Beyond policing and criminalization
Reprinted from the "Systemic Racism" issue of Visions Journal, 2021, 16 (3), pp. 5-7
This issue of Visions highlights systemic racism, inviting readers to identify, understand and dismantle its impact on the mental health system. I am honoured to contribute to this issue as a guest editor, applying the lens of my role as the Criminalization and Policing Campaigner at Pivot Legal Society.
Pivot is a non-profit based on unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) Nations, colonially known as Vancouver. At Pivot, we use tools such as strategic litigation, public legal education and policy analysis to identify how systems of oppression amplify the most harmful and dangerous impacts of the criminal justice and mental health systems.
Systemic racism is an incredibly broad concept. In a 2020 CBC interview, scholars Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Robyn Maynard discuss the term, pointing out systemic inequities and negative outcomes across numerous institutions, including child welfare, education, employment and the criminal justice system.1 While systemic racism impacts Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC), the inequalities are egregious for Black and Indigenous people. Examples include higher rates of incarceration, higher rates of street stops and higher rates of fatal police encounters.
Systemic racism is also shaped by various overlapping systems of oppression, such as socioeconomic status, gender and housing stability, as well as urban, rural and remote geographies. In my work at Pivot, it’s clear that BIPOC folks who use substances, live with mental health issues and experience poverty are effectively trapped within these unjust systems. Pivot’s research in the areas of homelessness, sex work, drug policy and police accountability illustrates that the relationships between mental health and substance use, poverty, race, criminalization and policing are too complex, numerous and far-reaching to ignore.
Throughout 2020, the impact of systemic racism was obvious—evident in health inequities such as deaths from the toxic drug supply2 and COVID-19 infections.3 Systemic racism clearly underpins policing, again made evident in the racist practice of street stops. CBC’s Deadly Force database, which compiles information on police-involved killings across Canada, showed that in 2020 (as in previous years), Black and Indigenous people were disproportionately killed during police-involved fatal encounters.
Across Canada, data from the Deadly Force database show that Black and Indigenous people are disproportionately represented among the victims of police violence, as are people impacted by mental illness and substance use.4
In 2020, the practice of “wellness checks” was also widely criticized—following numerous injuries and deaths during the course of these checks. For BIPOC folks, the police are not a safe option when someone is experiencing mental distress—there are far too many stories of people killed by police during a wellness check. While the term “wellness check” is not defined in criminal law, mental health law or policing policy, the practice remains widespread, as police remain the only option for 24/7 in-person emergency response.
The grief of survivors of these violent incidents is heart-wrenching. Imagine making a frantic call to 911 on behalf of a loved one, seeking emergency support or crisis intervention, and then learning later that the call had taken a fatal turn when armed officers showed up. That fatal turn must be examined in the context of oppression—including prejudice against people who experience mental distress or have psychiatric diagnoses. Psychiatric labels are powerful, and they can produce stigmatizing beliefs and attitudes. For racialized people, this stigma overlaps with racism—and when police attend a crisis, this can lead to escalating, fatal encounters.
We need to do better for BIPOC folks. We need more than quick fixes: we need a systems overhaul. In the realm of mental health, psychiatric survivors and people living with substance use or in recovery have so much lived knowledge and experience. These folks have been at the forefront of systemic change in BC—creating peer-support phone lines, drop-in centres, advocacy programs and crisis supports.5 Today, these supports remain vital, as do affordable and permanent housing and safe supply and decriminalization of illicit substances.
These interventions are known as “upstream” solutions—designed to address inequalities upstream, or at the source—meant to address social determinants of health and wellness instead of focusing on crisis response. For BIPOC folks who experience mental distress, upstream solutions include access to culturally safe healing practices, including ancestral medicines, treatment by anti-racist health practitioners and the opportunity to safely speak out against oppressive care.
In our current mental health paradigm, emergency services take a cookie-cutter approach, and we expect every person experiencing distress to conform to the dominant system. If we take a step back and focus on addressing social determinants of health and eradicating inequality, we have the opportunity to totally reframe “safety,” starting with establishing and implementing proactive responses to mental health crises rather than relying on police intervention.
