A seeming dichotomy of positions towards police reform within the literature exists. On one side, there is the position of evidence based policing and efficiencies within policing budgets and, on the other, police abolition, which seeks to dismantle dominant policing agendas. In this article, we use Ben-Moshe’s framework to situate the police reform within two operating categories; reformist and non-reformist ideologies, always exploring arguments of community groups and policing scholars towards police practices. Our objective is to reveal the dialectic relationship that shapes both ontologies through non-empirical research, each position toward police reform appearing to rely on the legitimacy derived from the other. We argue the two positions work towards a similar goal in the Canadian context, specifically to change the nature of policing toward being more inclusive, responsive, and proactive in contributing to public safety.
The policing crisis emerged in the 1980s, with public recognition of police as the physical embodiment of the state’s ability to mitigate social harms and police, themselves, struggling with their own identity (Reiner, 2010). With each paradigm or political shift in society, police must adapt, always providing public safety while responding operationally to the differing agendas of key societal groups. A duality emerges in their role – is it to be a public police service oriented toward enforcing the law, or are police responsible first for mitigating the broad array of social troubles within any society? Challenges lace contemporary policing, as systemic racism, gendered based violence, police militarization, racial profiling, police use of force, and inflating policing budgets are just of the items underpinning the demand for police reform. Police abolitionist scholars and community activist groups argue community safety and wellness can be achieved without police involvement (see CPEP, 2020; McDowell and Fernandez, 2018; Maynard, 2020; NPPC, 2020). Conversely, other policing scholars see police as a necessary societal institution, arguing that the adoption of evidence-based policing (EBP) and evidence-informed tinkering with operational and organizational components of policing can spark needed change (Huey and Ricciardelli, 2018; Sewell and Williams, 2020; Roach, 2022). Recognizing this seeming dichotomous position, in the current article, we explore the value of both arguments in the discussion on police reform. Our objective is to show the necessity of both perspectives in genuine police reformation. Moreover, we take an unexpected approach, drawing on Ben Moshe’s framework of reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms.
In Toronto, political and public discussion presents policing reform in relation to the long history of deep distrust that the BIPOC communities feel towards the police (see Boothby, 2021; Hamdi, 2020; NPPC, 2020; Walcott, 2017). BIPOC communities have felt the deep impacts of policing, and the loss of opportunities, disparities in health and economic, and social outcomes as the result of over policing (City of Toronto 2020). Extensive literature speaks to how racialized groups and gendered groups, such as the 2SLGBTQ+, have been the target of policing attention (City of Toronto, 2020; Bell, 2017). This disparity is supported in the Toronto Police Service’s recent report stating black people are “two times as likely to have an interaction with Toronto police, and 1.6 times as likely to have force used against them” (Gillis, 2022a). In addition, researchers have also expressed concerns over how Canadian police services have tracked use of force statistics and how that creates difficulties in addressing police reform. Mainly because the estimates of use force are difficult to calculate because of the insufficient databases and contests amongst scholars and subject matter experts about how force should be outlined and measured (Bennell, 2020).
Reforming the police has been an ongoing issue for several years, but effective change has been difficult to achieve across Canadian police services. Police reform is contingent and shaped by the leniency the public gives to police officers because their occupationally responsible to respond to emergency calls for service. The calls for greater police accountability are against a backdrop of the lack of publicly available information about certain specialised divisions of the police, like Emergency Response Teams (ERT). For example, ERTs share similar types of equipment- such as weapon systems, handguns (with holster and magazines), submachine guns and communications equipment (NTAO, 2018) - but the degree of standardization in equipment across municipal, provincial, and federal police services is publicly unknown. The different standards across police services leads to ambiguity in the material and human resourcing standards of police tactical teams. Even though meaningful change must occur for policing to achieve procedural justice, there is still a lot of unknown information regarding policing in Canada.
