In this blog, researcher and policy analyst Chuka Ejeckam distinguishes public safety from police spending, as these concepts are often conflated. Chuka highlights the ever-growing police budget, illuminating the source of most police funds, comparing the data to other similarly-sized cities, and makes a case for defunding the police to actually address the most pressing social, public, and economic safety issues of our time. Alongside Chuka’s analysis, graphic designer Amy Wu illustrates police spending through a series of high-impact animated graphics.
Putting Public Safety in Perspective
Throughout 2021, British Columbia has seen a cascade of extreme weather events and climate-related disasters. During June and July, hundreds of people died during a heat dome period, the town of Lytton burned to the ground due to record-breaking temperatures. In November, Merrit and Penticton were evacuated due to severe flooding, a bomb cyclone hit the province, and major roads and highways have been destroyed by mudslides, stranding hundreds and making the lower mainland inaccessible by land. Facing this onslaught on climate devastation, the First Nations Leadership Council called on the provincial government to declare “an ongoing state of emergency” in light of continued failures of emergency preparedness systems to meet the needs of Indigenous communities. Alongside all of this, the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing crisis of toxic drugs - which has killed more than 21,000 people since 2016 - and the persistent crises of inequality and inequity further steal days and years from our community members and neighbours. As recently-published research has found, health disparities resulting from systemic injustices drive mortality gaps between rich and poor in Vancouver.
Police Budgets Don’t Produce Public Safety
There are serious public safety concerns in this province that require immediate and sustained attention. However, the majority of Vancouver’s budgeted public safety expenditures – and a full one-fifth of the city budget overall – is put toward an institution that is not designed or equipped to anticipate and prepare for these emergencies, or to provide support to people during and after their occurrence. That institution is the Vancouver Police Department (VPD).
Since 2016, the VPD budget has accounted for at least 21% of the City of Vancouver’s annual total budgeted expenditure. That means that, for the past five years, more than one-fifth of the City’s expenditures have been put toward the VPD, totalling more than $1.5 billion. As the city’s budget increases each year, the VPD budget increases along with it, rising from more than $281 million in 2016 to $340 million in 2021. On November 25, we learned that the Vancouver Police Board put forth a proposed budget of $325,780,017 for 2022.
This resource allocation places police and policing at the centre of ‘public safety,’ to disastrous, and often fatal results. In recent years, the VPD budget has roughly equaled the total public revenue that the city draws from utility fees. Utility fees are the city’s second-largest source of revenue, behind property taxes. Since the VPD budget consumes utility fee revenues, that leaves property taxes as the primary revenue source to fund other public expenditures. In fact, in the 2021 Vancouver city budget, the proportion of public revenues which come from utility fees is smaller than the portion of public expenditures allotted toward their operation.
This circumstance creates a troubling dynamic in which the City of Vancouver caters to property owners (and the profiteering firms who would entice them) above all others, as they provide the bulk of the city’s available discretionary funds. It has also arguably given way to concerning partnerships between property developers and the police, evident in private property developer Peter Wall’s $1 million donation to the Vancouver Police Foundation, a charity that funds “innovative programs led by VPD officers.”
Putting the Police Budget in Context
As is typically the case, both the VPD and the Vancouver Police Board vehemently oppose even modest budget reductions. Last year, in the early months of the pandemic, while City revenues were falling, the Police Board rejected a City proposal for a 1% budget cut despite the rapidly worsening global health crisis.
Discussion of police budgets came up again in June 2020, when then-Police Board chair Mayor Kennedy Stewart sought to address the local and global discussions regarding the role and impact of policing in society which rose in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer. This discussion was forced by the racial justice demonstrations which were held across the U.S., and the world, in the weeks following Floyd’s murder. Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer responded to these discussions by asserting that systemic racism does not exist in Canadian policing.
When Vancouver City Council froze the VPD’s budget at 2020 levels - amounting to a $6 million shortfall from their budget request - the VPD responded with a statement stating “a shortfall of this magnitude is extremely challenging, in particular during a global pandemic, where the police department is facing unprecedented stress in ensuring public safety.”
The statement goes on to argue that VPD staffing levels have not kept pace with population growth. However, based on 2015 population levels, the two U.S. cities which are closest in population to Vancouver - Portland, Oregon and Nashville, Tennessee - both spend less on their police departments as a portion of the city’s budgets. Even further, both cities have significantly larger annual budgets than Vancouver. The fiscal year 2020-2021 budget for Nashville is nearly $2.5 billion, roughly $900 million higher than Vancouver’s 2021 budget of $1.6 billion. The City of Nashville allocated 11.9% of that $2.5 billion to its police department. Portland’s budget was higher still, at roughly $4.5 billion. The city allocated 5.1% of that budget to its police department. (It’s also worth noting that recent years have seen questions raised about Portland Police’s troubling relationship with violent far-right groups.)
