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Vancouver police board to appeal council's decision to 'cut' VPD budget

Rare move has precedence in battle involving Esquimalt city council and Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board
The Vancouver Police Board announced Tuesday that it will appeal a city council decision in December 2020 to not fully fund the VPD’s requested operating budget for 2021. File photo Dan Toulgoet
The Vancouver Police Board announced Tuesday that it will appeal a city council decision last December that has resulted in the Vancouver Police Department operating on a budget this year that is $5.7 million less than requested.

In a written statement, board vice-chairperson Barj Dhahan said it will ask the province’s director of police services for a review of council’s Dec. 8 decision, which has left the department unable to hire 61 new recruits this year.

“This will bring staffing levels below those of 2009, resulting in negative impacts to police response, proactive policing initiatives and community based programs, diversity through hiring, and the health and wellbeing of our members,” said Dhahan, who argued the decision was made without any analysis or risk assessment regarding public safety impacts.

“After extensive review and consideration of areas that will be directly affected by the cut, and information relevant to the current policing climate, the board has unanimously determined that at minimum the current staffing and service levels must be maintained. Council’s budget cut undermines the board’s independent governance role, and will negatively impact public safety, public confidence in policing, and member wellness for years to come.”

The lead-up to the clash between the police board and council dates back to Nov. 30, 2020, when the board passed a provisional budget of $322 million for the department.

At the time, Police Chief Adam Palmer described the budget as a “status quo, keep the lights on” budget and said the request amounted to a two per cent increase that would be in line with what other police forces across Canada received.

Eight days after the police board meeting, a majority of council chose to instead approve a budget of $316 million, about $766,000 more than the 2020 budget but $5.7 million less than requested for 2021.

The move by the board to appeal is rare and may be unprecedented in Vancouver.

The appeal mechanism, as set out in the Police Act, was used most recently by the Victoria and Esquimalt police board. The board successfully argued that six officers be included in the Victoria Police Department’s 2018 operating budget after Esquimalt council refused to pay for the costs.

Victoria city council agreed to fund a portion of the $642,000 cost of hiring the officers, but Esquimalt council did not. That led Esquimalt council and the police board to make separate applications under the Police Act for a determination of whether funding for six new officers should be included in the Victoria police’s budget.

The board said at the time the six additional officers were required in order to provide an adequate and effective level of policing and law enforcement in Victoria and Esquimalt.

The applications were made to the B.C. government’s director of police services, who was Clayton Pecknold at the time. Pecknold conducted a review, with the assistance of two independent consultants, including retired RCMP superintendent and former West Vancouver police chief, Peter Lepine.

In February 2019, acting assistant deputy minister and director of police services, Tonia Enger, wrote a letter to Esquimalt’s chief administrative officer and the mayors of Esquimalt and Victoria to inform them the six officers should be included in the Victoria police’s budget.

“Matters related to public safety, mental health, addictions and other challenging societal concerns impact the demands for police time and resources; while innovative cross-disciplined teams such as community action teams and outreach are attempts to put policing into the proactive and preventative place among health and social services responses, the fact remains that front-line policing will continue to be required for the maintenance of public safety and ensuring public confidence in police,” Enger said.

“When resource pressures exceed available personnel, what greatly suffers first is the proactive and preventative work. In my view, such work is not ‘nice to have’ but is in fact a necessity.”

The move to reduce the VPD budget was led by Coun. Christine Boyle, who argued for a funding shift from police to develop and enhance programs that help the city’s marginalized.

In an email Tuesday, Boyle said: "Holding the VPD budget at a zero per cent increase, while nearly ever other city department saw reductions, was part of council navigating the significant financial pressures that COVID has placed on local government budgets. In response to the police board’s decision to appeal to the Province, I am confident that the Province will take into consideration the budgetary pressures of COVID and the lack of fiscal tools or support for local governments to address the crisis." 

Additionally, she said, "I hope that the provincial review of the Police Act will look at the impact that decades of underfunding of mental health, housing and social services has had on local governments and on an over-reliance on policing in response. And that the Province will continue to expand badly needed investments in housing and mental health supports, to address the root causes of many of the community safety issues that Vancouver residents experience."

Coun. Pete Fry, who supported Boyle's amendment to approve a $316 million budget for the VPD, said in an email Tuesday that he wasn't surprised by the police board's decision to appeal.

"It’s important to consider that policing comprises an extraordinary amount of the city’s budget at a time when we are struggling across the organization to balance costs and efficiencies," Fry said.

"So as the provincial deputy minister reports back on the cost and responsibility of policing in our city, I would hope for a reckoning of the extent of provincial downloading that we end up having to police: housing and homelessness, mental health and addictions, and a broken criminal justice system."

Mayor Kennedy Stewart and councillors Adriane Carr, Michael Wiebe and Jean Swanson also supported Boyle’s position in the December vote.

Boyle’s amendment was unsuccessfully challenged by councillors Lisa Dominato, Colleen Hardwick and Rebecca Bligh; councillors Melissa De Genova and Sarah Kirby-Yung, who are married to VPD officers, recused themselves from the vote.

Note: This story has been udpdated since first posted.

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