Discussions around evidenced based policing (EBP) and police defunding in Canada share similarities and differences with the political impacts of the United States. Said otherwise, Canadian criminological discourses are influenced by high profile events from the United States such as the deaths of Reika Boyd, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, George Floyd and Tyre Nichols (Cyr et al., 2020; Mummolo, 2023). The same is true for concerns surrounding the militarization of Canadian policing, as Canadian criminologists and Canadian media began investigating concerns surrounding the “creeping militarization” of Canadian police services shortly after death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri (Cyr et al., 2020; Mairjan, 2016; National Post, 2014). Mairjan (2016) helps to conceptualize that creeping militarization is the idea that Canadian police services look increasingly like soldiers- as U.S. militarization trends creep North into Canadian police services. Police defunding campaigns in Canada are also highly influenced by events in the United States, as the reverberations surrounding the murder of George Floyd were felt in Canada, leading to massive protests (Pinset, 2020; CBCnews, 2020). Such a non-empirical analysis understands the interconnectedness of social issues between the United States and Canada, but the focus of the current article is to show a means-end framework for Canadian policing reform. Doing so by unpacking the two arguments on focuses of police reform – evidence informed change versus abolition – to show about the ends are similar but the means differ—thus, the intention between both positions are consistent—to create a socially, physically, and mentally healthier society. We argue directions for police reform must understand the nuances and complexities of the current policing climate and account for the demands of civil society groups asking to minimize lethal encounters with the public and minority communities but the need to remember the physical, emotional, and psychological challenges associated with being a police officer.
This analysis does not aim to argue in favour of either side of the reformist positions, but rather seeks to interpret the interconnectedness of both perspectives and how each holds an instrumental role toward meaningful organizational change of the police, including through pedagogy. By understanding the shared mileu between reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms, we can begin to understand the practical and psychological benefits of each for everyday policing practices. Contingent to the police defunding campaign, is a politic attached to the ontology of removing funding from the police, where the outright abolishment of the public police is not a feasible public policy position. Nor, is it a favourable political position likely to win political ballots. For this reason, the current article evaluates two reform positions of reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms with two key positions in mind: 1) How can we take civil society group demands seriously within the current system and 2) how can we create meaningful change to the police? We do so by relying on strategies from both sides of Ben-Moshe’s framework as police services must engage in reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms to satisfy the economical and civil society group demands if they seek to implement meaningful change. The purpose of this analysis, is to offer a new way of conceptualizing police reforms by relying on a critical criminological perspective to demonstrate a means-end approach that can ontologically challenge previous ways of thinking about reforming the police.
The following literature review will be broken down into three categories: Ben-Moshe’s framework of reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms, EBP, and the contemporary arguments of police abolitionists. Our purpose here is lay the groundwork for displaying how both reformist perspectives can be used together to create meaningful and equitable changes.
Ben-Moshe outlines that the inception of viewing reform and abolition on a continuum can be traced back to the work of Mathieson (1974) in his book Politics of Abolition. Thinking of left-wing approaches to reform was first written by Andre Gorz, who theorized that changes to the current capitalist system, towards a socialist system, requires the implementation of political and economic changes. Gorz was less concerned about the short term (reformist reforms) or long term (non-reformist) shifts, but rather that non -reformist reforms require a modification to the current relations of power in order to create new centres of democratic power (Akbar, 2020).
Ben-Moshe outlines that reformist reforms are “situated in the discursive formation of the system as is, so that any changes are made within or against this existing framework” (Ben-Moshe, 2013). This idea specifically relates to suggestions that are made by policing academics seeking to make reforms of the public police, but view the police as an essential part of our democracy. The suggestions towards reforming the police within a reformist reform framework, view the police as a necessary component of community safety and well-being. The contests surrounding police reform within this framework, agree that there are ongoing problems within current models of public policing. However, the underlying assumption about reformist reforms is that potential organizational and operational changes too police services can create an equitable and fair police service that will meet the needs of the diverse communities within society.