In recent months, calls to defund the police have gained traction, and they have remained in the public eye. Family members, survivors of police violence, grassroots organizers and even policy-makers have been in the news, speaking out against racist policing and demanding new approaches. These calls reveal how many people recognize that too often police take on inappropriate roles, acting as social workers or mental health workers, despite limited training and lack of expertise. If we continue to rely on police in these situations, we are sanctioning the harms that they perpetuate against racialized communities, particularly Black and Indigenous folks. If we, as a society, want to support BIPOC folks who experience mental distress, we also need to look at systemic racism in health care and social services. There are far too many examples of fatal encounters with police or clinicians at emergency rooms, and piecemeal reforms won’t stop the harm.
As you read through this issue of Visions, I hope you will challenge yourself with fundamental questions about policing, mental health and systemic racism. These questions include
- What biases and prejudices do you hold about people experiencing mental distress?
- What are your limitations in addressing racism?
- Does your organization actively address and challenge systems of oppression?
- Does our current mental health system provide appropriate care?
- What are the alternatives to policing and criminalization?
- How do we develop upstream interventions that prevent crises?
For some folks, this shift around policing and safety feels reckless, or reactionary. Some of us may have had positive experiences with the police—perhaps we had a positive encounter in the midst of a loved one’s mental health crisis or during an emergency. Despite individual or anecdotal experiences, there is ample evidence to illustrate the impact of racism and how it intersects with mental health. This issue of Visions is an opportunity to think about safety, care and wellness in new and expansive ways. Imagine what you would do to take care of yourself, loved ones, patients or even strangers on the street if you had access to all the resources and funding that you needed.
With this perspective, hopefully you can begin to unpack what defunding the police could lead to in your own community. Defunding the police is about reducing our reliance on criminalizing and shifting public dollars to upstream solutions and community-led safety initiatives. For me, defunding the police is about working with experts: people who intimately and personally understand the impacts of mental distress, racism, the War on Drugs, poverty and other systems of oppression. Working with peers, we can collectively develop crisis de-escalation skills, advocacy and navigating systems like income assistance or housing.
While there is no simple fix for systemic racism, we can all find a place to start this work in our respective communities—with our co-workers, our governments, our friends and our family. As you read through the articles in this issue, I invite you to think creatively about how we can address systemic racism in the mental health sector and identify harmful approaches that we must move away from. It’s an honour to write alongside both Betty Mulat (Vancouver Black Therapy & Advocacy Foundation) and Sharon Thira (Office of the Human Rights Commissioner), who are also doing vital work for BIPOC folks. I am glad this issue includes the story of Kyaw Naing Din and humbled by his family’s tireless fight for justice. As we unpack the role of systemic racism in our mental health system, it is essential that we remember the beloved members of our communities who did not survive the systems that we entrusted with their safety.
I want to recognize the tireless fight for justice that families, friends and community members have taken up, as they fight to end police violence against people experiencing mental distress. This work is meant to bring justice to our communities, including those who grieve the loss of loved ones.
About the author
Meenakshi is the Criminalization and Policing Campaigner at Pivot Legal Society. She has been working in social services and advocacy organizations for nearly a decade. She finds motivation in social justice work and is constantly inspired by her peers, who look for solutions outside the lines
- CBC News. (2020). Is there systemic racism in Canada? Interview with Akwasi Owusu-Bempah and Robyn Maynard. cbc.ca/player/play/1746182723569.
- Pashagumskum, J. (2020). Opioid crisis sees First Nations deaths double during pandemic. APTN News (October 29). aptnnews.ca/national-news/opioid-crisis-sees-first-nations-deaths-double-during-pandemic.
- Sajan, B. (2020). What's race got to do with it? Data collection and COVID-19 CTV News. (November 20). bc.ctvnews.ca/what-s-race-got-to-do-with-it-data-collection-and-covid-19-1.5198687.
- Singh, I. (2020). [Deadly Force Database] 2020 already a particularly deadly year for people killed in police encounters, CBC research shows. newsinteractives.cbc.ca/fatalpoliceencounters.
- Choi, R. & Boschma, G. (2020). The emergence of survivor groups in BC: A historical perspective. spotlightonmentalhealth.com/history-of-mental-health-survivor-groups-in-b-c.