Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.
From the get-go, pushback from the Vancouver Police Department over the city’s decision to trim the policing budget by a measly 1 per cent last month seemed tone deaf in light of the economic costs wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. But continued VPD grumbling over the cut in the face of a growing protest movement to defund police is beyond the pale.
The VPD’s unwillingness to share the financial burden speaks to an attitude of entitlement that’s hard to comprehend. Police have always believed themselves to be the most essential of our essential services. And even when trust in police is faltering across North America, the VPD remains so convinced of its own worth that instead of suggesting cuts, the department dug in to preserve every cent of a $20-million budget increase approved by council before the pandemic hit.
The city’s previous ruling party, Vision Vancouver, was ungenerous to the VPD; there was a hiring freeze between 2010 and 2017. But although property crime increased during that time, violent crime dropped. Since then, the department has added 80 police officers and 32 civilian staff. This year’s hires finally allowed the VPD to exceed 2009 staffing levels.
Even so, the city was right to demand a cut. By April, the COVID-19 pandemic had slowed the economy to a crawl, and the city was losing revenue at a rate of $4-million to $5-million a week. At the same time, it faced extraordinary expenses just to maintain essential services, and keep employees and citizens safe.
Council began to look for savings. In April, temporary layoff notices were issued to 1,500 staff members and city councillors, and non-union staff all got a 10-per-cent pay cut. Council asked the police and library boards to find savings in their departments. The library board responded with suggestions, Councillor Christine Boyle says. “The police board got back to us and said, ‘No thanks.’ ”
After the 1-per-cent cut passed, VPD Chief Constable Adam Palmer released a statement explaining his objection to the rollback. He pointed out that throughout the pandemic, police have been on the job 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “Patrol officers have been on the front line, putting themselves at risk, to keep the city safe,” he added.
Sure. But isn’t that what cops are supposed to do? Isn’t that why we dedicate 21 per cent of the city’s operating budget to pay for our police force? The risk from COVID-19 to police was no greater than it was to all other essential workers who kept working when the pandemic was at its peak.
Chief Palmer noted in his statement that crime doesn’t stop during a pandemic. True – but a lot of other police work likely did drop off. There was no policing required for the weekend club scene on Granville St. and little for traffic enforcement. And it’s hard to imagine residential break-ins increasing with so many people at home.
You wouldn’t hear the heads of any other city department publicly criticizing their employer for funding decisions. But the police department is a separate beast; its budget is prepared by department brass and the police board, and usually rubber-stamped by council. If funding for a budget item is not approved and the police board believes public safety might be compromised, it can appeal to the provincial director of police services to overrule council.
This doesn’t often happen, and despite Chief Palmer’s sabre-rattling, it probably won’t now.
It’s obvious that if Chief Palmer complained, he wouldn’t get a warm reception in Victoria. This week, Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth announced he will form an all-party committee to reform the Police Act to address problems of systemic racism. Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who chairs the police board, has also asked the province to review the balance of spending between law enforcement and other social services.
Any talk of a better balance today means less money for the police department and more for other services to address problems around mental health, housing, youth outreach, poverty and homelessness. Chief Palmer must recognize that at this moment, there is little public appetite for dumping more money into policing. Time for the chief to get out his red pencil and find that 1 per cent.
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