Black Lives Matter and Policing in HRM

Black Lives Matter demonstration. Photo: Herald

I have been receiving an almost unprecedented (at least in my 3.5 years) amount of email over the last several days. The subject is policing and Black Lives Matter. Given the widespread interest, I thought I would share my thoughts on the issue and on the request to reduce police funding in HRM.

The situation in the US is appalling. The murder of George Floyd (and others before him) is a grave injustice. The response of many American police forces to peaceful demonstrations is also abhorrent. We’re clearly facing major challenges in the culture of policing. The brutality that has been on full display in multiple police departments is unacceptable and represents a level of failure that we wouldn’t tolerate in any other profession.

While the situation in the US is extreme, this isn’t just an American issue. Canadian society also has a long history of racism. Our conduct over generations to our indigenous peoples and people of colour is our nation’s shame and remains unresolved.

The Street Checks report demonstrates one example of the systemic racism in HRM, reflected in our police force. The first 70 or so pages are gut wrenching as they’re full of direct accounts from African Nova Scotians about their relationship with the police and the impact that institutional racism has had on them. The statistics in the report are also unequivocal. I attended Chief Kinsella’s apology and I’m looking forward to seeing the apology become an actual plan for change. There is a lot to be done.

There have been some common themes in the emails that I have received. First, the armored vehicle. I was on the losing side of that debate in 2019 when I voted against the purchase. I’m not sure if this will come to Council again as it would need to come from one of the 11 councillors who previously voted yes. If it does, I will once again vote against buying one.

On the police budget. During budget deliberations last year, I asked for historical data on the cost of policing in HRM. I asked for this information because of the general discussion around the growth of police budgets in North America. That LA spends 52% of their budget on policing is deeply problematic. At those levels, it really does crowd out other services. What my request revealed is that HRM’s police budget has risen over the last 10 years, but it has also remained pretty much consistent as a proportion of HRM’s overall budget (low 20%).

HRM Budget and Policing Costs over Time

HRM’s cost compares favourably with other Canadian municipalities where policing costs are typically higher per capita.

Municipal Benchmarking Network Canada

While policing has remained pretty much consistent as a proportion of HRM’s budget, it still represents a considerable investment of resources. We do need a police force because there are people out there that mean us harm, and some issues are best dealt with through policing. There are, however, also alternative approaches that would likely be better suited in responding to a range of social issues that we currently leave to police. Mental health, drug addiction, homelessness, and public intoxication immediately come to mind. I’m open to looking at policing alternatives.

I also recognize that the root causes of crime are primarily related to social problems. Any real public safety strategy needs to go after root causes such as food insecurity, economic inequality, inadequate housing, addiction, etc to be effective. Policing doesn’t address these problems, it can only respond to the unfortunate results of a society that doesn’t provide justice for everyone. Policing is generally reactive not proactive.

In that regard, over the last 3.5 years, HRM has funded a number of initiatives that have advanced the cause of social justice including free transit for those on provincial assistance programs, the low-income transit pass, free transit for kids 12 and under, the mobile food market, the street navigator program, a MOU with the Centre of Education to stabilize supplementary funding (arts, librarians, social workers at high-risk schools), an access program for parks and rec, and the creation of an affordable housing fund that all developers of large projects have to start paying into. I voted for all of it and will continue to support Council investments in policies and programs that seek to address the root causes of injustice and inequality.

Council’s draft 2020 budget includes a reduction in the police budget of $3.5 million. This is a result of the broader pressure on HRM’s budget due to COVID-19. I support this reduction. I’m open to reallocating funds in future if we adopt alternative approaches to replace functions that are currently carried out by police, but I would need to see concrete plans first. It’s not enough to just reduce a budget, we need a plan for what we would do instead.

I have been talking to my colleagues informally and I expect there will be some motions to come, both at Council and at the Police Commission, regarding social issues and police governance.


  1. Just read an interesting article about Kwanlin Dun, Whitehorse, “safety officers”. It’s from a year ago but still relevant I think.

  2. Thanks Sam. It is difficult to homogenize society so every child benefits the same in education and social needs. But hrm has brought in some really good help in many sectors. Thanks for your good work.

  3. Thanks Sam. I appreciate your thoughtful approach. In my experience with police, 95% are peace officers and the other 5% are just plain rude, looking for a fight and really scary… and I’m a little old white woman. I can only imagine if I weren’t. Might we get rid of those guys?

  4. Thanks Sam: This is a good summary of the troubling situation we face here and elsewhere especially as it applies to policing.

  5. Thanks, Sam. I am so pleased that Council did the right thing and voted to reverse the decision to purchase that armoured vehicle and instead allocate the funds to social programs. And I was also thrilled to hear about the commitment to a forward-looking transit plan. These two recent decisions by Council make me proud of my city.

  6. I’m disappointed in this response. Sam, I’m generally on your side, and I always advocate for how good you are at you job. But this is a weak response. I understand the urge to wait until we have a clearer plan. But this is not a time to wait, this is a time to act. We have seen how quickly and easily we can pivot when faced with an urgent situation, with covid. We can also quickly and easily pivot from “policing” services to other more appropriate services. The police are on board this this — they don’t want to be doing work for which they’re not the most appropriate resource. There is already a mental health and addictions crisis line — they would just need more funding and support to have a catchy phone number and enough staff. We already have structures in place that are meant to deal with housing, poverty, health, etc. — they need funding and support to fully address inequities in access. Defunding the police (beyond the insignificant rejection of their funding increase since last year) sends a strong message that we need to reevaluate our crisis services immediately, and stop over-policing and over-incarcerating our black and indigenous communities. We can pivot quickly. It’s a lack of understanding of the harms of policing that leads to an acceptance of the status quo. We can’t hide behind “needing a plan”. Make a plan. Make it right now. Listen to those who have already thought about it, instead of reacting to the current situation as if it’s new. It’s not new, it’s only new to you.

  7. On November 28 2017 at second reading of by-law P-100 you voted for a revised version of by-law P-100 which sets out the powers and responsibilities of the Board of Police Commissioners and in many sections of the by-law the word ‘may’ replaced the word ‘shall’ which appeared in earlier versions. The Police Act contains the word ‘shall’. The by-law was then sent to the Minister of Justice for approval. It took almost 6 months for the minister to approve the amended by-law. The changes did not improve the by-law. Staff did not provide reasons for changes which obviously dilute the powers of the Board of Police Commissioners. One does not need to be a professor of law to know that the change from ‘shall’ to ‘may’ is a retrograde change. No other major city in Canada has such a poorly drafted by-law regarding the role of a police commission, and none of them have the word ‘may’ in describing the powers of a police board.
    It is entirely opposite to the 192 page September 2016 Honsberger & Moreash review of Police Governance. The review is not available on any part of the HRM website It was leaked to Jacob Boon at The Coast after the December 19 2016 meeting of the Board and the article provides the only link to the report :

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