The Winnipeg Police Board has approved a budget for 2021 that obliges the service to figure out how to cover just over a multimillion-dollar gap, but without much deeper cuts demanded by some social activist groups.
The Winnipeg Police Service will see an overall two per cent increase in funding, but has been directed by the city to find $5.1 million in savings, after an arbitrator ruled last spring the city could not reduce officer pensions unilaterally.
City council had expected to save millions through the pension changes, and has told the service to help cover the shortfall following the arbitrator’s decision.
The service must also find another $730,000 this coming year for operating expenses in its arrest unit after the province of Manitoba eliminated what’s known as direct lockup at the Winnipeg Remand Centre.
The change has forced the police to keep prisoners for more time in holding cells at its downtown headquarters. The extra costs relate to the need to have a paramedic on staff 24-7 to screen people taken into custody for COVID-19.
Police board chair Markus Chambers also noted there were other increased cost pressures on the police service because of the pandemic, and a decrease in revenue from officers working special events that have been cancelled.
“Those are huge holes to fill,” the St. Norbert-Seine River councillor told reporters following the meeting.
A series of groups calling for the police service to be significantly defunded spoke at the meeting.
Daniel Friesen, representing the group Budget For All, told the board the “police provide little value for our city.”
“The increase [in budgets] to the police comes at the detriment of other departments,” Friesen said, saying the money would be better spent on other departments, such as Winnipeg Transit or recreational and social services.
Friesen and others at the meeting called for the city to reduce the budget for the WPS by 10 per cent and freeze overtime for officers, using the savings for community services.
The groups also want a significant change to how some calls to police are handled, and say some domestic violence calls and well-being checks could better be responded to by social agencies.
Salary, benefits account for 89% of budget
The police budget is projected at $266 million, 89 per cent of which goes to salary and benefits.
There are expenses related to the COVID-19 health crisis, estimated at $480,000 for personal protective equipment and $140,000 for overtime.
Winnipeg police Chief Danny Smyth told the board the service has seen a consistent increase in the number of calls to the 911 call centre and more than 231,000 dispatches.
The WPS responded to a record 42 homicides in 2019, and Smyth said the city was near that mark again this year. Property crime has also increased year over year, he said.
Smyth noted that despite several years of population growth for Winnipeg, the WPS has eliminated over 100 positions in the last five years.
At one point in 2020, the service had an authorized compliment of 1,356 officers serving a population of approximately 750,000, he said, giving Winnipeg a “middle of the pack” ratio of officers to population, compared to other major Canadian cities.
Smyth says a 10 per cent cut to the budget (approximately $30 million) would have an immediate impact on almost every part of the WPS, including losing 200 to 300 officers and eliminating the cadet program.
“It would mean a collapse of most of the units that aren’t either involved in general patrol, that do the response to calls for service, and then we would try to hold a small number of investigators to do serious crime,” Smyth said.
The police chief says he “appreciates the passion” of the delegations that spoke to the board and doesn’t discount what they have to say, but feels “they speak for a fairly small segment of our community.”
“There is no right answer to any of this,” said Smyth, adding there is a need for “alternative responses that may or may not include police.”
— to www.cbc.ca