One Barrie, Ont., city councillor has penned a letter to the local police services board, urging its members to discuss reallocating the police budget to other social services in the area.
“The Barrie Police budget is a significant portion of the City of Barrie’s overall budget,” Ward 2 councillor Keenan Aylwin said in a letter addressed to the Barrie Police Services Board Friday.
“I believe we must consider a shift in how these funds are allocated. With a reinvestment of funds in social services, we can ensure that everyone in our community can live a life of dignity with the resources that they need to survive and thrive.”
Aylwin told the board he knows the conversation regarding reallocating the police budget is “uncomfortable and difficult,” although he thinks it’s an important one to have for the community.
Aylwin’s call to consider reallocating the police budget is not exclusive to Barrie.
Since protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality have erupted across North America, officials and advocates have started to discuss the possibility of defunding the police and reallocating resources to other essential services.
On Monday, Toronto city councillor Josh Matlow said he will bring a motion to the next council meeting to defund the city’s police force by 10 per cent and use it for community resources. The motion will be supported by another Toronto councillor.
The announcement followed Ottawa city councillor Shawn Menard’s call to defund the police on Twitter last week.
In an interview with Global News Monday, Aylwin said the Barrie Police Service responds to many calls that are non-criminal in nature, including to people who are experiencing mental health crises.
“Is it really necessary for an armed officer with a gun on one hip and a Taser on the other to respond to these calls?” Aylwin said, adding that it could be more safe and cost-effective to have a trained crisis response worker attend mental health crises as opposed to an armed officer.
“I think we need to really evaluate what we define as public safety.”
On Tuesday, Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman clarified to Global News that the local police service already has mental health case workers.
“I think (Aylwin) is right to call for increased investment in social housing, in mental health supports and so forth, but I think it would be a mistake to defund the Barrie Police for a number of reasons,” Lehman said, adding that Barrie is a growing community and that the number of calls for police service will continue to rise with the population.
“The police did not hire anybody for six years, so in a way, the shift that (Aylwin) has been talking about has already been happening, where the police service has been reallocating its funds.”
This year, funding for the Barrie Police Service accounts for more than $56 million. Barrie Police also receive more money from residents’ property taxes annually than any other local service, including transit, fire and emergency, as well as environmental services.
“What we’re asking is that we consider reallocating some of that $56 million budget to prevention, to prevent crime in the first place, go upstream and deal with some of the root causes of the issues that we face,” Aylwin said.
“We know that here in Barrie, we’re facing a housing and homelessness crisis, we’re facing an opioid overdose crisis, and of course, we’re now in the middle of a global pandemic and an economic crisis as a result of that.”
Lehman said police already received a funding cut from the province and are now trying to do more with less.
“I think it would be a mistake to try and cut that further,” Lehman said. “Our community has a very low crime index, one of the lowest in the country.”
In an emailed statement Monday, Barrie Police Services Board chair Angela Lockridge said the contents of Aylwin’s letter will be discussed at the next board meeting and that it’s been formally added to the agenda.
“We know that as a major service partner to the city, we have a duty to ensure we are making the best possible use of taxpayers’ dollars every year,” Lockridge wrote.
“The Barrie Police Service leadership team rigorously assesses the safety and security requirements of the city and prepares the draft budget for the board’s review and approval.”
Lockridge said the board will continue to focus on “community safety” and “well-being,” as well as the Barrie Police Service’s role within the city’s broad network of social services during its 2021 budget discussions.
“We align our budget submission with the guidelines from the City of Barrie council and finance department, which are provided to all service partners,” Lockridge added.
On Sunday, Barrie Ward 6 councillor Natalie Harris wrote a letter to Aylwin in response to his call to the police services board to consider reallocating its funds.
In the letter provided to Global News, Harris encouraged Aylwin to learn about the services that the Barrie Police Service provides.
“While you are educating yourself on these matters, I will educate myself more on any evidence of reallocation of police funding to social services,” Harris wrote to the Ward 2 councillor.
As a former paramedic, Harris said she’s witnessed the “amazing care” the Barrie Police provides first-hand for 11 years, including when dealing with situations involving mental illness and addiction.
The Ward 6 councillor told Global News Tuesday that people are sometimes unable to calm down physiologically, and as a result, they could be running into oncoming traffic on the road.
“That’s a perfect example of why the police are trained in tactics of restraining someone,” Harris said.
“I know right now with everything that’s in the media, that’s going to sound wrong, but there are so many police officers — a majority of police officers — who are trained to do this with the least amount of force possible, and sometimes it’s required.”
Harris noted the police are also trained to prevent people from harming themselves further. She said she’s attended a number of calls as a paramedic where psychosis is present.
“It’s a state where this patient needs medical intervention,” Harris said. ” You can’t just have a conversation about it to convince them to do that.”
When it comes to addressing racism among police, Harris said it’s important for there to be training and education for the entire police service.
“I don’t that taking money away from the police service is going to encourage lessening the mistreatment of minorities and people of different races,” Harris said. “I think we just need to deal with it on an entire systemic level, and obviously just continue to advocate and say that (racism) is wrong.”