Police out of Politics - Response to City of Vancouver budget 2023

For more than two decades, Pivot has organized alongside clients, loved ones, and the community-at-large to advocate for meaningful action for people who use drugs, people who do sex work, and people who live in poverty and rely largely on public space for their work and shelter and, if necessary, legislative change, at all levels of so-called Canada’s colonial government. Many of the people we serve face incredible amounts of violence and harassment from the government and other community members, including service providers, health care providers, and city workers who ally with police to continue the trauma of displacement of Indigenous Peoples and theft of their land and possessions during daily street sweeps.

Since 2019, Pivot has advocated for the implementation of peer-created and led responses to crises rooted in the communities they serve. These initiatives must be fully resourced with predictable funding and access to relevant training, so that community members with lived and living experience can begin the critical work of providing a robust and effective non-police response to the layered crises unfolding in neighbourhoods across Vancouver, but most acutely in the DTES.

The City of Vancouver’s proposed budget for 2023 does not invest in this community-led work – instead, it will continue to give the Vancouver Police Department hundreds of millions of dollars. This year the VPD budget will reach $401.8 million, despite the harm and violence we know policing and criminalization imposes on our communities. Gifting the VPD an 11.2% increase or 3% of the 10.7% property tax hike, is a continuation of Canada's racist, classist and colonial history of consolidating power amongst property-owning minority, in order to undermine efforts to build solidarity amongst an increasingly racialized majority.

This practice is referred to as “the Pacific politics of white supremacy”, and from this ideology sprang centuries of violence, ever-evolving from slave patrols, and race riots to wellness checks, and street sweeps, but always disproportionately directed towards Indigenous, Black, and Asian bodies – those considered dangerous, dispensable, suspicious people. Those deserving of premature death.

Continuing to overfund the VPD, while people’s most basic needs are not met, amounts to a tacit approval of the havoc police are wreaking on those made vulnerable by a discriminatory system.

We do not approve. Instead, we bear witness to the sustained violence that the VPD commits against the most vulnerable members of our shared communities, and resist efforts by this racist institution to continue its colonization of public life by claiming the lion's share of the resources that are necessary to address the unnecessary trauma and death that policing creates.

Vancouver’s Proposed 2023 Budget

During last year’s civic election, the Vancouver Police Union (VPU) took the unusual and concerning step of endorsing candidates for mayor and City council for the first time. The VPU endorsed ABC party members, including now-mayor Ken Sim, and seven candidates who now hold a majority of council seats. The VPU explicitly linked its endorsement to concerns over “resources”, meaning money from the City’s budget.

In a non-election year, the draft budget is made available to the public in the summer months, and community engagement sessions are held to gather input. Once city staff have finalized the budget, the public is invited to speak for or against it before the vote, typically held in early December. However, in 2022, the sitting Mayor and council were on the campaign trail, so city staff created a new timeline that would provide space for the incoming council members to receive the draft budget, reach a consensus on council priorities and determine the 2023 property tax rate before the final vote.

The draft budget is composed of the:

  • Capital Budget: Funds multi-year projects in the 2023-2026 Capital Plan; maintaining or replacing public amenities and critical infrastructure; and funding council priorities.

  • Operating Budget: Funds services and programs for residents and businesses, including police, fire and rescue, water, and sewer services. 58% funded by property tax.

On November 28th, 2022, the first of two special City council meetings were held to present the Draft Current State budget to the city’s newly elected Mayor and council. The VPD budget request of $383 million, 11% more than its 2022 budget, had not yet been received but in the interim staff suggested a budget of $361 million.

On December 6th, Council passed the Capital Budget unanimously and deferred the vote on the Operating Budget to Q1 2023 (Feb 28th at 9.30 am) in order to align priorities and streamline spending.

On February 21st, 2023, the restated budget, featuring revised 2022 spending, was made public, and it revealed a 12% or $213 million increase over 2022’s restated budget of $1.7 billion. The VPD budget had increased yet again, this time to its final astronomical amount $390 million or 20.2% of the total budget.

