Skip to content

Defunding the police is wrongheaded

Mark Milke: Calls to re-allocate money from policing to social services ignore one crucial fact: other government programs already receive 35 times more funding.
(Untitled Title /

If you live long enough, or know any history, you soon discover that nothing is new under the proverbial sun.

Case in point: Calls to “defund” police and replace them with (or turn them into) social workers. That call, along with relentless attacks upon their profession, will again lead to police who cannot properly protect the public. In fact, it already is.

On defunding, such calls arose in June after a now ex-Minnesota police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes, killing Floyd. (Chauvin and three other ex-police officers have been charged in Floyd’s death.)

The killing was unfathomable and unforgiveable: a police officer “restrains” a suspect with his knee on this throat and also his colleagues do nothing. Charges against the now ex-officers were rightfully laid and the general response from near and far was rightly shock and anger. But the later responses, that have ranged from riots and calls for police departments to be “defunded,” were not.

Thus, one Edmonton columnist claimed that at least some police work could be done by mental health workers. Other have argued that root causes should be addressed and thus money shifted from cops to new social workers.

Some facts would be helpful here. Just over $15 billion was spent on policing in Canada in 2018 (the latest year for which the statistic is available). As for social programs, federal spending on programs was $144 billion that year. As for the provinces and territories, they collectively spent $402 billion that year.

Add the spending from both levels together and governments spent $546 billion on programs in 2018. Take away what was spent on cops ($15 billion) and federal and provincial governments spent $531 billion in 2018 on programs of every variety from health care to social assistance to training grants to all forms of education and much more.

Thus, the 2018 figure of $531 billion on programs and $15 billion on policing bely any notion that governments in Canada have not spent a torrent of cash on social programs in even a normal year.

The calls to defund the police—which some have now backed off from by explaining they only ever meant to turn police into social workers and/or have social workers accompany them—is predicated in the sociological belief that every human being is ultimately and mostly a product of their environment.

Not everyone is going down this path. For example, some leaders in New York City’s African American community have called for that city’s police department to bring back an anti-crime unit made up of 600 plainclothes police officers, disbanded in June in response to the outrage over George Floyd’s killing. They have done so in response to a surge in homicides in New York.

Nature vs. Nurture and when it doesn’t matter

 However, at present, such community leaders seem to be in the minority and drowned out by reflexive anti-police voices. To grasp what’s going on, it helps to know that the defunders lean heavily to the “nurture” explanation for much human behaviour. They prefer that explanation over the claim from nature, i.e., that we are hardwired in certain ways including to anti-social behaviour that tips into criminal behaviour for some. In that “nurture” world, if only governments would spend more money on ostensible root causes—ameliorating the effect of an unfortunate childhood, or tragedy—or spend more money on education, or on social assistance and social workers to accompany cops in dicey situations, more crime could be prevented in advance.

It’s an interesting theory, but given the imbalance between what is now spent on policing – $15 billion versus $531 billion on programs – it’s not clear that taking money from police budgets to bump up over half-a-trillion dollars in program spending will alleviate more crime, even if one leans towards the sociological/nurture explanation for human behaviour.

We needn’t settle the nurture vs. nature debate here. For one thing, it’s not an either-or choice. Social workers, religious leaders and others do help many people through tough situations. When I was a kid, I was fortunate enough to have various mentors who helped me through hard times and I am forever grateful to all of them.

On the flipside, when police are called to an emergency, the nature-nurture debate stops: What matters then is immediate de-escalation, or if that’s not possible, stopping someone who may soon hurt an innocent.

Which should bring us back to common-sense reality, too often lacking when mass hysteria takes off and the most radical calls – i.e., defund the police – end up as headlines. The suppression of the ability of police to reasonably respond to threats to themselves and others—note the two key words “reasonably respond”—is already having its tragic effect.

A police-free zone experiment: CHAZ

Here’s a high-profile example. In that bevy of chaos which was Seattle’s temporary anti-civilization hub, “Chaz”, where police abandoned a precinct, the later result was six people shot with two homicides in an area previously a hub for parties. One was Lorenzo Anderson Jr., 19, shot dead as result of gang violence. Another Antonio Mays Jr., 16, was killed after joyriding in a stolen car—shot by the self-proclaimed Chaz “security force.” Both victims were black. So much for a new way of policing cities.

Back to the value of history. Calls to de-emphasize the role of police are not new. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, the presumption that police were somehow always a problem and that social programs would solve much of what ailed crime-ridden areas was a popular belief among academics, headline-writers and many politicians.

But by the late 1980s and early 1990s, even liberal Americans were tiring of the excuse-a-day approach to crime on the streets and those who explained away crime with endless “root cause” theories. New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a liberal Democrat and himself a sociologist – but not an anti-common sense one – wrote a paper where he called such explain-away approaches “defining deviancy down.”

History repeats

One example: In 1993, in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a psychotic homeless man Jeffrey Rose, grabbed a baby from its mother and began stabbing it in the face. It turned out the man had been arrested eight weeks earlier for smashing a man through a deli’s glass counter.

When local officials were confronted at a town meeting a few weeks later, even the liberal Village Voice reported on how locals were fed up with the “there’s-nothing-we-can-do” response. When the director of a shelter where Rose sometimes stayed told the crowd that as human beings “we have very little control. And people don’t want to face it,” Ettie Shapiro was booed and hissed at by the most liberal segment of American society: Upper East Side New Yorkers.

Author Eric Siegel (from whose book I draw these details) also noted that after Shapiro told the crowd that Rose “had had a hard life, a local resident replied, ‘Don’t give us this liberal crap.’”

In essence, what that Manhattan resident and Moynihan both meant was that despite whatever hardship someone faces, at some point, the excuses must cease and anti-social behaviours cannot forever be explained away, downplayed. Or excused. And as a last resort, the police must step in and keep such people off the streets for everyone’s safety.

The killing of George Floyd was evil and Derek Chauvin will likely be convicted of murder. But defunding the police is the opposite of sense and not a remedy to anything.

Mark Milke is an author, columnist and author of six books. His most recent is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.