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Defunding police an argument that’s not going away

BarrieToday asked council members where they stand on the possibility of reduced funding for local police during budget talks
2019-07-27 Barrie Police RB 3
Raymond Bowe/BarrieToday

Defunding city police this year looks like a long shot, as not enough Barrie councillors support a budget reduction and reallocation of police funding.

But it is coming, although when and to what extent is unknown.

The discussion will go public again soon, likely on Monday, Jan. 11, when Barrie’s police board presents its 2021 budget to councillors, with a municipal funding request of almost $57.3 million, or 2.65 per cent more than last year.

In general terms, defunding the police means reallocating some policing costs toward mental-health remedies, addiction treatment and social services while reframing the role of the police themselves — particularly in Black and Indigenous communities.

An informal BarrieToday poll of city council members Jan. 4-6 shows most are not yet ready to defund city police, at least not this year.

Deputy Mayor Barry Ward said he backs the principle of defunding police, but it’s unlikely to happen in 2021.  

“I support the idea of gradually taking money away from policing to put it into crime prevention measures, which can include housing, counselling and other social services,” said Ward, who is also the Ward 4 councillor. “Having said that, I believe there is little likelihood council will reduce the police budget and use the money on social services this year. A motion before the current council just to look at the issue and what a 10 per cent decrease would mean failed by, I think, a 9-2 vote.

“I do think it is an idea worth pursuing and polls have shown increasing support for the idea across Canada so I believe council will re-address the matter in the future. I will note Barrie Police Services (BPS) have taken serious steps to address the causes of crime, working with social agencies,” he added. “But more needs to be done.”

In that 9-2 vote, Ward was one of the two  with the other being Coun. Keenan Aylwin.

“The debate isn’t over. I will continue to advocate for the responsible and compassionate investment of tax dollars in the services that people rely on during the 2021 budget process,” Aylwin said. “With a 10 per cent reduction in the Barrie police budget, we could make incredible strides toward ending chronic homelessness in Barrie and finally start working to address the root causes of crime. It’s time to back up our rhetoric on ‘addressing root causes’ with actual action and investment.

“Eight in 10 calls to Barrie police are non-criminal in nature and I believe this gives us the opportunity to respond in non-violent, compassionate ways that use tax dollars more responsibly,” he added. “A reallocation of 10 per cent of the Barrie police budget to social services, supportive housing and outreach services could fundamentally change the way our city supports people who have been let down by successive governments.” 

Mayor Jeff Lehman and Coun. Robert Thomson sit on the police services board, and Lehman said what board members heard from the community through surveys, e-mails, and deputations at its meetings led, in part, to the systemic review that Barrie police launched in the fall.  

“This is now an ongoing conversation with the community,” Lehman said.

“My view on defunding has not changed – you should not take away capacity from the police until alternative capacity is available – and right now due to COVID and the lack of resources, there is little alternative capacity in Barrie’s social services sector,” the mayor said. “We need to build up this service capacity, and then we can talk about moving over the budget.

“Yes, I believe in time we will be able to redirect some police calls and the associated budget to alternate organizations,” Lehman said. “I also believe the time has certainly come to do that… but it needs to be done properly so vulnerable people get the support they need and there is always someone on the other end of the phone at 3 a.m. when there’s a crisis.”

Coun. Thomson says being on the police board means he knows first-hand the pressures Barrie police face, and that a large percentage of its budget is for police staff.

“Which includes front-line uniform police officers serving our community,” he said. “I’m not supportive of decreasing police officers in our growing city, especially when our percentage of police officers to population is lower than average in other cities our size.” 

Thomson said Barrie police crime prevention initiatives include increasing community policing, building relationships with residents and being more familiar with the challenges in city wards.

Coun. Natalie Harris noted salaries and benefits are 95.7 per cent of the police budget.

“Therefore, if we reduce their budget, we are reducing officers on the road, which is not something most of the residents I have spoken to want to see, nor I,” she said. “On the contrary, they want more officers.

“However, I do support the addition of social service providers to help support police officers who attend calls requiring social service assistance and to also work outside of the police service with the goal of preventing many of the social service-related calls through other funding  county, provincial, federal," the Ward 6 councillor added. 

“Removing funding from a service that is often without any available officers due to call volume isn’t the way to improve the service,” she said. “We need to focus on funding services to help people before they need to call the police.” 

Coun. Clare Riepma says ‘defunding the police' has become a slogan that means different things to different people.

“I don’t think it is a matter of defunding anyone; it is a matter of steadily changing to meet society’s changing demands,” he said. “I do think that we need to look at how we provide police services in the most efficient manner possible. There are lots of things that we should ask the province and the federal government to do to reduce the cost of policing. Changes to drug laws would reduce policing costs and result in better outcomes for people that are addicted. Changes to traffic laws such as permitting photo radar or changing the way we do construction traffic control would save money.

“A majority of calls to police don’t require a policeman to respond. Often, a social worker is needed,” Riepma said. “We have started to add social workers to the team as part of the COAST project and that is working well. We now need to look for ways to expand this initiative.”

