“Anybody who suggests that our job is not to combat every crime and combat every criminal involved in every crime, then they are idiots,” said Chief Vern White, “We pursue these folks in every possible way using every tool we have.”
I would suggest that the police enforce the laws somewhat selectively. They have priorities. They make decisions about where to focus their limited resources. They make decisions about what to ignore. White collar crime, for example, is notoriously under-enforced.
The Chief is using this false premise – about combating every crime and every criminal with every tool available to him – to justify his decision to send the names of all suspected drug dealers to the provincial welfare authorities for welfare fraud investigation.
Welfare fraud has traditionally been left to welfare agencies, not the police. Similarly, income tax fraud has traditionally been left to the Canadian Revenue Agency, not the police. This sudden change in practice cannot be explained by the Chief’s assertion that the police are just using every tool available to pursue every criminal and every crime, because clearly they are using specific tools to pursue a certain class of criminal, while turning a blind eye to others.
Here’s what’s wrong with this new approach, from my perspective:
1. Stereotypes and stigma: This approach reinforces damaging stereotypes about welfare, crime and cheating. There’s already too much stigma around welfare without the Chief of Police contributing to it. Most people on welfare are doing the best they can with extremely limited resources, and they’re not selling drugs.
2. It is targetted harassment of welfare recipients, especially since none of these alleged drug dealers have been convicted. The police are threatening people’s primary source of income and security based on unproven allegations. This particular brand of police intimidation is being selectively applied to the second-most desperately poor people in our society – welfare recipients. (I’m inclined to agree with Mark Ertel, president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa, who suggests police will use this threat as leverage in recruiting police informants.)
3. Slippery Slope: The Chief’s logic is that undeclared income is welfare fraud and welfare fraud is a crime, therefore the police will alert the welfare authorities when they suspect recipients might have undeclared income. The underlying logic has nothing whatsoever to do with drugs, although so far it is only being applied to alleged drug dealers.
But where will it stop? Some people on welfare – including many who have nothing to do with drugs – do cobble together a little extra income if they can. Maybe they walk a neighbour’s dog for $20 a week. Maybe they babysit a few hours here and there. Maybe they collect bottles out of recycling bins and return them to stores for the deposit. Maybe their mom takes them grocery shopping once in awhile. Maybe they panhandle. Maybe they turn a few tricks towards the end of the month. All of these people are breaking the law by not declaring that income. All of them are potential targets of the Chief’s newfound interest in cracking down on welfare cheats.
Perhaps we should be looking instead at whether our disturbingly low social assistance payments are forcing some people to resort to criminal behaviour. (In 2005, the total legitmate annual income for a single person without a disability on social assistance in Ontario was $7,007; for a single person with a disability, $12,057. For a single parent with one child, it was $14,451; for a two-parent family with two children, it was $19,302. Source: National Council of Welfare.)
4. Wrong Targets: Most of the small-time drug dealers are selling to other addicts in order to feed their own addiction. If they’re on welfare, they’re probably just as poor as if they were non-addicts on welfare. The bigger drug dealers – the ones who are making money from it – are not collecting welfare. Dealers do not go on welfare if they don’t need to, because it’s way too much of an invasion of their privacy. Someone who is making a good living selling drugs (typically a non-addict), will not be voluntarily and unnecessarily opening up their home, bank records and life to scrutiny by welfare authorities.
Bottom line? The Chief needs to rethink this one. This kind of tactic will ultimately be ineffective because it targets the wrong people. It targets addicts with very limited options, rather than the mid and upper level dealers who are exploiting addicts for profit. Making addicts’ lives even more precarious is not going to make them any less addicted. Drying up their only legitimate source of income is going to force them to find more illegitimate sources of income. If you want to target addicts, build a treatment centre.