We’re beginning to see the outcomes of the massive anti-police organizing efforts of 2020. The narrative is shifting: defunding the police isn’t an extreme, unworkable, naive concept. Rather, the incorporation of “defunding the police” into the mainstream lexicon highlights that a police-free future is both imperative and necessary for the health and wellbeing of our communities.

Yet, while a number of major American cities have diverted portions of their police budget to life-sustaining services like housing, Canadian cities have been largely reluctant to follow suit. Wellness checks are one activity many cities (with some exceptions) have kept under police control.

Wellness checks are generally understood to occur when a friend or family member calls the police to check on someone they’re concerned about, who may be in a state of crisis. These checks are ostensibly meant to de-escalate crisis situations and prevent self-harm. Yet in practice, wellness checks are less concerned with caring for the wellbeing of those in crisis, and often lead to further harm or even death.

In November 2020, Statistics Canada released a finding that: “During the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, 17 police services across Canada reported that selected criminal incidents were down by almost one-fifth (17 per cent) compared with the same period a year earlier. In contrast, the number of calls for service rose 8 per cent, particularly wellness checks, mental health calls and calls to attend domestic disturbances.”

In this context, a critical discussion about wellness checks is long overdue. The way wellness checks are approached in Winnipeg offers a clear example of the dangers they pose as they currently exist across Canada and beyond.

The (Mis)Use Of Wellness Checks

A fundamental problem with wellness checks is that there’s no standard protocol for how they’re meant to be carried out. This means that, according to criminologist Jennifer Lavoie, mandates for these calls are at the whim of each individual police department. The way they’re handled by the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) is troubling.

The WPS’s 2019 Annual Statistical Report notes that wellness checks ranked second highest in reasons for citizen-generated dispatched events, sitting closely behind domestic disturbances. In all, wellness checks represented more than 10 per cent of citizen-generated dispatched events that year.

Despite the report offering a great amount of detail about other police activities, there’s no discussion about wellness checks. And this issue of transparency extends beyond the report, as there’s no information on the WPS website describing what wellness checks are, what their purpose is, when or why someone should call one in, or how the force is authorized to respond.

The omission of information related to wellness checks from the website is striking and seriously inhibits any possible accountability. All we know is that they’re “citizen-generated” and classified as “non-criminal events.”

Despite this, wellness checks are often used by the WPS to bypass the need for cops to obtain a search warrant before entering someone’s home. The police can enter any building, at any time, for any purpose when carrying out a wellness check.

For example, a February 2021 tweet thread describes police in Winnipeg responding to a wellness check by bursting their way into an apartment building, banging on every door and demanding entry to see who is inside, and forcing their way into each individual unit.

A search of the WPS news database for “check wellbeing” between 2017 to 2019 brings up more than 60 press releases. While a number of the search results discuss missing persons, interestingly, some also describe situations where wellness checks resulted in “drug and firearm arrests.”

One press release from April 2019 outlines how “a request to check on the wellbeing of occupants of a hotel room” escalated to an event that required tactical support teams, the K-9 unit and the Major Crimes Unit after police heard what they thought was a gun being “manually manipulated” from behind a closed door. As a result, four individuals were arrested with a laundry list of charges.

Consider the fact that regardless of if these individuals were breaking the law, the WPS didn’t have a search warrant and were able to gain access to the hotel room under the pretense of a wellness check.

What’s At Stake

Wellness checks are an integral part of the ongoing reliance on incarcerating and criminalizing people, especially if they’re Black, Indigenous, racialized, disabled, a drug user, a sex worker, queer, trans, nonbinary, poor, and/or unhoused. To this end, unsurprisingly, one-third of all WPS citizen-generated events in 2019 (including wellness checks) were dispatched to Winnipeg’s Central district, one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.

The way our systems are currently set up means that police officers are the first responders to wellness checks and are given the authority to detain, confine, and incarcerate people in ways that aren’t possible when responding to other types of calls. Instead of providing people with the care they need, they are left traumatized, if not arrested or killed.

These situations can quickly escalate to violence because police officers — who aren’t qualified to respond nonviolently to crisis situations — are also afforded a high degree of discretion when it comes to using force during wellness checks. An officer’s decision to use force — and to what degree — is often informed by the stigma that people who live with psychiatric disabilities are dangerous, and thus that a violent response is needed.

This inherent ethos of violence is evident in a recent tweet from the WPS that contained a graphic photo of a person in distress and crisis. The tweet, which was deleted after swift backlash online, was used by the WPS to boast about and promote their work. The image itself was inappropriate, violated the privacy of the individual in question, and was potentially triggering for those who have been in a similar crisis state.