One comparable (in population terms) U.S. city that does have a larger budget allocation toward policing than Vancouver is Baltimore, Maryland - a city which has notably struggled with both violence and police brutality for years. In 2020, Baltimore’s budget sets out more than $536 million for its police department. However, this represents only about 17.5% of the city’s more than $3 billion budget. While other cities may not dedicate as much funding to their local police forces, it is worth noting that there is resistance to police funding in cities across North America. In Baltimore, local organizers are also challenging the massive police budget as a “structural problem of an entrenched, ever increasing police budget that consumes more and more of the city’s discretionary spending year after year.” So, contrary to the argument made in the Police Board’s statement, the Vancouver Police Department budget already seems notably high when considered against the city’s population, both as a proportion of the city’s budget and in absolute, dollar terms.
Despite having the lowest budget, Vancouver allocates the highest dollar amount to its police department.
Comparing Vancouver to Portland and Nashville, the difference in the cities’ respective budgets cannot explain the discrepancy in allocation toward policing. Despite having the lowest budget, Vancouver allocates the highest dollar amount to its police department. The 2020 budget for Portland’s police department was just under $230 million; the 2020 budget for Nashville’s police department was roughly $293 million. In 2020, the City of Vancouver allocated more than $340 million to the Vancouver Police Department. This year, the VPD is asking for over $333 Million from the City Budget, in the form of Capital & Operating budgets. The budget that was approved by the Police Board last Thursday is $3.9 million more than what has been recommended by City of Vancouver staff.
Rather than successfully justifying the role of police and carceral institutions hold in our society despite the grave racial, gender, and class inequities they propagate, instead the Police Board statement goes a long way in showing the fundamental inadequacy of policing and incarceration as means of achieving meaningful public safety and collective well-being.
Defunding the Police to Reinvest in Community-Led Care
Human rights and advocacy organizations, locally, nationally, and internationally have spoken out against any reliance on law enforcement to manage a public health crisis. Frankly, it is not clear how armed law enforcement officers are meant to prevent or respond to aerosol transmission of a rapidly communicable respiratory virus during a global pandemic. Beyond COVID-19, there is also increasing recognition that police officers should not be intervening in crises that stem from inequity and inequality - including inadequate access to a safe drug supply, inadequate mental health care, poverty, homelessness, and racism. Even VPD Deputy Chief Howard Chow of the VPD has stated that “crises of public drug use, mental illness, and homelessness are not the jurisdiction of the VPD,” though Chow neglected to offer alternatives for responding to them.
Research has shown that there has been a stark increase in police officials responding to mental health crises and being positioned as the primary institution tasked with addressing mental health crises. Police officers are neither trained nor equipped to aid people experiencing mental health crises. This has led to the VPD producing harmful narratives, documented in official reports, casting specific communities as inherently dangerous and/or undeserving of freedom. In fact, even if an individual police officer were both able and willing to provide support to someone experiencing a mental health crisis, the fact that they are a police officer may prevent them from doing so, as their presence alone could exacerbate the mental state of someone in crisis. As Meenakshi Mannoe has said, “Police absolutely should not be front-line medical responders. We know, across Canada, that police attend these calls and their very presence is enough to escalate a situation.”
The Police Board states “the VPD is under legal obligation to maintain public safety by ensuring the safety of all people, preventing crime, and apprehending offenders.” This sentence seems to equate, or at least form a fundamental connection between “ensuring the safety of all people,” and “preventing crime and apprehending offenders.” In reality, these are by no means the same thing, and conflating the two creates immense harm. People who do not have enough food to eat, or adequate nutrition, are not safe. People who do not have adequate shelter are not safe. People who do not have access to comprehensive healthcare, necessary hygiene products, and ability and mobility supports are not safe. Police do not help achieve any of these ends, nor do anti-poor policing programs such as the Trespass Prevention Program or Neighbourhood Response Teams, but the VPD’s high level of funding drastically reduces the city’s capacity to fund initiatives which would.
The People’s Budget charts a new path in Vancouver
In the survey conducted by the Defund 604 Network People’s Budget Working Group, community members expressed a clear demand to take 50% of the funding currently put towards policing and redirect it into public services and programs which seek to create safety through proactive support and provision, as opposed to reactive force and punishment.
