Amid growing calls to defund the police and invest in community programs better suited to meeting people’s needs, police forces in Canada will see budget increases in 2022.
Major cities across the country have voted to increase police funding, revealing the hypocrisy and, as Robyn Maynard put it, the moral cowardice of political leaders who promised to “reckon” with police racism and violence following mass uprisings in the summer of 2020.
Canada’s 10 largest municipal and regional police forces will see budget increases in 2022, receiving an average of 3.7 per cent more than last year. Vancouver will post the largest increase at 7.9 per cent, while Edmonton’s police will see the smallest increase at 0.3 per cent. In dollars, Montreal and Toronto city councils have passed the largest increases, at $45 million and $25 million respectively.
Salaries are by far the largest police-related expense, amounting to 80-95 per cent of overall spending. In Vancouver, two-thirds of the increase is due to an arbitrated salary increase meant to equalize the earnings of police across British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. But salaries and other costs tend to rise each year without arbitration, meaning that a modest budget increase of around two or three per cent simply allows police to maintain existing operations. In cases where budgets increased more than that, the extra money was mostly devoted to hiring more personnel in various priority areas.
Defund and abolish
Debates about police spending have intensified since 2020, when a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement rallied communities around the world behind the demand to defund the police—a demand that reflects the failure of a generation of police reforms.
Since the 1980s, usually in response to grassroots movements, Canadian police forces have implemented reforms like multicultural or anti-racism training, they’ve hired more racialized officers, and they have created new venues for dialogue and partnership with communities. But these are all “reformist” reforms, as activist-scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore put it: changes that leave an institution’s discretion, capacity for violence, and legitimacy intact.
Defunding the police with an eye toward abolition, on the other hand, would curtail institutions’ capacities for violence and other destructive effects on oppressed communities.
The demand to defund the police also reflects a broader view of public safety. While police focus on punishing crime, they typically ignore or worsen various harms that deeply affect people’s safety.
Homelessness, for instance, is a form of harm that defund activists would like to address, whereas the policing of homelessness aggravates the situations people without housing find themselves in. Gender-based violence is a harm, too, and most advocates would like to see non-carceral measures to prevent it—along with material and psychological supports for survivors—rather than police responses to violence after the fact, accompanied by legal processes that often re-traumatizes survivors.
Meanwhile, drug use can be harmful because it is a crime. The current overdose crisis is a direct result of the war on drugs and the dangerous drug supply and conditions of use it creates.
Defunding the police means shifting resources toward non-police services and programs that address harms like these. In the words of Montreal activist Marlihan Lopez, “it’s about choosing an economy of care over an economy of punishment.”
Demands to reallocate 10-50 per cent of police funding to other services have been advanced in every major city.
In Ottawa, activists from the Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition and other groups protested in front of police headquarters and blocked a highway on-ramp as the city’s police board held a virtual debate about funding. In Hamilton, Defund HPS organized to stop police actions against homeless encampments, arguing for an investment in housing rather than policing.
With virtual city council meetings making it difficult to protest in-person, people have contacted their representatives or submitted written briefs to call for defunding. The Vancouver-based Defund 604 Network developed a People’s Budget, consulting over 700 residents about their visions of a non-police future and used the result to press the city for change. Activists in Halifax won the city’s support to consult the population and develop a detailed plan to defund the police.
Sidelining dissent, supporting police
In the face of these actions and majority public support for defunding, the police and their allies in Canada’s major cities had to work harder for their customary budget increase this year. Using a familiar tactic, they stoked fear of crime.
In Montreal, the police, the police brotherhood, the media, and a range of politicians translated a small increase in certain gun crimes in 2021 into a sense the city was no longer safe. The city passed a $724 million police budget for 2022, despite majority public support for defunding, in order to hire 122 more police officers. Mayor Valérie Plante claimed the extra resources would allow police to be “even more proactive” in the fight against gun crime, despite research and community groups pointing to the far greater effectiveness of community crime prevention programs.
In other cities, police said they were under-resourced in 2021 and need more money in 2022 to keep citizens safe. Toronto police claimed they were increasingly short-staffed in relation to demands for service, with auto theft, in particular, increasing in 2021. Mayor John Tory, defending a proposed $25 million increase, said he would “not compromise the safety of this city” in order to address the demands of citizens who believe “it would be somehow better to defund the police.” In Vancouver, police chief Adam Palmer claimed more funding was needed to combat increases in gang violence, stranger assaults, violent street crimes, and disruptive climate justice protests. In Edmonton, where crime was down in 2021, police chief Dale McFee nevertheless pushed for more funding because the city “has a crime problem.”
Using another familiar tactic, criticisms of police racism and violence were used to argue for new funding. Every major city announced new, community-focused police programs in 2021, or planned them for 2022. Cities like Winnipeg and Montreal introduced or expanded programs where police work alongside health care workers to respond to mental health calls. In this way, activists’ demand for the replacement of police by health care or community workers was turned into a program to hire more police.
Police forces in Toronto, Montreal, Peel Region, and Calgary received new funding to build better relationships with community members. Peel is using new funding to implement a Community Well-Being and Safety model, which works with community partners to address a range of security issues. Similarly, Toronto is expanding its Community Officer program, which sends police to neighbourhoods to build relationships with community organizations.
Both Calgary and Edmonton received extra funding to address systemic racism in the force, while other cities claimed they will expand efforts to address hate crimes and gender-based violence—two issues activists and decades of research have shown police perpetuate and cannot address.
In all cities, police forces and police brotherhoods found strong allies among city councillors and, in Vancouver and Montreal, entire political parties. In Winnipeg, the city tied an increased police budget to a public consultation on the future of policing. As activists pointed out, the consultation provided five options for residents to choose from—none of which involved less funding.
In Montreal, the ruling Projet Montréal party asked residents in 2020 whether they wanted to see police spending decreased. When 73 per cent of respondents answered affirmatively, the party increased the budget anyway and left the question off its 2021 pre-budget consultation. In Vancouver, two of the city’s 10 councillors are married to police officers. Both argued for more police funding, pointing to “public” concerns about violent street crime.
Signs of positive change
Despite the budget increases, there were some positive developments in most cities. In a number of places, individual city councillors have allied themselves with activists and fought hard against budget increases. In Ottawa, Vancouver, and Calgary, the budgets requested by police or police boards were shot down by council in favour of smaller increases.
Given cost inflation, budget increases of less than three per cent will require police to trim their operations in some way. In Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa, small budget increases were accompanied by increased funding for community programs and alternative responses to 911 calls, a pairing that reflects the vision of the defund movement: a smaller role for police and a larger role for non-police workers in addressing public safety.
Some municipal leaders and even police chiefs appear to have learned to think about public safety in new ways. In Edmonton, a city-commissioned report found that 32 per cent of 911 calls had nothing to do with crime and could be diverted to non-police workers. Recognizing the implications, Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he was committed to “reducing the need for policing” by investing in housing, social services, and other programs. In Ottawa, police chief Peter Sloly urged the city to develop an alternative response plan, where certain 911 calls would be diverted to a service that could address them “differently and ideally better.”
Meanwhile, Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah claimed he supported the defund movement in principle. The police, he explained, cannot be the solution to all safety issues and other actors are needed to “address the [safety] needs of the community.”
It is expedient, of course, to adopt the language of grassroots movements, and there is nothing in place to hold city leaders and police chiefs accountable for their pronouncements about new approaches. In 2022, a stronger movement will be needed to reverse the recent budget increases and translate last year’s small victories and scattered positive changes into a more profound shift from policing to genuine community safety.