Reformist reforms are changes occurring within the current system, which allow the system to run more effectively. Ben Moshe writes about this framework in the context of the carceral system, and states that examples of positive reforms could be technological monitoring systems such as ankle monitors. An example of a reformist reform within policing can be seen through civilian oversight bodies. Academics, community groups, and the public have expressed the need for effective civilian oversight. Policing scholars have raised questions about the operational and organizational challenges that policing oversight bodies face, that impact their ability to hold public police forces accountable (Hope, 2021; Sen 2010; Clarke, 2009; Lewis, 2000). One major challenge that civilian oversight bodies face is securing funding from their respective federal or provincial governments (Clarke, 2009). Once the aforementioned calls for civilian oversight are heard, and civilian oversight is created, governments then tend to ignore the agency’s need for adequate funding and political support (Clarke, 2009; Lewis, 2000). The elected provincial or federal political party responsible for allocating civilian oversight funding, directly impacts the oversight body’s ability to conduct research and investigate complaints. Lewis (2000) highlights that many governments’ initial motivation for establishing civilian oversight diminishes once the body is operational and begins to make politically embarrassing findings. When oversight body’s become stretched due to resourcing issues, it directly impacts their ability to adequately hold public police forces accountable (Hope, 2021).
The other reformist framework outlined by Ben-Moshe is non-reformist reforms. Ben Moshe writes that non reformist reforms “imagine a different horizon that should be realizable for the improvement of humanity” and believes that alternatives can exist outside of what is possible at the present (Ben-Moshe, 2013). This approach to police reform can see changes to policing that stem from the abolishment of all policing agencies, to less radical alternatives such as diminishing the power of certain branches of the public police. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, outlines that non reformist reforms are changes to the system that “at the end of the day, unravel rather than widen the net of social control through criminalization” (Gilmore, 2008).
This is similar to negative reforms, which are changes that abolish or remove parts of the system of which it is dependant (Mathieson, 1974 in Ben-Moshe,2013). Some abolitionists such as Angela Davis, share the same overarching ideas as the authors, that there should not be such stark divides between reform and abolition (Davis in Ben-Moshe, 2013). We believe that pragmatic solutions should strengthen the system as is, whereas Davis believes in non-reformist reforms that seek to dismantle the current oppressive structures and believes in negative reforms as a way to place moratoriums on the systems from growing larger (Ben-Moshe, 2013).
Although our analysis does not believe that the long term goal of police reform should result in total abolition, Mathieson outlines that reformist reforms are necessary to engage in the short term and that “reformist reforms have goals which are subordinated to the facilities and the presuppositions of a system and a policy presented by the adversary” (Mathieson, 2015). Mathieson believes that reformist reforms are necessary until the abolitionist enlightenment arrives, but this analysis does not share the same understandings. What this analysis does share from Mathieson’s work, and hopefully fills a partial gap, is the idea of reform being the “unfinished.” Mathieson writes that “the alternative lies in the ‘unfinished’, in the sketch, in what is not yet fully finished” (Mathieson 1974 in Ben-Moshe, 2013). Our conceptualization views the ‘unfinished’ as the process of reforming the police that is equitable to all civil society members, and should draw on abolitionist thought processes to help work towards this goal, as opposed to reforming systems on the way to abolition. To do this, they must work together in culmination instead of dichotomous social divisions. This conceptualization builds on the major critique of Gorzs’ work, being “decidingly ambivalent” and that “a very clear dividing line” will not always be present to distinguish reformist and non-reformist reforms (Akbar, 2020). By understanding that both positions start and end with the same goals, our means-end framework seeks to demonstrate how both positions are dialectic and can be used in culmination to shift perceptions surrounding police reform. Police services must rely on the thoughts of social activists, non-reformist reforms, and negative reforms to produce the positive reforms and strengthening of the system on its way to a realistic organizational ‘unfinished’.
Evidence based policing (EBP) seeks to create a feedback loop for police services as to how they might obtain best practices by working through two different kinds of research. Sherman (1998) outlines that EBP should be informed by the three Ts: targeting, testing and tracking. Targeting is to identify high priorities problems within police services, which should then be tested through a series of outputs to be evaluated for specific outcomes and once implemented those outputs should be tracked to see if the effect should be implemented throughout the institution (Huey and Ricciardelli, 2018). In the most basic sense, EBP is the use of the best available research to “implement guidelines and evaluate agencies, units, and officers” (Sherman, 1998). An example or this would be increasing the annual amount of training that a frontline patrol unit receives per year as a measurable output. The varying degrees of success that arise from delivering this output could then be assessed by tracking “risk-adjusted” outcomes (Sherman, 1998). Theoretical examples of measurable outputs could be reduction to officer injury, reduction to civilian injury, or reduction in non-lethal use of force alternatives such as CEWs or batons as the result of increased use of force training. The observation that some platoons are having success as a result of the training could be used to further identify factors associated with success and then be used “in-house” as the justification for increasing the training for all frontline constables. This would also be a dual pronged approach, as not only would this reflect positively on the police agency but the data and findings from the study could be published in academic journals or kept in an internal database about success and failure rates based on the different outputs (Sherman, 1998).
