Doctors For Defunding Police: Interview with Semir Bulle

Interview by Nathan Munn

December 8, 2020

Doctors For Defunding Police (DFDP) is a coalition of more than 600 physicians across Canada demanding that law enforcement budgets be reduced to pay for improved healthcare and education services, including new non-police agencies to respond to mental health and addictions situations. Semir Bulle is an MD candidate at the University of Toronto, a co-founder of DFDP and currently the only non-physician member of the coalition. 

Penlight: For the average person who may not know anything about the movement, can you explain why we should defund the police?

Semir Bulle: As doctors—and in my case, as a medical student—working with inner city communities in Toronto, we see that policing as it currently functions is only used to oppress a certain subset of the population. We’ve had statistics come out of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal showing that Black people are 20 times more likely to be shot by police than white people. We have statistics that say 60 or 70 percent of the use of dogs (by police) is only against one subset of people. Police action against a certain segment of the population is breaking down trust. 

Our patients are from that segment of the population and we see that they cannot function in their own communities (as a result of police oppression). People in these communities, if they’re robbed or anything goes wrong, they don’t call the police—they’re more afraid of being victimized by the police than they are of the people perpetrating crimes against them. This is detrimental to their health and that’s why physicians are coming out against police and saying that policing is a public health crisis. We’re saying that police need to function for everybody, not just a small subset of the population. 

What specific policies would you like to see put in place? In a perfect world, how should law enforcement be operating?

We want specific (non-police) teams to be sent out for mental health calls, for drug addiction calls, for community service calls. We’re trying to figure out what tasks are police doing currently and what tasks can be redistributed to other factions of society.

We also want the people who are most impacted by police to be the ones deciding what it looks like. With a $1.27 billion dollar budget in the city of Toronto, there are other things that can be done with that budget that would be safer for these communities.

So the ideal would be to take a chunk of the police budget and use that to create entirely new agencies—non-armed, community agencies—to respond to situations that don’t require a police response.

Yeah. The police are supposed to be a public service but there’s no oversight of them. We need to create new services that do these jobs properly. Currently there’s no oversight of police foundations or (police) unions and we can’t get into these structures. We’ve tried reform for decades and it’s just not working. So we’re saying ‘Okay, we need to take some of the funding to create new agencies that work with and for the community.’ 

How are your colleagues in medicine reacting to Doctors For Defunding Police?

It’s very mixed. It depends on the type of doctor. The people who work in inner city Toronto, the ones who work with these communities, who work in the Emergency Rooms, it’s very easy for them to agree with (the movement): ‘We see how our populations interact with police, and we see it’s not helping their health situation.’ But the bureaucracy in the health care system is hierarchical and the people at the top don’t really understand these issues, because they don’t see these populations all the time. For us, we work with them, we live with them, we really feel that we are part of them. And the situation is unacceptable. 

Have there been different reactions from your colleagues of colour, versus those who are white?

Yeah, obviously. People who are more racialized are more likely to live in certain communities among certain populations, so they experience certain things. Many white people in medical school come from affluent backgrounds—it’s just a fact—and most of them haven’t had negative interactions with the police. All of their interactions have been positive. But with racialized populations, you see how police behave when they have carte blanche. It’s night and day, a completely different world. 

We’re getting our colleagues to understand what’s happening using facts and statistics to show them what’s actually going on. A lot of them are understanding. They’re converting slowly; it takes time to change your whole lived experience, right? To a lot of people cops have always been good. We’re saying ‘Hey, no; to some people, cops have been terrorists.’

We can do better for our communities than just throwing more police at them. If the goal is community safety, you get that by investing upstream in education and health care.

We can do better for our communities than just throwing more police at them. If the goal is community safety, you get that by investing upstream in education and health care.

Have you gotten any reactions from law enforcement?

Yeah, a lot. We have a big online presence and the other day (a person associated with law enforcement) left a comment saying something like ‘Defunding the police is radical, you should work on fixing medical errors.’ But that misses the point. We live in a system where a whole segment of the population doesn’t trust the police, won’t call the police, and yet are overpoliced. For example, when you look at the data on carding, it’s one specific subset of the population that police are targeting. The (Toronto) police aren’t in Rosedale; they don’t walk around the communities that are affluent. They walk around communities that are poor and more racialized, like Rexdale. It has to change. 

On social media, you’re plain-spoken and have no problem calling out police directly. Why is it important for you to take an assertive approach rather than a more measured tone?

To be completely honest, we have a failing media landscape in Canada. We have, like, four companies that own nearly all the media outlets we see. For example, the Irvings. The general population isn’t informed about what’s going on in these communities. CBC will often just quote what the police say after an officer-involved shooting. That’s not how objective journalism works.  

We try to cut through the fluff and be as straightforward and plain-spoken as possible. Because most people understand these issues. If we can just connect with people and show them what’s going on behind the scenes, more people will come to understand that politics doesn’t just mean voting every four years—it’s the time in between when you organize in your community and make connections. That’s what we want politics in our community to look like. 

On a personal level, have you had any negative experiences with police?

(Laughs) More than I can count. The first year I started driving, when I was like 16, I got carded over a dozen times. And every time the cops pulled me over, (the experience) was a variation of ‘How you doing today? What’s going on, what are you doing?’ Always checking on us. When I would walk across the street and see a cop on the corner near my school—they were always there—they’d be watching. You have to make sure you look straight ahead, don’t ever look suspicious.

One time my brother was shot at; we live in a dangerous community. But when the cops came they took the attitude that he was the criminal. (It was as if) they were treating him like a suspect in his own shooting, which caused him PTSD and trauma to this day. It’s unfathomable. 

The way that cops operate in these communities is not conducive to a society that is healthy and happy. And these are the communities of essential workers, the people who keep society functioning: the northwest corner of Toronto, downtown Toronto, northeast Scarborough. These communities are getting destroyed. We have to take a different approach.

That’s so exhausting. 

Yeah.

That brings me to my last question: How has the emergence of COVID influenced the defund movement?

I think COVID is the catalyst for a lot of this work—not the work itself, but the fact that the pandemic allowed a lot of people to stop and reflect on what’s going on in society.

Our system doesn’t let people take a break, ever. It keeps people working 40, 50, 60, 70 hours per week just to keep food on the table. Forty-six percent of Canadians are $200 away from financial insolvency. We’re always on the edge. Hopefully people were able to take this time to reflect on what they want to see in their communities, what they want to see for their children. We’re hoping people will do more research, increase their knowledge, find perspectives other than the ones they get from cable news and the school system. 

Hopefully we’ll build a better future. There’s bad and good in everything, and the good in COVID is the community organization aspect of it. We live in an incredible time; anything is possible.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Image by Kevin Kobsic.