The Community Outreach And Support Team (COAST) does crisis intervention for Barrie citizens suffering from mental illness and/or emotional disturbances who are unable, or reluctant, to utilize existing emergency services.

“I think everyone from front-line police officers to community advocates agree that the police should not be a social service agency,” Lehman said. “In a small town, that’s what they end up doing because there are no sustainable alternatives. A growing city like Barrie has more resources and can and should do more, and that’s work I want to do, and I hope council will support, in 2021.

“I also feel that Barrie police is, and will continue to be, a collaborative part of building the alternate service delivery capacity,” he added. “That is already underway and will continue for most of  2021 through the systemic review, the Community Safety and Wellbeing Plan, as well as through the Barrie Health Accord.”

Coun. Mike McCann says defunding police is a complex question. 

“I don't believe the majority of the public actually want to see policing defunded,” he said. “They may want to see additional appropriate funding for community support and social services.

“It's important to understand that police attend and handle many situations because there is no one else to respond and no proper infrastructure in place to facilitate that needed response," McCann added. "Mental health and wellness calls are a good example, as some of these calls definitely require a police response to ensure everyone's safety. The more relevant discussion should be on alternative service delivery models that are adequately funded by all levels of government.”

Coun. Jim Harris said his constituents aren’t necessarily looking for cuts to policing costs.

“The prevailing sentiment from Ward 8 residents, based on the feedback I have received over the course of the year and in the three town halls I have hosted, does not support a reduction in police services,” he said. “Interestingly, residents asked for police to be in attendance at each of my town halls.  

“Certainly, residents would welcome savings in any service area,” Harris added. “However, if there are savings to be found this year they are not looking to reallocate savings to other services; rather they are looking for savings to be directed to reducing any potential property tax increase for 2021.”

Coun. Sergio Morales, chairman of the city finance and corporate services committee, declined comment for now.

“I don’t respond to and feed into buzzwords such as ‘defund the police’. It’s not accurate as to what actually happens,” he said. “As I’ve said during previous stories on the budget, all services are on the table for cost savings, including Barrie police, but I won’t indulge in combative slogans that pits people against each other instead of engaging in productive conversations.”

Coun. Ann-Marie Kungl did not take a stance on defunding police.

“I do not have a formal budget position specific to Barrie Police Service, as I am waiting to receive all information through the budget review process this month and will be looking at impacts and opportunities broadly,” she said.

Aylwin noted in 2020, hundreds of people were involved in the city’s online suggestion platform on a call to reduce the police budget by 10 per cent this year. 

“This may be the fastest that a suggestion has reached the required threshold to be considered by council,” Aylwin said. “We saw thousands of people marching in our streets calling for justice for Black lives and demanding concrete action to tackle systemic racism and improve our communities. There’s clearly a desire in the community for action on this front.”

Lehman noted it is not council’s role to allocate the police budget; under legislation, that is the local police services board’s job.

“However, council does ultimately approve the budget envelope and can decide whether to approve or reject the budget that was submitted  usually by sending it back to the (police) board with a request for reductions,” the mayor said.

The police budget is part of Barrie’s operating and capital budget, which city councillors are scheduled to discuss Jan. 18 and pass Jan. 25. Policing costs are usually about 20 per cent of the city's total operating budget.

“Police perform a very necessary and important role,” Ward said. “Policing will always be needed, but studies have shown it’s always a better idea – and much cheaper for taxpayers – to address the issues which cause crime, rather than dealing with the consequences of crime, in terms of policing, court and incarceration.

“In fact, it makes more sense to have police focus on solving more serious crimes and even enforcing traffic offences such as speeding – which is probably the No. 1 complaint we get as councillors – than it is to respond to calls about homeless people sleeping in doorways or an addict passed out on the street, never mind the cost of having them go through the court system," the deputy-mayor added.

“As council tries to find ways to reduce tax increases, it only makes sense to address the biggest single item in our budget and do it in a way that cuts cost every year going forward, not just for one budget,” Ward said.

At this stage in Barrie’s budget process, which sets both taxes and service levels, homeowners face a 3.59 per cent property tax increase in 2021, or paying another $160 on a typical house assessed at $367,550, up from $4,454 in taxes last year.

This would bring 2021’s taxes on that property to $4,614  of which $883 would be for policing.

“We have underfunded the services that support people in our community for years,” Aylwin said. “The reality is that the Barrie police budget is the single largest budget item and has grown year after year, even when our population has remained relatively stable and crime rates have been some of the lowest in the country.”

Coun. Gary Harvey, an officer with York Regional Police, declined comment on defunding Barrie Police Service.

“I am unable to speak to anything regarding the police budget in order for me to comply with legislative requirements under section 17(3) of the Police Services Act,” he said.




Bob Bruton

About the Author: Bob Bruton

Bob Bruton is a full-time BarrieToday reporter who covers politics and city hall.
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