Ideas and contributions towards reforming the public police have been going on for decades. One of the most prolific research project’s on police reform is from the 1970s where Richard Ericson studied the effectiveness of police patrols in relation to crime committed. Ericson found the police use patrols to circulate public space with the main objective of observing or responding to criminal activity. Ericson found that the increases to police patrol did not deter or prevent criminal activity from happening, and the only major benefit from the police patrolling specific areas is that the public felt more secure (Sewell and William, 2020). According to Statistics Canada, the highest percentage of serious violent crime takes place within interpersonal relationships between two people that know each other. This indicates that putting more police on the streets is not relevant to the prevention of violent crime (Sewell and Williams, 2020). It has been apparent since Ericson’s 1970s study, that increasing police patrols as a crime prevention method are an ineffective—thus evidence-based policing supports that increasing police presence is not a crime deterrent. The lack of distinction in what constitutes violent crimes is also problematic and supports Bennell’s (2020) argument about the difficulty in tracking use of force reports. Sewell and Williams (2020) highlight that there is no distinction in violent crime reports that would suggest a difference between a physical altercation at a bar, an assault, and a homicide. Which raises the question, why is it still being used? The benefit of using a EBP approach to police reform, is it allows the police to play an active role in targeting what patterns and issues need attention, identifying the responses that should tested, and tracking the results of the intervention (Sherman, 2015 in Huey and Ricciardelli, 2018).
The idea of police best practices relates directly to a contemporary reformist reform idea that is rooted in evidence based policing (EBP). An example of police reform using best practices is shown through positive reform strategies such as Judith Andersen’s physiologically focused intervention that uses classroom instruction, biofeedback and self-guided practice exercises to help change the nervous system activity of police officers during calls for service. This physiological approach could reduce the lethal errors during high stress training scenarios by “allowing officers to modulate their physiological arousal in accordance with situational demands” (Andersen, 2018 in Bennell, 2020). Andersen’s physiological approach is exemplary of a key facet of EBP, that a key principle of police officer decision making can be rooted in scientific evidence.
As aforementioned, the current article understands the impracticality of drastic budget cuts to existing police budgets, and that the long term goal of police reform should not result in total abolition. But at the intersection of two opposing positions, reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms, is an intersection of the practicality of ongoing police efforts in contrast to critical criminological perspectives regarding policing. For instance, removing immediate funding from police would result in the removal of certain civilian positions like communications technicians (9-1-1 operators) or certain first class constables, which would increase the stress on the remaining constables to attend calls for service and deal with the call requests in the queue. The long queue times is already an ongoing issue for certain police services in Canada, as the Vancouver Police Departments (VPD) non-emergency phone line had a 40.5 percent rate of non-answered calls at the beginning of 2022. The communications department of the Vancouver police reported that the VPDs budget model “ does not meet our current resourcing needs…” (Howell, 2022). Removing funding from police services, to meet the non-reformist reform defunding demands made by civil society groups, may exacerbate already existing problems. The defunding arguments may also be counter-intuitive to the police programs informed EBP programs that address issues like violent crime or community resource teams, removing years of progress.
Critical abolitionists use the framework of Ben-Moshe to understand reform on a continuum. Understanding that reformist reforms are intended to provide short term impacts to the system to make it more humane on the way to total enlightenment of criminal justice procedures through abolition and non-reformist reforms. Previous empirical research demonstrates that communities of colour – African Canadians, Indigenous communities- are less likely to view the police as legitimate and trustworthy based on years of racial suppression. Bell (2017) highlights that a potential solution to deal with community trust issues is to focus on procedural justice in policing, the ways in which police officers treat community members during calls for service that align with principles of dignity, respect, behaving in a neutral and non-biased way and giving citizens a voice to express their needs during police-community interactions (Bell, 2017). A practical application of reformist reforms and EBP practices in action, is the idea presented by Ba et al. 2021 about diversifying the police and its impacts police-civilian interactions. These authors examined years of detailed deployment records from the Chicago Police Department to better understand patrolling officers stops, arrests, and use of force occurrences to compare outcomes based on the racial backgrounds of officers. Ba et al, found that Black and Hispanic officers made far fewer stops and arrests in comparison to White officers, and on average used force less often, especially when interacting with Black civilians (Ba et al., 2021).
