Brutality baked into budget
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One Sunday, when my five-year-old asked me if we could go to the library, I had to tell her it was closed. It was cold, we needed to get out of the house and the library is a perfect place: a kids area, new books, an engaged librarian, and a place for me to just sit and not spend any money while my kids played.
My kid commented that it didn’t make any sense that the library was closed Sundays. I agreed — the day of the week we finally have time to go out as a family, our local branch is closed and only six of the 20 Winnipeg Public Library branches are open. She asked why. I told her the city prefers to spend money on police than librarians, which, in my personal and professional experience as a criminal justice researcher, was the most accurate answer I could come up with.
This is only one of many ways the city’s spending priorities come up in daily conversation. Why isn’t the swimming pool or splash pad open? Why are all the swimming classes full? Why are we still waiting for the bus? Why is the bathroom next to the playground locked? Why is the sidewalk impassable with our stroller in the winter?
Cultural scripts told me that when I became a mom my feelings about safety, security and policing would change: I would want more of it; it would be a new priority.
Instead, I notice other things about the city that I didn’t before: the sidewalk conditions, the absence of spaces to warm up or cool down or use the bathroom. I feel the erosion of these things — it feels as if the city is actively working against my caregiving efforts. I know these impacts are amplified in the lives of my neighbours in more precarious social positions.
As a parent, I am intimately acquainted with where funding is cut. As a criminal justice professor, I keep track of where the funding is going instead.
The latest proposed city budget will increase the city’s funding of police by another $8.3 million, bringing the Winnipeg Police Service’s total budget to $327 million in 2023. Meanwhile, the public library system will only receive a tiny $165,000 in additional funding to its $32 million budget. The police-funding increase will be 50 times that of libraries.
In fact, mill rate support of the WPS is equivalent to: public transit; recreation, parks and urban forestry; snow clearing and ice control; libraries; and arts, entertainment and culture combined.
With every budget decision, city councillors make choices that shape what our city looks like and how different people will experience it. The most recent city budget promises life will only get harder and more stressful, especially for the poorest among us.
The city is responding to very real safety concerns by shuffling more money into policing and away from the people, places, and services we rely on to get through our everyday lives.
The people who suffer most from this shrinking of the public sphere — those with the least wealth, the most kids, the least family support, the most isolating disabilities — are not only left unsupported, their preventable crises are increasingly likely to be met with police, whose toolbox is limited at best and often actively damaging.
The police officers who respond to these crises don’t have to lift a weapon, or even a finger, for their presence to be violent. The violence is in the complete context — the burdening of individuals with what should be a collective responsibility for care — and the meeting of their problems with punishment and hostility instead.
This year’s International Day Against Police Brutality is being marked by groups who will gather to reflect on the harms of policing and visions for a better world. The groups will meet in front of the Millennium Library, a site where budgetary brutality has crystallized over the past few years.
The city has failed to take library safety seriously, ignoring calls from library workers, patrons and community groups for investment in staffing, community safety hosts and community outreach. Instead, they’ve responded with more police and security, repelling people who need library services most urgently.
This year’s rally coincides with city budget deliberations, and so we ask: what could we have if we defund the police? We could have properly staffed libraries, transit routes, community centres and pools. The city could directly provide things people need to be healthy and safe: housing, supervised consumption sites, food and more. Community support is evidence-based violence prevention. Policing is not.
Police are bleeding the community dry, and it is costing us all. Nobody should have to tell their kids they can’t access books or pools or any of the services that make our city livable.
Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land is associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg.
Updated on Tuesday, March 14, 2023 5:05 PM CDT: Updates Winnipeg Public Library branch open days