to “defund the police” reflects a lack of understanding of how we got here. If defunding the police were to occur in favour of funding “social programs,” it would be the greatest political “bait and switch” of all time. However, it ultimately all comes down to money. Difficult choices have to be made regarding how to best serve a society and at the same time keep it safe.


  1. CBC Study – “Deadly force – Fatal encounters with police in Canada: 2000-2017.”
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.

Joel A. Johnston is a retired 28-year veteran of the Vancouver Police Department. He spent 20 years specializing in force-related training and program development, and Emergency Response (ERT). He is the principal of Joel Johnston Consulting Inc.®, a private training coach, consultant and use of force subject matter expert. Visit for more.

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