Abolition of police
The transition of critical scholars from carceral/penal abolition towards police abolition has informed the way abolitionists believe policing must change. At the heart of abolitionism, is a movement that seeks to remove the power from repressive social institutions to improve the safety and security for marginalized communities that carceral institutions have disproportionately targeted. A benefit of using an abolitionist perspective when thinking through problems of reforming the police, is the ability to draw on aspects of critical theory. The conceptual framework of critical theory allows for the evaluation of abolitionist language and perspectives that are well suited for evaluating the contests of police reform that address and resist systems of oppression, domination, and alienation (Willis et al, 2008).
Community activist groups such as the Criminalization Punishment and Education Project (CPEP) have argued across multiple mediums such as; City council meetings, media releases, blogs, and social media posts to place moratoriums on policing budgets. While academic scholars have put forward frameworks towards community safety and well-being that begin to diminish the power and authority that the public police have. An example of a police abolitionist framework is through the process of disarming, disbanding, and disempowering the police and shifting towards a community alternative of responding to social harm that does not involve the criminal justice system (McDowell and Fernandez, 2018). Police abolitionist literature has pointed to the history of policing and its connection to racial domination and suppression as one of the main reasons the police need to be disbanded. Scholars such as McDowell and Fernandez (2018) highlight how historically the police formed as a response slave revolt and one of their primary functions was to protect and defend the property and social capital of the capitalist elites. McDowell and Fernandez turn to examples of militarized police responses, such as the Ferguson, Missouri protests, to demonstrate why the lethal weapons should be removed from police services considering the “rate and which officers use deadly force” (McDowell and Fernandez, 2018). The authors put forward their own alternatives to reform, disarming-disbanding and disempowering the police. This idea of disempowering the police would use diverse tactics to confront and erode the current power the police hold, and would work towards a social reality where the function of policing would be rendered obsolete (McDowell and Fernandez, 2018).
The tragic death of George Floyd in 2020 has acted as the catalyst for police defunding arguments as a potential method to curtail ongoing issues within policing such as militarization, inflating police budgets, racial profiling, and excessive force against racialized communities. The Board of the Police Commissioner’s Subcommittee to Define Defunding Police (BPCSDDP) outlined in their report that defunding is summarized as:
“while many people think of defunding solely as a model that proposes ‘taking away’ resources from police, it is more constructively understood as one that advocates for returning funds to socially-based program and resources that have been removed over decades of austerity-based economic and social policy. Defunding asks us to consider whether there are better, more effective options for addressing and intervening to address crime and social harm” (BPCSDDP, 2022).
Community group demands have also called for police services to find efficiencies in their budgets to decrease funds being allocated to police services from municipal, provincial, and federal governments. Another part of defunding is placing moratoriums on the ability of police services to procure lethal or “militarized” equipment or to decrease their current use. Civil society groups such as No Pride in Policing Coalition suggest that one-way society could “demilitarize” the police would be to remove all “tasers, firearms, rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray and to end mass surveillance of communities through the use of technologies such as facial recognition, drones and predictive policing technologies” (NPPC 2021). Significant to key abolitionists arguments surrounding defunding is as much about laying the foundations for the conditions for safety, as much as it is about dismantling the oppressive institutions that cause harm and captivity (Maynard, 2020).
