The Vancouver police board has taken the unprecedented step of asking the province to review city council’s decision to freeze the Vancouver Police Department’s 2021 budget, saying the move amounts to a funding cut that does not consider the impact on public safety.
Council decided to hold the department’s 2021 budget to the same $340-million as the previous year. But Barj Dhahan, vice-chair of the police board, said in a statement Tuesday that amounts to a $5.7-million cut because the freeze won’t cover the cost of inflation or planned salary increases.
Mr. Dhahan’s statement said the decision means that the department can’t hire 61 new officers, as planned and “was made without any analysis or risk assessment regarding public safety impacts.”
That has prompted circumspect but dismayed messages from the Mayor and a councillor who was one of the strongest supporters of the no-increase police budget.
The budget was passed as many cities experienced huge losses because of the pandemic, reductions in many categories of crime because of the resulting changes in work and other activities, and a big social movement in the United States and Canada urging cities to reduce police budgets. That movement sprang up in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, and urged councils to spend more instead on social programs or intervenors with different skills from police.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said the city was facing significant challenges with an $85-million revenue loss because of the pandemic, and many in the public supported reducing the police budget.
“Vancouver’s police budget has increased 70 per cent over the last 10 years, growing from around $200-million in 2010 to $340-million in 2020 and makes up over 20 per cent of our operating budget,” his statement said. “Given pandemic economic pressures, council decided to hold the 2021 police budget steady, while at the same time boosting funding for community policing centres to $300,000 to enhance public safety.”
OneCity Councillor Christine Boyle also argued that the city had been forced to make cuts in every department, so the police status-quo budget was reasonable in comparison.
And, she said in an e-mailed statement, that she hopes the province’s larger review of the Police Act could demonstrate that more money for police is not the answer to cities’ social issues.
“I hope that the provincial review … will look at the impact that decades of underfunding of mental health, housing and social services has had on local governments and on an over-reliance on policing.”
Vancouver city council has had tense negotiations before with the Vancouver police, a department that tends to respond vigorously to any pushback on its budget requests. But the request for a provincial review from the board is a first, according to Tom Stamatakis, the former head of the Vancouver Police Union and the current president of the Canadian Police Association.
Other councils have been wary of the potential for resistance from police boards, especially after the Victoria police board requested provincial review two years in a row recently and saw the province’s police-services division agree with the board – and not the Victoria and Esquimalt councils – that more officers should be hired.
One New Westminster councillor said he ultimately decided not to vote in favour of a reduced police budget for 2021 partly because he was concerned the city would spend six months and a lot of energy fighting with police over the decision instead of focusing on improving services.
“Recognizing that no one’s been successful in pushing back on police-board budgets, I didn’t think we were going to win this fight,” said Patrick Johnstone. “The system is set up for the police board to decide the budget.”
Mr. Stewart is the chair of the Vancouver police board, but does not have a vote and, because of the disagreement between the board and council, has stepped away from being the spokesperson for the board.
In spite of the movement to reduce police funding, research has shown that very few cities have passed any reductions.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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