Another situation occurred in 2019, where a bystander captured a photo of WPS officers and Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS) first responders who appeared to be mocking an unconscious individual. The City of Winnipeg initially defended the WPS and WFPS, but after facing scrutiny online eventually apologized. No formal discipline was ever filed against the officers and first responders involved.

This pattern of behaviour is indicative of the kinds of attitudes that police officers hold while responding to wellness checks.

As such, it’s no surprise that these checks can result in deaths. Between 2000 to 2018, at least 460 people were killed by police across Canada, though the number is likely higher. (We know that 70 per cent of all police killings involve people with psychiatric disabilities and/or substance abuse issues.)

From January 1 to November 30 of 2020 alone, 55 people in Canada were shot by police. Thirty-four of these people were killed, including 16 year old Eishia Hudson. Of these 35 people, we know that at least five — all of whom were Black, Indigenous or racialized — were killed by police conducting wellness checks. In 2019, the WPS also shot and killed Machuar Madut, a father of three that had been struggling with mental health issues, during a wellness check.

These deaths are the direct result of the intervention of a violent institution where something else is desperately needed. As Rinaldo Walcott, a professor of Black Diaspora Cultural Studies at the University of Toronto, contends in his recent book, On Property, the police cannot stem violence, they “can in fact only lead to increased violence.”

This violence will continue unchecked, and countless more lives will be lost or traumatized, until we, as a collective, reckon with the fact that police are an inappropriate response to wellness checks.

Beyond Reform

Those who still place stock in the police’s role in responding to mental health crises often offer reformist solutions like creating specialized mental health units within police forces, more training for officers, body cams, and diversity hiring within ranks.

It’s not enough, however, to disarm officers or assemble more ‘sensitive’ mental health task forces. Hostility and distrust of police is not only justifiable, but warranted, especially from racialized communities and disabled people. This distrust will not go away with different training or by removing guns and handcuffs.

Police violence while responding to wellness checks is a problem written into the institution of policing itself. The toxic combination of increasing crisis events (surely exacerbated by the pandemic), massive police budgets and discretionary power, and a complete lack of public accountability surrounding police behaviour ensure this will happen.

As co-founder of Black Lives Matter – Toronto, Sandy Hudson, writes, “The very purpose of the police has always been antithetical to the safety of Black and Indigenous people.” Furthermore, as activist and writer Megan Linton articulates, “Simply reforming institutional spaces will not guarantee safety or autonomy for institutionalized and/or incarcerated people.”

Instead, what Winnipeggers and others in Canada need for their health and wellbeing is safe consumption sites, affordable and safe housing, access to food, and well-funded community services that provide harm reduction and nonviolent crisis intervention.

The WPS budget in tax-supported expenditures increased from $291.5 million in 2018 to a preliminary amount of $301 million in 2021, jumping $6.5 million between 2020 and 2021 alone. This most recent injection was awarded to the WPS despite record-breaking anti-police organizing efforts, myriad survey results indicating Winnipeggers’ disapproval of the force, and countless instances of police misconduct made public.

In the same three-year timeframe, however, the Community Services budget has stagnated, hovering around $109 million. The Community Services budget fund provides grants for community organizations, as well as all libraries and recreation centres in the city. This current funding arrangement means that these community organizations, which provide non punitive services without criminalization, continue to scrape by with miniscule funding. All the while, funding to the WPS continues to grow at a disproportionate rate.

Echoing the July 2020 proposal by Winnipeg City Councillor Sherri Rollins (who later backtracked and supported the budget injection in 2021), there needs to be an immediate 10 per cent reduction of the WPS’ operating budget, with this $30 million going directly to community services and harm reduction. After the initial 10 per cent reduction, the police budget should be steadily decreased on an annual basis with the funds continuing to be reallocated to alternatives to policing.

This vision for police-free communities is rooted in community accountability, collective responsibility and restorative justice. These are ethics of care. The way forward isn’t just about taking funding from the police. It’s about redistributing these public funds to new services and institutions that don’t exist, like mental health and crisis counsellors who respond to wellness checks without arms. It’s about shifting funding to education, recreation and meaningfully investing in the welfare state more broadly.

The fundamental issue with wellness checks is much deeper than any one encounter with untrained or ignorant police officers. We can’t train these traits out of police because they are precisely the things they exist to do: monopolize violence rather than eliminate it, and control communities who need care.

We need to defund the police and refund community services to build communities full of care, safety and wellness. As justice advocate Meenakshi Mannoe articulates, wellness looks like safe and accessible health care and meeting basic needs, “not a uniformed officer banging on your door.” To echo Walcott once more: “There must be a different, better way to handle things.”