by Keegan Prempeh
Since at least 28 July 2020, the Ottawa Police Association (OPA, the union for Ottawa police), has flown a flag outside of their headquarters bearing the ‘Thin Blue Line’ symbol. The symbol represents the idea that police prevent society from descending into chaos by maintaining law and order, as academics like Tyler Wall have described. The notion of police as a precarious thin line who are the only thing keeping anarchy at bay then fosters an us-versus-them attitude towards policing, which is then seen as a kind of all-out war.
With roots that go back almost a century, the symbol was popularized as a response to the ‘Black Lives Matter movement,’ which was founded by two queer Black women and a migrant woman from Nigeria calling for accountability for police brutality. For example, Ian McKenzie from the Cincinatti Enquirer revealed it was displayed by the Cincinatti sherif’s department during protests decrying the murder of George Floyd, which kicked off the latest cycle of Black Lives Matter advocacy.
If this is how the rank and file of the Ottawa Police force feel, it stands to reason that those of us most impacted by police violence may doubt Ottawa Police’s ability to ‘serve and protect’ our interests and safety.
The thin blue line even has connotations with white supremacist organizing. For example, Sean Rossman from USA Today reported it being flown alongside Confederate and Nazi flags during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlotseville, Virginia.
So how do the sentiments behind the Thin Blue Line play out locally?
In flying the flag, the union seems to be flying it in the face of the Ottawa Police Service itself — or at least in the face of the organization’s leaders and its official statements. After all, the OPS website proclaims that it wants to build “partnerships with our community.” Through its 3-person Diversity Resource and Relations Unit, it says it is working to “strengthen communication between police and Indigenous, racialized, faith and 2SLGBTQIA+ communities” and “diffuse causes of tensions between [said] groups.”
You might think a union whose membership makes up this force would recognize how the polarizing nature of the flag goes directly against OPS’ goals of policing that is “fair, equitable, and inclusive.” Apparently not.
In fact, police chief Peter Sloly banned service members from wearing Thin Blue Line patches on their uniforms in February of 2021. His rationale? As he told the police services board, “to bring Ottawa Police Services’ (OPS) uniform and equipment standards up to the present circumstances we find ourselves. [This is a] crucial component of earning the public’s trust and displaying our duty of care.”
Now, it’s important to note that Sloly has no authority over the police union — only over its members when they’re at work. The union members seem to be ignoring his reasoning and thumbing their nose at his directive where they can. The union has also ignored a call from the chair of the police services board, city Councillor Diane Deans, to take down the symbol in “the spirit of community unity.” Again, the OPA is not obligated to comply due to their organizational structure.
If this is how the rank and file of the Ottawa Police force feel, it stands to reason that those of us most impacted by police violence may doubt their ability to ‘serve and protect’ our interests and safety.
There are alternatives to relying on the police for safety, though. Local groups like Horizon Ottawa and the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project have pushed for alternative ways to address harm outside of prisons and police.
Another honorable mention should also go to the Ottawa Coalition for a People’s Budget, which is composed of various organizations advocating for social, environmental, and economic justice. They’ve created an alternative municipal budget to demonstrate the widespread benefits that can come from an $805 million dollar investment in public services and ecological sustainability, as opposed to continuing to invest in police intervention and the fossil fuel industry.
This kind of work shows that local calls to defund police are rational and pragmatic, not just radical sloganeering. After all, the roots of crime have long been understood as a result of systemic inequities. This means a transformative approach that bolsters housing, transit, and social infrastructure should prove more effective in maintaining the law and order police claim to support.
Sadly, the police service board just approved a $13.53 million increase to the 2022 police budget draft on July 6, as CTV News reported. This comes despite passing a November 2020 motion to create a working group on freezing the police budget at 2021 levels, “to bring meaningful change to the Ottawa Police Service and ensure it reflects the community it serves.” The board’s decision demonstrates a lack of respect for the growing number of people — look at these hundreds of doctors, for example — calling for the defunding of police. This also includes many delegates to the board who pointed to the fraught relationship between police and minority groups during that same November meeting and called for council to freeze and reduce the Ottawa police budget.
This instance reminds me of my own disappointing experiences attending LGBT Police liaison committee meetings. Although the group’s goal was to improve relations between 2SLGBQT+ communities and law enforcement, it became clear that recommendations put forward to their leadership were just that — recommendations. The committee has no power over OPS operations, which means changes would have to be intrinsically desired by their staff and board. You can see how well that’s playing out with the OPA and this flag currently!
What if we therefore turned to the power of community and mutual aid to ensure our safety? What if there were systems in place to reduce or eliminate violence from occurring in the first place? Instead of relying on police, who often respond overbearingly to violence after it’s already taken place, tax dollars could instead go to supporting designated members of our society who could provide real help — like harm reduction workers, mental health professionals, mediators and elders. These community members could prevent and respond appropriately to problems like domestic violence. They could could receive specialized training in de-escalation, trauma-informed care, and self-defense to protect their safety in addition to those in their care.
A real life example of such a team is the Ottawa Street Medics, who do regular patrols of the downtown area to provide emotional support, basic first aid, and tangible materials like food and weather gear to the unhoused and vulnerable. They are 100% volunteer-run and operate solely on donations — what kinds of good could they do with even a 10th of police funds?
But what about all those “violent crimes” we need law enforcement to respond to? Let’s start with the fact that increasing rates of incarceration and ballooning police budgets have done very little to stop violent crime. Let’s then consider how the movement to defund and abolish police institutions asks us to think creatively about preventing crime before it begins.
To quote Mariam Kaba’s text We Do This ’Till We Free Us, “abolition is a vision of a restructured society in a world where we have everything we need: food, shelter, education, health, art, beauty, clean water and more things that are foundational to our personal and community safety.”
Think about it like this. If people were guaranteed safe and affordable housing, in addition to having their basic needs regularly met, then perhaps they wouldn’t be as likely to commit theft, a common crime of survival. If access to dignified substance use treatment was available for those who needed it, or a non-toxic safe supply was easily accessible for those who aren’t ready to quit, we’d see a decrease in drug trafficking and fatal overdoses, as reported by the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs. If a variety of therapeutic interventions for conditions such as post-traumatic stress or bipolar disorder were free of cost (without gigantic waitlists), we might see a reduction in crimes committed as a result of mental health crises.
What better way to celebrate Ottawa Pride — with its theme of ‘We Still Demand’ pointing to 50 years of demands for a “truly just society” — next month than to envision and plan for this reality? A future such as this can be witnessed in our lifetime: we just need to believe it’s possible and work until we’re free.