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A woman holds a sign reading "Hold Police Accountable" as thousands of people protest against racism, injustice and police brutality in Vancouver, on May 31, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Local politicians in a handful of major Canadian cities are promising to listen to activists demanding a response to racist police incidents, but they are stopping short of the call to slash policing budgets.

Edmonton’s mayor on Wednesday proposed freezing its city’s police budget next year. In Victoria, officials asked the local police department for a report on the force’s demographics. One Hamilton councillor wants his city’s police chief to prepare a report on the implications of a budget cut, because he wants the public to be aware of the consequences of such proposals.

Police services across North America have been facing calls for reform and, in some cases, demands that politicians cut their budgets as protests against police brutality and racism enter their third week. Activists argue some of the money used to fund police could be diverted to social programs such as affordable housing or mental health support, which would then take some pressure off officers on the streets. At the same time, city and police budgets are already under pressure owing to the coronavirus and slower economic activity.

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Demonstrations ignited in Minneapolis last month after the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man who cried out that he couldn’t breathe as a white police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. The protests have spread to Canada, Europe and around the world.

Protests, police brutality and racism: A guide to the story so far, from George Floyd’s death to a global reckoning

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson proposed cancelling the police budget’s annual increase for population growth and inflation in 2021 as part of a motion requesting analysis on defunding forces, options for holding transit peace officers accountable for using excessive force, and other changes. A public hearing is being planned.

“Perhaps some of those dollars could be reallocated to some of these other prevention programs,” he told reporters.

Dale McFee, Edmonton Police Service’s chief, cautioned politicians against drastic cuts. If the police trimmed its budget by $75-million, as one online petition demands, the force would have to let go roughly 500 officers hired in the past five years. “It would take us back many years,” Chief McFee said, saying it would mean laying off dozens of women and minorities.

Chad Collins, a councillor in Hamilton, has drafted a motion asking local police to explain what would happen if its budget dropped by 20 per cent. He said he is not certain the best way to fund social programs is to divert money away from policing, and added that residents are telling him they want more officers patrolling.

In British Columbia’s capital this week, a host of anti-racism measures were approved by the local police board, but its budget does not appear to be in danger of any cuts.

The police board for Victoria and its neighbouring city of Esquimalt passed a motion Tuesday evening asking the Victoria Police Department to report back with how the number of its Black, Indigenous and officers of colour measure up against the demographics of the population it serves. The board also asked for a breakdown of female officers.

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“This will give us a baseline and show us where there is room for focus in recruiting,” a statement from the board released Wednesday said.

When thousands rallied in downtown Vancouver last Friday to protest anti-Black racism, a core demand of demonstrators was to defund the police.

Last month, the police chief slammed the recent city council motion to reduce his force’s $314-million operating budget by 1 per cent, which is in line with what the city asked of its fire department. His comments that any cuts to the VPD budget will result in the loss of frontline officers echo an April 27 letter the Vancouver Police Board sent to the mayor.

In that letter, the board’s finance committee stated that the department has already shuffled its budget to meet extra costs brought on by pipeline protests earlier this year and the need to purchase personal protective equipment and activate a special operations centre during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Any discussion of reducing the VPD’s operating budget would translate directly into service cuts, which would have a detrimental effect on public safety, in particular during a time of crisis such as this,” the letter states.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who also chairs the police board, is planning to announce a “path forward for policing” in the city on Thursday.

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