The harm done to Black and other marginalized communities by the police has become a prominent topic over the last few years. The large number of protests and other political action following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked conversations about why policing exists and its place in our communities.
On Dec. 15, the Region of Waterloo approved a $10 million increase to the Waterloo Region Police Services (WRPS) budget for hiring more police officers. This controversial decision comes after months of review and three public meetings hearing from local delegates.
Reallocate Waterloo Region (ReallocateWR) is a collective of people with a shared vision for Waterloo Region that are pushing to defund the WRPS and increase investment in underfunded communities. Teneile Warren, an intersectional equity consultant, and Jessica Hutchinson, a PhD candidate in social work at Wilfrid Laurier University, are both members of ReallocateWR.
“We recognize that the way that we’re doing things as a region isn’t the way that we should be doing things, and we are committed to having a voice and doing something about it,” Warren said.
ReallocateWR believes that one of the biggest issues concerning policing in Waterloo Region is that there are too many officers on the streets. The organization aims to disrupt harmful systems of oppression while building a compassionate and supportive community that sees all members as worthy of dignity through a reevaluation of what safety and justice actually mean.
“It’s really important to us that we do not keep increasing the breadth and reach of the police. One of the ways that the police try to increase their power and increase their presence is literally by putting more cops on the street. And what we know is that the increased presence of armed police with the power of the state behind them is that Black and Indigenous and poor people are going to be increasingly harmed and likely killed,” Hutchinson said.
ReallocateWR stresses the idea that crime is a social construct and that the police are an institution designed to protect the wealthiest members of society and their property and they continue to serve that purpose. The assumptions that police keep the people safe and without them society would descend into unmitigated crime is false, according to Warren.
“Remember, the slave patrols were to ensure that the slaves would not run away because if they ran away, they would not be on the plantation doing what they need to do to build the economy. And [today] we see that there’s always these examples about business owners and…the business owners are asking for more police, and the property owners are asking for more police. Those distinctions and that language is very important to understanding how the police function in Waterloo Region and what Reallocate is recognizing is that [the region is] serving a small section—I would say the one per cent of our community–and [the police are], as I have called it, their personal security service to make sure that they feel safe because that is safety for them,” Warren said.
Hutchinson said that the rate of documentation of and use of force against Black people in the Region by the police is significantly higher than that of white people, which shows that policing is inherently anti-Black.
“[If we increase] the presence of police officers–we know where those officers are going to go. They’re not going into my neighbourhood, my middle-class white neighbourhood. They’re going into low-income racialized neighbourhoods and that will result in the criminalization of poverty, criminalization of race, criminalization of immigration status, because when we put more police in contact with the community, the police are going to find a reason to arrest you,” Hutchinson said.
Continued criminalization of different demographics of people influences the way community members interact.
“We’ve criminalized specific populations in this community and so we believe that in order to interact with them we need this shield of a person in a vest with a taser and a button and a gun. That is not the region that we should want to live in—a region that says that we will not be safe if we don’t have this shield of WRPS officers protecting us from mythical cross-jurisdictional crime,” Warren said.
Instead of policing, ReallocateWR would like to see more investment in underfunded communities. Major concerns include stable housing, food security, shelters and transportation. The ReallocateWR website mentions some areas of Kitchener-Waterloo that could use the investment currently going to the police such as the House of Friendship, which needed to close their shelter despite an increase inhomelessness in the region.
“As we invest in policing, we pull from these groups. We say, ‘Oh, well, it didn’t work? Here’s more money.’ But then we look at a community group and we say, ‘Well, we gave you one million dollars to fix the problem and you didn’t fix the problem in five days, so clearly you don’t know what you’re doing’,” Warren said.
While some argue that without the police, there will be no one to respond to crimes, Hutchinson said that crime and harm are not necessarily synonymous and the real question is about preventing harm.
“When we think about harm, we often think about interpersonal violence, but we at Reallocate Waterloo Region really want to start expanding our understanding of what harm is. So we know that these larger structures of oppression, these larger systems that are rooted in anti-Black racism, white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism–those are causing massive amounts of harm, yet we don’t focus our energies on dismantling those systems,” Hutchinson said. “One of the things that we aspire to in Reallocate Waterloo Region is a reimagining, a reconceptualization of what it means to be safe and what it means to achieve justice.”
Before the budget was approved earlier this month, the regional council held three community meetings to hear feedback on the proposed budget. Delegations called for more investment into other fields such as arts and climate change.
“We saw so many communities speak in favour of reallocation. There wasn’t a single delegation in favour of the police budget,” Warren said. “Those [speaking at the meetings] were community members. They were homeowners talking about that. There were people who are related to homelessness who made presentations. And there are other groups who were speaking about reallocation for their own causes.”
“There was a general tone of people who were saying, ‘money is being taken away from these community, human-centered, life-affirming services.’,” they said.
There was also a heavy imbalance between the opportunities that the delegations had to voice their opinions versus the amount of time the police was given.
“The only time that those groups get to represent and speak for themselves. So if A Better Tent City wants to have a voice, they have to sign up for a delegation. We have to think about that. If a local grassroots group that works with the Black community wants to have a voice at the table, they have to sign up for a delegation. But the Waterloo Region Police Services gets several meetings to present their case for up to two hours,” Warren said.
Warren also drew attention to the work of other organizations in the region that do advocacy work such as the African, Caribbean, and Black Network Waterloo Region, the Land Back Camp, the AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo & Area (ACCKWA) and A Better Tent City, among others.
“And, to go beyond that, we have to recognize the elders of this region, that Congress of Black Women, for example. You know, advocacy is not new to Waterloo Region. Groups putting their voice forward for what should be done for a better community is not new. We are just the current people at the front of that conversation,” Warren said.