Following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020-2021, the role and tactics of police in society, in particular the use of police violence, have come under closer scrutiny. Previously held assumptions about the police as the protectors of the community who only use violence as a last resort against the truly dangerous have largely evaporated among the populace. The call to end police violence, and to hold police accountable, has been echoed across Canada and the world.
An article by The Globe and Mail, citing a study by Tracking Injustice, however, has found that the use of deadly force by police has actually increased, from 34 incidents in 2019 jumping to 52 in 2020, 57 in 2021, and 69 in 2022. The number in 2022 represents the highest known total of police deaths since tracking began.
The phrase “highest known total” may seem odd for statistics on police use of deadly force. This kind of data should be easily known and accessible. As Tracking Injustice notes, however, there is no federal body that is charged with tracking the number of police involved deaths countrywide, leaving independent research bodies to pick up the slack.
Performative solutions mean no solutions
Two years on from the historic events of the BLM protests, which saw demands to defund or even abolish the police gain widespread popularity, it seems little has changed. In fact, according to Stats Canada, police budgets have increased from $12.4 billion to $13.6 billion from 2018 to 2021, an increase of 9.7 per cent.
There have been some gestures towards a response, with many promises made by police forces and their representatives to take steps toward reducing police violence in Canada. In 2020 Trudeau came out pushing for body cams on officers, acknowledging that Canadians, particularly Black and Indigenous Canadians, don’t feel protected by police officers.
In spite of all these promises, none of them have materialized into real change. For example, then Toronto police chief James Ramer in 2022 acknowledged the problem of systemic racism among the police. A study by the Toronto police found that Black people are 2.2 times more likely to have an interaction with police and 1.6 times more likely to have force used against them. Chief Ramer lays out 38 action items that are meant to address the issue. Each of these items ultimately leave the power of review and decision-making in the hands of the police, the very body that is under scrutiny! Very convenient, no? Is it any surprise, then, that of the 461 cases involving a fatal police officer from 2000-2017, 18 cases resulted in charges against an officer and only two of those resulted in convictions?
This same Toronto Police Service elected to raise up Myron Demkiw to be the new police chief in November of 2022. This same police chief was linked to an infamous bathhouse raid and various other attacks on LGBTQ and racialized people. To put a man like that in charge shows that all these promises are little more than smoke blown in our faces.
Why the uptick?
The Globe and Mail article continues, quoting Carleton criminologist Alexander McClelland, a member of the tracking injustice project: “The rise that we’ve seen, the quite dramatic rise, can’t be easily explained,” he said.
This doesn’t stop the Ontario Provincial Police Association (OPPA) from attempting to provide an explanation. OPPA spokesperson Scott Mills claimed that COVID-19 has created a crisis in mental health. This increase in mental health problems has resulted in “more volatile situations.” Despite the fact that people with mental health issues are more often the victims of violence than perpetrators of violence compared to the general population, this ultimately dodges the obvious question: Why are police being called in for mental health interventions in the first place? As we’ve written before, they are a tool ill-adapted for that purpose. Moreover, why is the mental health of working class people being allowed to slip to the point where people are having meltdowns and threatening self-harm?
As the crisis of capitalism continues to deepen, mental health crises will only grow worse. These problems need to be attacked at the source; however, the ruling class seems to disagree. Canada’s health-care system is overburdened and falling apart as it is, and the mental health of the workers is certainly not on the priority list for the ruling class, at least, not above the police.
The fact of the matter is that when all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.
The capitalists need police
But the capitalists can never do away with this particular hammer. The police do not exist as a neutral body; they are a specific tool with a specific purpose. Capitalist society is divided into two great camps: the workers, who create all the wealth in society through labour, and the capitalists, who keep the lion’s share of the wealth for themselves. This antagonism between the workers and the bosses is fundamental to capitalism. It is required in order for profits to be made. Most of the time, the antagonism does not burst out into outright struggle. During times of relative quiet, the laws and inertia of society are enough to keep the class war at a low simmer. However, the crises of the system develop into struggle and, should the struggle grow intense enough, threaten the foundation of capitalism and private property itself, whether through a single factory strike or a mass movement drawing in millions.
When the ruling class and its system comes under threat, the police can be called upon to defend the interests of the ruling class. As long as that ruling class exists, the police will be needed, to defend the property of the bosses with the threat of violence. There can be no such thing as a more “compassionate” police force. As the crisis of capitalism continues to worsen, all manner of reforms won by the working class over the decades will be peeled back, but somehow there will always be room in the budget for more, better equipped police.
As we have written before, it is only revolution that can dispense with the existing system and the police that uphold it. With the economy being flung from recession to recession, with only the limpest of “recoveries” in between, the funding for all the systems that make life bearable will be clawed away. As poverty among the working class increases as the welfare state decreases, crime and mental health crises will worsen. Moreover, workers will take action to defend their quality of life, on the picket lines and on the streets. More and more the ruling class will turn to the police, the only public institution the ruling class will never truly abandon, to keep order. There will be no end to police violence without putting an end to the police themselves, which will only happen when the workers put an end to the class that the police serve.