The programs identified by the survey respondents include;
First, peer-led, non-violent mental health services, supports, and wellness checks. It is simply not reasonable to ask people to call for assistance when they or someone they care for is experiencing a mental health crisis if that assistance brings with it the threat of violence, incarceration, or even death. For public services to contribute to public safety, people can’t fear for their lives when accessing them.
Second, accessible non-market housing and an end to the displacement of houseless people. Rather than spending public resources sending police to displace people, those funds should be used to develop peer-run and low-barrier spaces for precariously and unhoused community members. Poverty and houselessness are products of public policy, and public services must be used to end them.
Third, peer-led indoor sex worker spaces. The city’s responsibility is to make sex work as safe as possible for sex workers. Research supports that these sex worker-led spaces can benefit safety protocols and reduce exposure to harm for sex workers in ways police have not.
Fourth, peer-led access to safe drug supply. The toxic drug supply has taken thousands of lives in Vancouver in the past five years, and it continues to. The VPD budget has increased for each of those five years, and yet has still failed to prevent these deaths. The city must put that money into the creation and operation of a peer-led compassion club providing for the testing, labelling, and provision of a safer drug supply.
Fifth, the creation of a Traditional Healing Centre at CRAB Park. Policing as public safety is a colonial project, evidenced by the RCMP arresting Indigenous land and water defenders. The City of Vancouver must return land to Indigenous communities, including but not limited to the creation of a healing center at CRAB park.
And sixth, participatory budgeting. Public safety is an act of community and should be devised and implemented as such. If the people of Vancouver want the VPD to receive 700% of the funding that the Vancouver Public Library does, let that be shown through public consultation and involvement. Let the public, not the police, define public safety.
This discrepancy - between police-centric conceptions of public safety and more comprehensive notions of collective well-being and freedom from harm - identifies another structural problem with policing: that the value of private property and enforcing social order is deemed higher than that of human life and dignity.
It is a crime to steal food, but not a crime for families to go hungry. It is a crime to break and enter, but not a crime for thousands to be unhoused.
It is a crime to steal food, but not a crime for families to go hungry. It is a crime to break and enter, but not a crime for thousands to be unhoused. If you cannot afford necessary medication, nutritious food, extra-curricular social and educational activities for young people you care for, then you are not fundamentally safe. Nonetheless, no law is being broken, and you cannot call the police for help in any of those situations.
In her book We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, abolitionist activist and educator Mariame Kaba writes definitively on the structure and history of policing in North America. Kaba notes how police emerged as an explicit tool of white supremacy, upholding violent colonial and slavery regimes in the U.S. and Canada. Kaba argues further that these institutions - as designed - are fundamentally opposed to collective well-being. Years before the murder of George Floyd, indeed, their purpose is the opposite.
Years before George Floyd was murdered, in 2014, Kaba wrote about the impending grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer in Ferguson, Missouri who shot unarmed Black teenager Mike Brown to death. Kaba remarked;
“I am not against indicting killer cops. I just know that indictments won’t and can’t end oppressive policing, which is rooted in anti-Blackness, social control, and containment...It’s impossible for non-oppressive policing to exist in a fundamentally oppressive and unjust society. The truth is that, as the authors of Struggle for Justice wrote in 1971, ‘without radical change in our values and drastic restructuring of our social and economic institutions,’ we can only achieve modest reforms of the criminal punishment system (including policing).”
We can no longer refuse to recognize that the laws police enforce do not equate with a meaningful notion of public safety. In the decades to come, public safety will require even broader considerations. We will need the means to produce and distribute food and other essentials if shipping is halted, medical and financial preparations for future pandemics and public health emergencies, bolstering communities and infrastructure against increased extreme weather events – if these aren’t essential parts of public safety, then what does public safety mean?
These issues are endemic in policing throughout the entirety of North America, and further. It is simply not credible to claim that they are, instead, merely isolated cases of so-called ‘bad apples.’
The VPD budget is an investment, to be sure - an investment which seeks to preserve order and private property rights above justice and human dignity. If that is what we are to call “public safety,” the question must be asked: safe for whom?
Chuka Ejeckam is a political researcher and writer in BC. He holds a master’s degree in political science from the University of British Columbia and is a research associate with the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He writes at rabble.ca. You can find more of Chuka’s work on his website.
Amy Wu is a graphic designer with a background in sociology and marketing. She combines her experiences to use graphic design as a medium to tell meaningful stories for social change. You can find more of Amy’s work on her website.
Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.