Two starkly different views on police budget cuts were presented at a Winnipeg police board meeting Friday; with those opposed saying safety must be paramount and those in favour arguing the money could be better spent.
Several individuals argued for a freeze or reduction in police funding; they said the money should be spent to address the causes of crime or improve civic services such as transit and leisure facilities and parks.
In contrast, members of the Indigenous community appealed to the board to restore proposed police cuts, arguing initiatives are desperately needed.
"Police consume an irrational amount of resources in our city and these costs are not sustainable," said Kevin Walby, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg. He said at the current rate of increases, the police service budget would account for 50 per cent of civic spending in 25 years.
Walby said statistics show that policing doesn’t make the city safer or reduce crime but causes social harms that should be eliminated.
In contrast, John Drabble, the secretary-treasurer of Bear Clan, said police presence is desperately wanted in the North End.
"People want, above everything else, to have security," Drabble said. "Just like everyone else, they want their neighbours to feel safe, they want to feel safe."
A week ago, Winnipeg police told the police board that the proposed two per cent cap on its $301-million budget would result in the elimination of 34 police position and 25 cadets, a reduction in traffic enforcement and the elimination of crime prevention initiatives.
Police Chief Danny Smyth recently announced an increase in violent crimes required the service to reallocate resources. That necessitated the temporary closing of district police stations and moving officers from Project Devote, a national joint task force with the RCMP that probes cases of slain and missing Indigenous females.
The police board and police executive will use the public feedback gathered Friday to possibly modify the four-year budget plan at a Dec. 6 meeting.
Diane Redsky, with the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, said the budget threatens the critical partnership police have established with Indigenous organizations.
Hilda Anderson-Pyrz, with the Manitoba Keewanitnowi Okimakanak, urged the board to restore funding to Project Devote.
Restoring funding and staffing for Project Devote, Anderson-Pyrz said, "is critical to bring justice to families…Although protecting the city is important, finding the perpetrators is equally important to create safer environments."
Individuals from the community group Winnipeg Police Cause Harm, argued police funding should be eliminated entirely as they see the police as the greater threat to public safety.
"The police as an institution were not created to reduce poverty, economic inequality, mental health crises, affordable housing, addiction supports and colonial racism," said Nathan Loewen. "No city council or municipal body that wants to take reconciliation seriously should (consider) increasing the police budget."
Board member Damon Johnston, president and CEO of the Aboriginal Council of Winnipeg, said concerns raised by the public point to the need for systemic change.
"It’s clear to me that what we’re doing now isn’t working very well," Johnston said. "If we don’t change, we’ll end up like Mexico."
Smyth said he believes criticism of police is rooted in frustration with the social problems that seem to have overwhelmed the city, but stressed police can make a positive difference when provided the time and resources to work with community groups.
"One of the things I don’t like about this (budget) process is that it’s become very divisive and adversarial," Smyth said. "People who really believe in social justice and social services (are) feeling threatened because those budgets are being cut. It’s being presented as almost an either-or, and I really don’t think it’s an either-or, both of those things needs to happen. I don’t think the policing and social services are a mutually exclusive thing."
Police board chairman Coun. Kevin Klein said criticism of police reflects the frustration of people who don’t believe governments are taking the appropriate steps to address desperate social issues, but added that’s not the fault of police.
Klein said he supports boosting the police budget with the savings made from changes to the police pension. In a narrow vote Thursday, council approved removing overtime from pensionable earnings; the measure will save more than $12 million annually, once it is fully implemented.
Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.