On February 28th, 2023, Council finally approved the operating budget of $1.97 billion, allocating $401.8 million to the VPD. You can read our reflections on this decision here: Reflecting on the City of Vancouver's 2023 Budget.

READ: Defunding the VPD is an investment in public safety and collective well being

Screenshot of a blog post image card: A colourful pie chart demonstrating the City of Vancouver’s operating budget allocations in 2021. Police were allowed approximately 21% of the the City’s total budget. Next to this pie chart is text. Begining with title: "Defunding the VPD is an investment in public safety and collective well-being", by Chuka Ejeckam. Image also has brief description: "Researcher and policy analyst Chuka Ejeckam distinguishes public safety from police spending, as these concepts are often conflated". Followed by Author's name, date blog was published (Nov 29, 2021), and tags: "Criminalization and Policing, Blog, Data Visualizations"

$383 Million: VPD’s 2023 request

The VPD’s 2023 budget request dovetails with a grim milestone: a 15-year high in VPD shootings, both fatal and non-fatal. At the end of 2022, Canadian Press reported that police shootings had increased by nearly 25% over 2021 levels across Canada. BC was identified as the province with the most shootings (23 total) and VPD was involved in 6 of them. That means the VPD were disproportionately involved in 26% of BC shootings, despite the City of Vancouver (not Metro Vancouver) representing only approximately 13% of BC’s population.

In total, the VPD was identified in 5 fatal incidents last year, as reported by the Independent Investigations Office of BC. CBC’s Deadly Force investigation into police killings across so-called Canada revealed that a massive 68% of people killed by police have a mental health condition, use substances, or both.

In response to this explosion of unacceptable violence, we reiterate our demand to defund the police with a 50% budget cut. The funds that are currently earmarked for police can be redistributed to community-led responses to violence and harm, and investments in eradicating structural inequalities that are leading to so-called ‘social disorder’ that police claim to address.

READ: Remembering Chris Amyotte, Killed by the VPD.

A screenshot of a blog post: A dark filtered image with text overlaid reads: "Remembering Chris Amyotte, Killed by the VPD. #JusticeForChris". Next it is the title of the blog: "Remembering Chris Amyotte, Killed by the VPD.", followed by the date blog was published (Dec 22, 2022), and tags: "Criminalization and Policing, ICYMI, Recent Post

Beyond shootings and killings, policing itself is a systemically racist institution. In November 2021, the BC Office of the Human Rights Commissioner released a report revealing stark differences between the experiences of racialized and non-racialized people who encounter the Vancouver Police Department. The data provides clear evidence of the systemically racist nature of policing, disproving Chief Adam Palmer’s denial of the existence of systemic racism in the VPD. Black, Indigenous, and West Asian/Arab residents of Vancouver are grossly overrepresented in the most violent aspects of policing and suffer its negative impacts at a disproportionate rate.

Notable findings related to the VPD include that Black and Indigenous people are “grossly overrepresented” in arrests/chargeable incidents. In Vancouver, Indigenous men are 17.3 times more likely to be arrested than their percentage of the population would predict. People with mental health issues frequently encounter the police but Indigenous, Black, and Arab/West Asian people are “grossly overrepresented” in these (potentially deadly) interactions.

The anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and anti-Asian racism of policing is not up for debate. We reiterate calls from Black, Brown, and Indigenous organizers that are demanding the defunding of police, and the refunding of our communities.

Funding Police is a Policy Failure

Liberating the public purse from the stranglehold of racist and genocidal institutions like policing will allow us to build and propel forward life-affirming institutions like the ones Ruth Wilson Gilmore spoke of in the pages of Golden Gulag, one of her most cherished offerings to the prison industrial complex abolition movement. There are countless examples of these institutions being brought to life around the world, and many of them can be explored via One Million Experiments, a project that catalogues community-based projects aimed at interrupting criminalization and finding new ways to create real safety and security for all. One example is Mental Health First, a project of The Anti-Police Terror Project, described as: “a cutting edge model for non-police response to mental health crisis….including psychiatric emergencies, substance use support, and domestic violence safety planning.”

