Vancouver city council voted to keep the police budget at the same level as 2020, rejecting a proposed increase of $6.4 million made by the police board.
City staff had recommended a one-per-cent cut to the police budget to offset revenue losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the police board had rejected that call, saying public safety would be threatened. The police budget takes up 20 per cent of the entire city budget.
The budget will remain at the 2020 level of $340,601,336.
The decision means the police department will be unable to go ahead with plans to add 61 new police officers to the force, police Chief Adam Palmer said in a statement. VPD has more than 1,300 officers.*
The vote reflects tensions between the police department and city council. In the wake of several high-profile deaths across Canada during police “wellness checks” this spring, and Black Lives Matter protests that swept across North America, council passed motions this summer to end street checks and decriminalize poverty.
At the same time, residents of some neighbourhoods raised concerns about crime after tent city residents from Oppenheimer Park were moved to a downtown hotel, and a new tent city formed at Strathcona Park. The concerns revolved around drug use in public, aggressive behaviour and needles in parks.
The police board refused to even review street checks, which statistics have shown disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous people in Vancouver. The VPD also created a new unit of officers to respond to lower priority calls and check on homeless people, a move that appeared to undercut the decriminalize poverty motion, advocates said.
After days of hearing concerns from speakers about both crime fears, and how marginalized people are over-policed and at times “harassed” by police, Coun. Jean Swanson had proposed cutting $5 million from the VPD budget to redirect money to “community-led safety initiatives.”
But that proposal was rejected by all councillors except Swanson and Christine Boyle (councillors Sarah Kirby-Yung and Melissa De Genova abstained from voting because they are both married to police officers).
Several councillors said they were concerned that cutting funding from the police budget before there was a firm plan in place for the services that would replace those calls would be a disaster.
Coun. Rebecca Bligh spoke about an incident she witnessed, where a young man had stepped over the railing of a viaduct and appeared to be suicidal. The first responder was a police officer, and Bligh questioned what would have happened if the officer had not been there.
But Bligh said there do need to be deep changes in the way policing is done in the city.
“We have to understand that who we’ve heard from are people who feel marginalized in society, who do feel criminalized because of poverty — and that’s not right either,” Bligh said.
“What I hope we start to hear is the willingness from the police board and the chief of police, to get around the table and look at how we restructure this.”
Council heard from over 200 speakers in the days leading up to the budget vote. Some speakers spoke in support of increased funds for the police, saying they were afraid of crime rising in neighbourhoods like Yaletown and Kitsilano. (Statistics show most categories of crime have not risen overall in 2020; however, police say some categories of crime have risen in specific areas of some neighbourhoods.)
“We see guys in bikes and backpacks scanning our neighbourhood to rob,” Jason John, who lives near Kitsilano Beach, told council. “I got (my daughter) bear spray because you’ve got guys in vans saying 'hey, come here.'”
But many other speakers spoke in opposition, saying they were dismayed and frustrated to see that the VPD seem to ignore council’s direction to cut costs.
Several speakers brought up the recent case of a man who died on Nov. 26 after getting into a physical altercation with police at a Tim Hortons in Vancouver. Police had been called to remove someone from the restaurant’s bathroom, and officers found the man to be “agitated and aggressive.” That incident is being investigated by a police oversight watchdog, the Independent Investigations Office.
When asked why the police department appeared to be ignoring council’s direction, the VPD has said municipal departments in B.C. don’t take direction on policy or governance from city council.
That didn’t sit right with many of the speakers.
“It seems very clear now that the VPD have very little regard and perhaps even contempt for the authority of elected officials,” one speaker, Ryder White, told council. “They refuse to do their part to ameliorate the financial catastrophe brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.”
Karen Tsang asked why such a huge portion of her taxes go to the Vancouver Police Department. She said she and her family no longer feel comfortable attending Car Free festivals in the city because of the presence of heavily armed police.
“I ask myself why is it we are asking police to have funding that is one-fifth of my taxes? Will they build bathrooms? Will they create housing?” she asked. “The people are not the problem. It is what they are missing and what we are not spending resources on.”
*Story updated on Dec. 9 at 11:02 a.m. to add details from a statement by VPD Chief Adam Palmer.