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Wellness Within: Defunding the police requires changing how we think about security

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – On Saturday Dr. Martha Paynter presented on behalf of Wellness Within to the members of the Subcommittee to Define Defunding the Police. This working group, chaired by El Jones, is tasked with proposing a police defunding strategy to the Board of Police Commissioners. We hope to continue publishing several more presentations over the next few days.

Wellness Within (WW) is a registered non-profit organization working for reproductive justice,  prison abolition, and health equity in K’jipuktuk, Mi’kma’ki (Halifax, Nova Scotia). Since our  formation in 2012, we have been providing support to women, gender diverse, and trans  individuals who have experienced criminalization and are pregnant or parenting young children  in Nova Scotia. We work in partnership with community and advocacy organizations across the  province, and our 90+ members include formerly incarcerated people, doulas, health care  providers, lawyers, students, researchers, mentors, and other community members. Our  mandate allows us to serve community safety through our doula programs; education and  outreach; research; and advocacy.  

WW’s work and advocacy is deeply rooted in our commitment to decarceration and defunding  the police. We have called on Halifax to defund, disarm, and dismantle the Halifax  Regional Police and Royal Canadian Mounted Police. We know policing in Canada is  founded on colonialism, and we are further motivated by the news of preventable tragediesdeaths at the hands of police throughout Canada, violent arrests of women and children,  and racial profiling. We have been disappointed and discouraged by recent budget  increases and urge the Municipality to divest from police spending and reinvest in our  community.  

Criminalized communities including sex workers, people who use drugs, trans, Black,  Indigenous and racialized people have taught us that policing has never been about community  safety. As Professor Alex S. Vitale wrote, the scope of policing has expanded dramatically  over the last 50 years. Funding and services provided by all levels of government have been  redirected into an increasingly militarized police force, now tasked with responding to folks in  mental health distress, in poverty, those experiencing addictions, and gender-based violence. 

Defunding requires changing how we think about security. It means removing these  responsibilities from police and returning them to government and community resources offered  by individuals trained in supporting our most vulnerable. Defunding should respond to the needs  of the community and could look like support for local safe injection sites, sobering centres,  restorative justice programs, and mental health crisis teams. It also requires addressing  underlying systemic issues related to income, housing, education, food security, healthcare, and  more.

While some police departments have been turning to initiatives such as body cameras to curb  police violence and regain public trust, studies have shown that this technology has no impact  on the behaviour of officers. With the prevalence of smartphones, videos of the use of police  force are already widespread, and have done little to reverse the cycle or bring justice to  those harmed. Actions such as body cameras which do not improve equitable outcomes and  funnel more money into police departments are in direct opposition with the objective of  defunding, and do not contribute to the goals of the movement. Instead, WW advocates for  applying an intersectional gender and race-based lens to all community safety work. Defunding  the police may require a transition, beginning with drastic funding cuts. Last year, we issued a  call for change which provides guidance for this transition and calls on the Halifax Regional  Police to initiate harm reduction through public engagement and policy change.  

WW has seen first hand the harm that is perpetuated through policing and incarceration. This  year, the COVID-19 pandemic has further marginalized vulnerable community members and halted supports offered by WW and countless other services that marginalized community  members rely on. By establishing reliable funding and partnerships with local organizations  working in healthcare, housing, food security, and more, the Municipality has an opportunity to  reimagine community safety 

About WW 

WW volunteers have clearance to provide support at the Nova Institute for Women Federal  Prison in Truro, the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility Provincial Jail in Burnside, and the  Nova Scotia Youth Facility in Waterville. While incarcerated people typically have limited access  to reproductive care, we offer support in pregnancy, abortion, childbirth, infant feeding, and  newborn care for women, gender diverse and transgender people who have experienced  criminalization. 

We advocate for our clients who are on bail and parole across Nova Scotia by attending court  proceedings, health and other appointments, and meeting clients where they are. We continue  to expand the availability of these reproductive services by offering free doula training to  underrepresented groups, developing a Queer and BIPOC doula network, and delivering  conferences and other events for both health professionals and the general public around the  health impacts of incarceration. Our publications include The Queer Doula Toolkit and Where  to Go for Help in HRM: A Resource Guide

Reproductive justice requires defunding the police 

WW is also active in political advocacy around health equity, decarceration, and police abolition.  Our community-based research includes collaborations with other organizations and  researchers, such as the recently released Final Report for the 2019-2020 Reproductive  Justice Workshop Project. This report is informed by a series of Reproductive Justice  Workshops offered to people in 5 of Canada’s 6 prisons designated for women, initially in  response to media reports and research regarding forced sterilization of Indigenous Women in  the Saskatoon Health Region. Workshops explored how the reproductive health of incarcerated  women, trans, non-binary, and Two Spirit people in Canada is threatened by their incarceration.  Participants discussed their experiences having their reproductive rights violated while in prison  and in police custody. As one participant shared,  

“When I was pregnant, I was handcuffed and shackled and I fell going up the stairs.”  

Completed in partnership with the Canadian Association for the Elizabeth Fry Societies, the  report led to direct recommendations and calls for action. Participants overwhelmingly provided  positive feedback about the sessions, and one expressed, “I appreciate you being here. This is  wonderful. This is the first time seeing something like this. This is progress.”  

Reproductive health and rights should not be stunning and new, but they are incompatible with  systems that rely on punishment to address social harms. WW will continue to work for health  equity, reproductive justice and prison abolition, through education, research, service and  advocacy. We look forward to seeing Halifax envision a future beyond policing.  

Martha Paynter , Chair of the Board, Wellness Within

Check out the Define Defunding the Police public survey, open until the end of the month.

See also: Jamie Livingston: Mental health crisis responses without police

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