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Who does Winnipeg’s city council work for, anyway?

Preliminary 2021 budget increases police spending, ignoring community consultation, public opinion

COVID-19Canadian PoliticsEconomic Crisis

#Justice4BlackLives rally in Winnipeg, June 5, 2020. Photo by Rebecca Hume.

There is no doubt: 2020 has been an absolutely unprecedented year. In Manitoba, the second wave of COVID-19 has been catastrophic—with no end yet in sight. The provincial government’s austerity regime has exposed horrifying levels of virus transmission in long-term care and assisted living facilities, carceral institutions, schools, and hospitals. As of December 9, this has culminated in over 420 deaths and nearly 20,000 cases.

Compounded by the devastation of a global pandemic, 2020 has also been an unprecedented year for police violence in Winnipeg. Within the span of just 10 days in April, the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) shot and killed three Indigneous people: Eishia Hudson, Jason Collins, and Stewart Andrews. Many more harms have been inflicted by the WPS in 2020, including a spree of disturbingly violent arrests and the recent death of a 40-year-old man in a police holding cell.

Organized resistance to this violence has been fierce. Groups including Justice For Eishia/Not Another Indigenous Life, Justice 4 Black Lives (J4BL), Bar None, and Winnipeg Police Cause Harm (the latter of which we are both members of) have fought back with protests, occupations, and consciousness raising campaigns. The online petition circulated by J4BL following its enormous June rally and ensuing week of action now has over 115,000 signatures, equivalent to over 15 percent of the city’s population.

We also know that this is just the beginning of our efforts, and that meaningful change is still far on our collective horizon. It is clear that the WPS continues to operate with impunity with its characteristically brazen violence towards the city and its citizens, despite claims by its chief that officers are “feeling stressed” due to community demands for police abolition.

The City of Winnipeg’s preliminary budget for 2021 was tabled on November 27. It is the latest confirmation that council is not interested in listening to community demands to defund the police and reallocate resources to life-sustaining services.

The proposed budget will see the WPS operating budget increase by 2.3 percent, rising from $294.5 million in 2020 to $301.2 million in 2021 (an increase of $6.7 million). However, that number doesn’t represent total expenditures by the department, which will increase from $304.5 million in 2020 to $313 million in 2021, a rise of $8.5 million. This increase is to the direct detriment of many other vital, life-sustaining City of Winnipeg departments. The operating budget for public transit is being cut by $7.8 million, despite the need to increase service to reduce overcrowding. The city’s funding for libraries will see a miniscule boost of $566,000 in 2021.

This proposal represents a clear and conscious decision by city council to further criminalize Winnipeggers, rather than to reorient their policy priorities towards building robust social and community services that address the root causes of poverty and ensure safety for all.

We take this opportunity now to not only hold our elected civic officials accountable for their actions, which directly go against the expressed needs of their constituents, but also to restate our vision—informed by the work done by Justice For Eishia and Justice 4 Black Lives—for a future without police. We envision a city that meaningfully invests in its residents and materially supports community-led alternatives to policing. For this to happen, we need to continue to build collective power to hold city council accountable to ensure it reflects the actual wants and needs of the community it purports to serve.

What we don’t need, on the other hand, is lip service from our elected municipal officials. Their actions speak volumes.

No, the WPS isn’t being cut by $5 million

Winnipeg’s police budget has soared over the last two decades. In the year 2000, the police represented 16.9 percent of the city’s total tax supported expenditures. By 2016, that percentage had increased to 26.6 percent of the total budget.

In 2021, the $313 million total spending for the WPS will represent 26.5 percent of the city’s total tax supported expenditures. A recent CTV News analysis showed that Winnipeg spends the most of its budget on policing of 15 major cities across Canada. Last year, 31 percent of the average annual municipal property tax bill was spent on policing, compared to 19 percent on community services, recreation, and parks, and only eight percent on the transit subsidy.

It is important to note that most of the 2021 police budget goes towards salaries, benefits, and pensions for officers due to the especially strong collective bargaining agreements won by the Winnipeg Police Association (WPA). While the city has demonstrated that it is more than willing to lay off and renegotiate contracts for workers in transit and community services due to COVID-19 conditions, the Winnipeg Police continues to graduate new officers into its ranks and hire new cadets.

Justice For Eishia Rally, Winnipeg. Photo supplied by the family of Eishia Hudson. Used with permission.