Current climate of Canadian policing
EBP is significant for understanding best practices for reform on police organizations. Intrinsically connected to abolitionist arguments surrounding police abolition, is police budgets. To move forward into the future through reformist reforms, and to deal with immediate call for change, we must also understand the current climate of policing. Annually, police services ask their respective municipalities for an increase in funding, consistent with occupational demands, collective agreements in officer salary, overtime, inflation and new equipment. This results in civil activists critically questioning the need for increased police funding. For example, the Toronto Police Service made a request to the City of Toronto for a 2023 budget increase of 4.3%, or 48 million dollars more than 2022, bringing the total cost of policing in Toronto to 1.16 billion dollars (Pagliaro, 2023). As the cost of policing in Toronto increases, other social services are impacted “We have more potholes in our roads than we have cars on the streets. Our trash cans are overflowing. Our water fountain is broken. Public bathrooms are not accessible…” (Idrees in Pagliaro, 2023). Other civil activist highlight the ongoing harm that the Toronto Police are causing, before the budget increase. Desmond Cole, a long time civil rights and anti-black racism activist, stated that “ You’re [Toronto Police] already harming and wounding and traumatizing too many people while asking for more” (Pagliaro, 2023).
The Barrie Police Service (BPS) is asking for similar increases in their 2023 operating budget, asking their Police Services Board for a 7.28 per cent increase (62.3 million). Contingent to the draft proposals is the occupational responsibilities placed on police services to fulfill “unavoidable increases” based on contractual salaries (Bruton, 2022). Providing more context, Barrie Police Chief Kimberly Greenwood highlights her 2023 draft proposal incorporated: an inflation rate 6.9%, 15% increase to long-term disability premiums, 8.25% increase to Canada Pension Plan, 7.2% increase to employment insurance premiums, 3% increase to dental and health premiums, and a 5.1% increase to insurance premiums (Bruton, 2022). Without recruiting new patrolling constables or civilian staff members, the salaries, benefits and overtime of the current BPS officers would result in an unavoidable 6.7% increase in budget for 2023 (Bruton, 2022). Despite public calls that question the police’s need for more money, federal economical fluctuations are a leading reason for the annual increases to Canadian police services budgets.
The continuous increase in police services asking for money is in direct correlation to the expectation that the police quell a wide array of social issues. The increase in annual police budgets is against the backdrop of what civil society groups are asking for; divesting of policing and reallocation of public funds toward public health and social work approaches. Despite an approach that could remove the police from calls for service involving mental health or victimless crimes, with a reinvestment into affordable housing and preventative services, is simply not happening on the ground. An examination of statistics surrounding the calls for service of major Canadian police services, we can begin to understand that the majority of calls that Canadian police officers are responding to are non-criminal activities. In 2020, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (a provincial police force with municipal policing responsibilities) reported that 43% of their total annual calls were non-criminal, including calls related to the Mental Health Act, Warrant of Arrest, domestic disturbances and assistance to general public (RNC, 2020). In 2021, the RNC reported that non-criminal calls for service accounted for 51.5 (RNC, 2021) percent of total calls for service, with assistance to general public and Mental Health Act accounting for the majority of calls. The Peel Regional Police report a 13% annual increase in Mental Health Act call for services, the London Police report a 3% annual increase in property related crimes, and the Barrie Police Service report that 80% of their call types are non-criminal (Peel Regional Police, 2021; London Police, 2021; Bruton, 2022). Summarily, a large portion of daily police operations in Canada is mitigating conflict that is traditionally outside of the rigid demarcations of police work and despite reformist scholarship to suggest removing the police from certain call types, the majority of police work involves non-criminal activities. Although these descriptive statistics may be a justification for the non-reformist arguments of divesting, the statistics do not change the operational realities that Canadian police are tasked to mitigate. Although abolitionist scholarship argues that police should not be involved in Mental Health calls for service, the aforementioned call types suggest that the police are increasingly involved in non-criminal related matters.
As outlined by Koziarski and Huey (2021), the mandate of the police to prevent crime, preserve the peace, provide assistance to victims and act as a crime response, not only makes them a “catch all” to social ills, but also would make it incredibly difficult to rid them of a specific call type. Koziarski and Huey (2021) help to provide context, that the police may come into contact with citizens who suffer from compromised mental health, substance abuse or other social determinants of health for reasons outside of call types (see Koziarski and Huey, 2021). Even if preventative programs were extremely effective, such as police divesting or defunding, it would be naïve to assume we could rid the police of a specific call type. In the specific timeline of meaningful short term reforms under a reformist reform paradigm, ensuring that the police are adequately prepared to mitigate a wide variety of social responses may warrant the annual increase in police budgets in comparison to police divesting. Moreover, even if the aforementioned preventative programs were extremely effective, and different social programs were implemented through the divesting campaign, highly unlikely remains that to ensure that these new upstream preventive programs could remain police-free.