Annually increasing police budgets will never address the root causes of inequality. The VPD has claimed that it “takes efforts to ensure inappropriate, ineffective, and unnecessary criminalization does not occur, but rather focuses on community-based, harm reduction strategies in collaboration with community service providers,” as outlined in their 2021 report “Our Community In Need.” We know this isn’t true.

If this is indeed the logic that underpins policing, then funds for sex workers, people experiencing homelessness, criminalized substance users, and people experiencing mental distress must be redirected to more appropriate agencies created and operated by people with lived experiences of marginalization and criminalization.

Instead, in their first few months in office, Vancouver's new city council has already sought a vindictive approach to working on issues that impact stigmatized communities, recently through the belittling decision to oppose funding an art table program at VANDU, which would have cost the city only $7,500. This decision illustrates how quickly and uncritically the municipality conceded to anti-drug user sentiment, signalling their willingness to systematically dismantle programs, services, and initiatives that are meant to address and ameliorate the impacts of living with criminalized poverty, homelessness, drug use, and mental health.

Given the mandate that our newly-elected mayor and council have been given by their powerful stakeholders, we know that fighting the police budget is all but hopeless via usual means – letter-writing, speaking to council, appealing to evidence-based decision making, and calling attention to the sustained violence that the VPD fosters - both within its ranks and in our communities.

In recent years we have witnessed the utter lack of control that members of the public can exercise over police funding through formal, government systems. When Vancouver City Council previously froze the VPD budget in 2021, the provincial Director of Police Services (a former RCMP officer himself) was able to overturn that decision and restore $5.7 million to the VPD budget retroactively.

The premier and representatives of the provincial government, as well as VPD and Vancouver Coastal Health, have also joined council in recent announcements related to the 100 Cops/100 Nurses motion, affirming that we cannot look to other government representatives to reign in police spending.

What next?

We know that Vancouver City Council can do more to invest in public safety initiatives that prioritize the needs and rights of our most marginalized community members. For example, on July 27, 2020, city council approved the motion Decriminalizing Poverty and Supporting Community Led Safety Initiatives, and in April of 2021 told the Vancouver Police Board that "it is this Council’s priority to respond to mental health, sex work, homelessness, and substance use with initiatives led by community, health agencies, social service providers and non-profit societies rather than policing."

In 2021, the Defund 604 Network released the results of the People’s Budget survey – a public engagement tool aimed at garnering public input on the 2022 City of Vancouver budget. Six priorities were identified by respondents:

  1. Peer-led non-violent mental health service, supports, and wellness checks.

  2. Accessible non-market housing; end the displacement of houseless people.

  3. Peer-led indoor sex worker spaces.

  4. Peer-led access to safe drug supply.

  5. Land back & a traditional healing centre at CRAB Park.

  6. Participatory budgeting.

CHECK OUT: Results of the People’s Budget survey

A screenshot from the Peoples Budget Survey results. The greyscale image is text heavy and links to the digital pdf copy of the survey results.

The results clearly show that people consistently identify things other than the police as their sources of safety. Resources like affordable and clean homes, access to healthy food, free and reliable transportation, and innovative policies like a universal care income would do for our communities what the police cannot do as the killing arm of the nation-state.

Defunding the police is an invitation to think about what we have been disinvesting from in favour of the cops and provides an opportunity to reverse course and transform our relationship with the idea of safety and the notion of policing as safety, and together, redefine safety for ourselves and with the communities, we are a part of. This transformation into a society of caring communities requires major investments in the people who have been engaged in critical forms of feminized labour and care work that is typically unpaid or low wage, precarious - and yet deemed essential in the early days of the pandemic.

The police cannot care for us, only WE can care for us.

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.