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