We explored the previous reform efforts of police services by interpreting each using Ben-Moshe’s framework of reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms (Ben-Moshe, 2013). Instead, we outline reformist reforms and non-reformist ideologies to bridge the gap between EBP and abolitionist positions, demonstrating the dialectic relationship between the two positions, and how, in the current policing climate, police services need to engage in both types of reforms for socially responsible developments to occur. The connection between abolition and EBP is similar to the dichotomy of reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms. EBP supports policing practices that, when deemed appropriate, would see police services needing the annual budgetary increases to meet collective agreements, inflation, overtime, officer recruitment and procuring equipment. Whereas abolitionist arguments would be inherently in opposition to increasing police budgets, as some abolitionist scholars believe that budget increases lead to excessive use of force and procurement of militarized equipment. Given the limited amount of calls for service for violent crime (Sewell and Williams, 2020) and the millions of dollars already allotted to policing budgets, abolitionists challenge why the police need such weaponry and yearly increases to operating budgets (Maynard, 2020; McDowell and Fernandez, 2018) However, abolitionists would agree there are some situations where police required being armed, and EBP scholars would agree in some situations force was excessive or not warranted.
We strive to offer an ontological shift in how civil society and criminological discourse conceptually understands police reform, through our means-end approach, that wants to make policing more equitable for both citizens and police officers. Both politically and practically, abolitionist scholars and advocates sit on one end of the “reforming” table while EBP and police services sit on the other. What’s in the middle of the table is the potential common ground between the two strategies that are both intended to create the same goal, to create meaningful and equitable security and safety systems for the communities in which they both seek to protect. The purpose of our analysis was to not only show the dialectic relationship between non-reformist reforms (abolitionism) and reformist reforms (EBP), but demonstrate that both positions start and end with shared objectives—police reform— but demarcate from one another based on their strategies of achieving the goal. The starting point for both positions is understanding that the police need to change, and the end goal is reform and to increase community safety and well-being. But non reformist reforms suggest to achieve community safety and well-being, reform must occur outside of policing and resources that are originally intended for policing should be invested towards community groups. While EBP uses best practice research to inform decision making and understands that research can gradually make meaningful difference within police services that can make them more equitable and enhance community safety and well-being.
Although the current article understands that the complete abolishment of police is not societally palatable, we do not suggest an unwavering support to all police demands. Although descriptive statistics from the police annual reports suggest that the police are increasingly involved in non-criminal activity, and that removing funding from policing could place detrimental impacts to the means-end framework, the drastic increases to police budgets is not a long term solution. Even though the increase to police budgets is a result of “unavoidable increases” due to economical fluctuations, drastic yearly budget requests beyond that needed for officer salary, increases to employment insurance or overtime takes municipal money away from other social services. As aforementioned, the police are increasingly relied upon to mitigate social ills beyond the traditional demarcations of police work, making them the “catch all” of social ills. Although the police are necessary service providers to society, the continuous budget increases to police reduces the money allotted to other social services who may be better suited for mitigating certain call types. Moreover, because the police are receiving most of the financial support – instead of sharing the funding amongst other social services – they are the de-facto first responders tasked with the responsibility for addressing and triaging most social and health issues. Our means-end framework allows for reformist reforms to be conceptually understood and linked to non-reformist reforms. As a reformist reform, the police should receive the necessary funding, remain essential service providers and act in procedurally just ways to ensure the safety of communities. However, this does not mean that the police should continue down the path of receiving drastic budget increases to deal with primarily non-criminal or mental health matters if other social service providers could mitigate these issues had they received the allotted money. Until provincial governments, political parties and police leaders undertake this ontological shift through a means-end framework, the continuous cycle of the police being the catch-all for all social issues will continue.
