The Vancouver police board is rejecting a one per cent budget cut approved by Vancouver city council last month, as the city grapples with its own COVID-19 driven budget shortfall.
In a letter to mayor and council earlier this week, the board’s finance chair Barj Dhanan wrote that the board believes the May 13 motion falls afoul of the province’s Police Act, and asks council to rescind it.
The letter goes on to argue that the cut would affect public safety, and that the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) is currently facing new financial pressures, including $2.3 million in pandemic-associated costs.
“Furthermore, the recent tragic events in Minneapolis have resulted in the emergence of large scale demonstrations, which will have a considerable impact on our budget,” wrote Dhanan.
Vancouver’s police chief has slammed the cut for being approved in an in-camera meeting, and without consulting the department. The city’s mayor, who sits on the police board, told CKNW Radio he was “blindsided” by the move.
While the cut was motivated by coronavirus-driven financial concerns, the June 2 letter comes amid a growing debate over the idea of defunding police departments and redirecting money to key services such as those addressing mental health.
Los Angeles’ mayor has proposed cutting $150 million from the megacity’s $1.8 billion budget.
Vancouver Coun. Christine Boyle is one of the local voices calling for a conversation on the issue, and says constituents have been pressing her on it since the wave of U.S. protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“I’ve received about 1,200 or more emails from residents calling for us to defund the police,” said Boyle.
“It’s more than a fifth of our city budget.”
The VPD budget has grown more than $100 million in the last decade, to about $314 million in 2020.
Boyle said some of that money might be better spent on other social services without necessarily harming core police work.
“Is there work being done by the police that could be better suited to other professionals in the city?” she asked.
“I don’t pretend to have all the ideas right now, but I’m very interested in a larger conversation that has those ideas on the table.”
Asked about the issue at a press conference Friday, Vancouver police spokesperson Const. Tania Visintin said the decision should lie with political representatives, but said there’s no question police are still busy — even with the pandemic.
“I know our calls for service are still up there, I know my colleagues on the road are working diligently, I know my colleagues in our investigative sections are working diligently on all of these files,” she said.
“There is a need for police because people are calling 911.”
Other civic leaders have also expressed skepticism about the idea.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps was cool to the concept when asked about it Friday.
“The police officers here on the ground are absolutely stretched, in terms of the amount of work they’re carrying,” she said.
“If that’s the conversation we need to have as a community, I think it will be a very difficult conversation.”
Kash Heed, B.C.’s former solicitor general and the former chief of the West Vancouver police, said like it or not, North America has entered an “era of defunding.”
He said the idea can work if it is done properly. To Heed, that means putting the money into specific programs and reviewing the results.
“Where it will have negative consequences is if you don’t earmark that amount of funding for a particular initiative and put some evaluation in place to evaluate whether that worked or not,” he said .
“Your budget, your amount of officers you have does not equate to increased public security, and we have to be cognizant of that. It’s how you deploy the resources you have.”
— With files form Rumina Daya