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'Copaganda’: Critics Challenge Police Report on Social Spending

The Vancouver Police Department paid for a report on social safety net spending that’s raising some questions.

Jen St. Denis 9 Nov

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

An Edmonton city councillor critical of police spending says Vancouver residents should be asking hard questions about a new report on social services spending commissioned by the Vancouver Police Department.

The report, by a Calgary-based company called HelpSeeker, pegs total spending on the “social safety net” in Vancouver at $5 billion per year. That amount is equal to seven per cent of the B.C. government’s total operating expenses of $71 billion.

But Michael Janz says the Edmonton Police Service used a report by the same company in 2021 to push back against calls to reduce the police budget and direct the money to social services instead.

“This report and this methodology was criticized by many members of the community as a thinly veiled piece of ‘copaganda,’” Janz said.

The VPD says it commissioned the report as part of an effort to “enhance public safety, improve quality of life, and understand our role in the social safety net.”

The Tyee obtained a copy of the full report.

Christine Boyle, a Vancouver city councillor, said the report reiterates what many other previous reports have also found: letting poverty increase so people are living in crisis conditions, such as being homeless for long periods of time, is more expensive than permanently housing people and adequately funding health services.

“We know these are needs and they’re not being adequately funded or implemented, and in the meantime we have very hardworking folks throughout our system who are doing their best to keep people safe and alive,” Boyle said.

Boyle added that she has questions about why HelpSeeker, “a tech company from Alberta,” had been chosen to complete the report and how much it cost the VPD.

Julian Somers, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University who specializes in addiction, said the figures in the report do point to a trend he’s studied for decades. While spending on social services has been steadily increasing for years, persistent problems like homelessness are not improving.

That points to a disconnect between spending and desired outcomes, Somers said.

He also noted that this is not the first report from the VPD to highlight the growing role of police involvement in mental health and addictions.

The HelpSeeker report includes data for 2018 and 2019 and deals with the City of Vancouver only.

According to HelpSeeker’s analysis, the $5-billion figure for social-service related investments in Vancouver for 2019 breaks down like this: $2 billion from direct government transfers; $1.4 billion from charities; $139 million from the City of Vancouver; $315 million in health spending; $680 million from foundations; $317 million from the Vancouver Police Department; $17 million from mental health and addiction charities; and $181 million from a category called “other CSS entities.”

In Edmonton, a similar analysis done by HelpSeeker for the Edmonton Police Service estimated social service spending at $7.5 billion in 2018. The analysis estimated that the $7.5 billion figure was made up of $462 million from the police budget; $88 million from the Emergency Medical Services (ambulance) budget; $231 million from Edmonton’s fire department; $2.1 billion from community and social service charities; $1.5 billion of public health spending directed towards mental health and addictions; and $3 billion from direct government transfers in the form of social assistance and disability payments and tax credits.

In the Vancouver report, there’s a special focus on the Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood with the lowest incomes, poorest health and highest percentage of Indigenous people in the city.

The HelpSeeker report says charities spent $406 million on services in the Downtown Eastside in 2019, and an additional $66 million in funding for social services in the Downtown Eastside comes from Vancouver Coastal Health, a major funder in the impoverished neighbourhood.

The report says the analysis “raises questions about the real impact these investments and service elements have on people’s lives.” It also suggests better data collection, reducing duplication of services, better co-ordination between agencies and talking to people who actually use social services about what is working and not working.

The report says that the VPD plans a “phase two” of assessing social services, which will “include extensive community consultations with stakeholders, policy-makers and people with lived experience.”

The HelpSeeker reports points out that between 2018 and 2019, the VPD’s operating expenditures increased by around three per cent. According to the analysis, the police department’s operating budget accounts for just six per cent “of the total investments identified for Vancouver’s social safety net.”

Boyle acknowledged that police have become part of the “social safety net.”

“But it’s clear, because of disinvestment in and underfunding of social services over decades, we’re increasingly relying on police to fill those gaps and work at the crisis level because we’re not funding solutions upstream,” she said.

“They’ve become a solution, but they’re almost always not the right solution in the long term.”

Janz said the Edmonton police produced their similar report during a period when advocates and some city councillors were questioning whether the police should continue to get funding increases every year.

“It was designed to give the public the impression that police were in need of more funding, and it served to deflect blame at a time when the world was deep in the post-George Floyd protests,” said Janz.

Speaking to media in 2021 about the Edmonton report, police Chief Dale McFee said the "defund the police argument... doesn't make any sense, and when you actually add some of our challenges that we have in this city, I think it's more important that we look... collectively [at] how we can all play a better part here," according to CTV News.

In 2020, Vancouver’s city council voted to freeze the budget of the Vancouver Police Department, part of a citywide budget freeze in response to the economic impact of COVID-19. Earlier that summer, city council had also passed motions that called for the decriminalization of poverty and the end of police street checks.

But in 2022 the VPD was successful in getting that budget decision overturned, and $5.7 million retroactively added to its budget, after asking the provincial director of police services to review the Vancouver council decision.

On Oct. 15, Vancouver elected mayor Ken Sim and a council dominated by his newly formed ABC party, which campaigned on the promise to hire 100 more police officers along with 100 more mental health nurses. Sim said that fulfilling that promise would be his first priority.  [Tyee]

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