Reforming the police is an ongoing, malleable, and reflexive process that will not happen overnight. Police services and police academics must consider a transition away from the dogmatic conflict that see’s abolitionist thoughts at a stalemate with EBP and reformist reform ideologies. Given the current policing climate, it will be necessary for the police to engage with non-reformist reform ideas, such as finding efficiencies in policing budgets or engage with defunding ideas to reallocate money within the service, if police services are dedicated to implementing change for frontline officers. This analysis also operates under the assumption that both sides of the reformist positions will not be fully satisfied, yet both positions want to reach similar end goals, just with different methods of how to arrive. Understanding the left is not attacking the right; and vice versa, both sides are outlining their “conditions for safety”; and both sides should value the ontological rigour of the competing narratives, is far more important than a debate about which reformist position is better. The use of the EBP framework allows us to understand how the non-reformist ideas can be used. If academics want the police to conform to defunding arguments, the EBP approach allows them to directly engage in the intervention of defunding, but could also increase individual and organizational willingness to participate in this form of research (Huey and Ricciardelli, 2018). If successful, this could lead to the paradigm shift away from the viewing divisions between “left vs right” or the “war on cops” towards an eclectic best practice approach.
The police view the public’s calls for greater police accountability as a “war on cops” that allows the leftists to create a climate ripe for police abolition (Klemko, 2022). Conversely, activists seeking to dismantle dominant policing agendas, view the lack of reform as a sign of police having no intentions of transforming their operational and organizational activities. For the means-end approach that views reform on a continuum to work effectively, both sides of reformist debates must understand that they are starting and ending in the same place. The consciousness awareness approach, would better meet the needs of citizens and officers as opposed to perpetually disagreeing on what side of the debate is more correct. If both sides are truly dedicated to producing social cohesion, then understanding both sides of the reformist debates proves more beneficial then contributing to the contests of their dismissal.
Understanding that reformist reforms tinker with the current system, and that equitable policing can be achieved through procedural justice, policing oversight should be at the forefront of the contests surrounding police reform. Based on an author’s time at the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission(CRCC) for the RCMP as a field placement student, a great example of a potential reformist reform would be to allocate more resources, funding and legal powers to police oversight bodies that would allow them to make binding decisions in regards to disciplinary actions. The RCMP Act (section IV) outlines that the RCMP is responsible for internal disciplinary hearings and investigations over its officers, and the CRCC can make non-binding suggestions for the RCMP in regards to civilian complaints. Providing more legal responsibility and financial support to police oversight bodies, or increasing the political pressure on provinces and municipalities to govern police services through their Police Services Board, could be an example of change that could make the current system run smoother. Conversely, a great first step would be for some police services, like the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, to establish a police services board.
Practically, the complete abolishment of a police service would be difficult but also not societally palatable. Not only because of the police’s direct relationship to the criminal law, but also because of how deeply tied the police are to the political economy and the nature of the dangerous calls for service the police face on a daily basis. Conversely, by using the Ben-Moshe’s (2013) conceptual framework of reform on a continuum, it allows interoperable reform and critical reform (or reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms) to borrow understandings from each other. By viewing reformist reforms and non-reformist reforms as a dialectic relationship, that can borrow ideas from one another to create best practice, as opposed to viewing them as polar opposites, allows for an approach to reform that understands the legitimate arguments of both sides and moves toward the goal of organizational and operational police reform. Viewing these two types of reforms as malleable, abstract and shifting as opposed too rigid and constant supports an idea about reform outlined by Janet Chan:
“the absence of public concern and political pressure to scrutinize the standards of police conduct means that there is little political risk for police organizations that ignore or pay only notional attention to police deviance.” (Chan, 1997).
Providing a space within police reform literature where non-reformist ideas of defunding are supported, would offer academic conversation where varying ontological opinions are taken seriously. The benefit of approaching reform through this dialectic relationship is to move away from the idea that potential reformist ideas are a feud of political opinions that see’s the left attacking the right, or vice versa. Opposing views of accountability should no longer be viewed as a “war on cops” when understanding reforms as dialectic, rather that all parties share the same underlying goal of making policing more equitable and fair for both citizens and police officers.
Through our conceptualization, we can see that the two reformist positions that are theoretically pinned “at war” with each other, have much more in common than originally theorized. When viewing both sides of reform as dialectic, it becomes easier to understand the end goal of equitable and meaningful change instead of a politically charged conversation about what side of the continuum is correct. It allows us to “not lose the plot” and stay focused on what is truly meaningful, community safety and well-being.
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