There are clearly two sets of rules in Winnipeg: one for police, and another for all other city workers. In 2021, an additional $6.9 million will be spent on police salaries and benefits, while pension costs will increase by $4.3 million. A long-awaited rebalancing of the police pension formula means the Winnipeg Police has to reduce spending by $5.1 million this year.

However, contrary to the mainstream news coverage of the 2021 City of Winnipeg preliminary budget, the WPS is still receiving a $6.7 million hike to operational expenditures, increasing to a total of $8.6 million when capital-related expenditures are included. For example, a recent Winnipeg Free Press headline erroneously claimed the “Police budget faces $5-M annual cut” while admitting near the end of the article that “despite the savings mandate, the overall police budget will increase next year.” What is more, the police are also set to receive a brand new police station in the North End at the cost of $25.7 million, but that cost doesn’t show up in this year’s budget as the $20 million in external debt for it was approved in 2017.

Uncritical reporting, or reporting that frontloads or prioritizes the cost-saving statistics over the total WPS budget increase, directly supports and reaffirms council’s status quo approach to public safety that is well-documented as being not only profoundly harmful, but lethal.

Yes, Winnipeggers want and need the WPS defunded

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Winnipeggers need access to robust and accessible community services now more than ever. However, the increase to the police budget is to the direct detriment of many other vital, life-sustaining budget lines like public transit, community services, and active transportation—and budget lines that should exist but currently don’t, such as municipally-owned housing, supervised consumption services and overdose prevention sites, nutritious food security programs, and much more.

It is worthwhile to also note that between April and June 2020, the police doubled the number of hours spent foot patrolling the downtown from the previous quarter—from 1,736 hours to 3,505 hours—conveniently ignoring the massive decline of people being downtown due to COVID-19.

Similarly, the police hugely increased its presence on buses and transit corridors, from 163 hours between January and March, to 781 hours from April to June, and 496 hours in the summer months from July through to September. The pandemic has led to an 85 percent reduction in transit ridership across Canada, rendering such policing utterly unnecessary. What is more, such needless policing helped lead to a $4 million increase in salaries and benefits above its projected budget for 2020.

The Winnipeg Police continues to act with impunity, facing no budgetary consequences for their ever-growing harms and financial overruns. Every other City of Winnipeg department has faced layoffs and service cuts throughout the pandemic, but the Winnipeg Police continues unscathed—and is continually rewarded, rather than punished, for its actions.

What is worse, Winnipeggers have been very vocal in expressing their support for increasing the funding to community supports at the explicit expense of the WPS budget. The preliminary budget reports that the number one multi-year budget priority for constituents who responded to the city’s online survey was community services, followed by investment in transit as number two.

Notably, the budget also notes that “the Winnipeg Police Service received the most feedback of all City services, mostly focused around shifting budget towards community supports.” The online survey also found that the three most important specific services identified by Winnipeggers were medical response, community liveability, and public transit. Meanwhile, the three least important surveys identified by survey respondents were golf services, parking, and—you guessed it—the police service. Winnipeggers not only understand what defunding the police means, they actively support it.

This critical public opinion towards the police has been noted in several recent independent polls as well. An October poll from Angus Reid reported that 36 percent of Winnipeggers think that police funding is too high and should be reduced; this number was second only to 38 percent of Greater Toronto Area residents, and considerably higher than the national average of 25 percent.

Another poll from the same company found that 26 percent of Winnipeggers have an unfavourable view of police, considerably higher than other Prairie cities like Edmonton (19 percent) and Regina (16 percent). A survey published by Statistics Canada in November found that only 31 percent of people in Winnipeg have a “great deal of confidence” in police, and only 29 percent think that police “ensure the safety of the citizens in the area.”

The message from Winnipeggers could not be any clearer: take money away from the police and reinvest it in community services, public transit, and improved response to COVID-19 and other medical emergencies.

City councillors are fully aware of these demands but continue to ignore and undermine them. It seems councillors work more for the WPS than they do for their own constituents. Ironically, recently released records obtained through a freedom of information request show that only 68 percent of Winnipeg Police actually live in Winnipeg, meaning their property tax revenue is diverted to other municipalities.

Real action required

In response to this brazen silencing of community demands contained within the 2021 preliminary budget, Winnipeg Police Cause Harm is joining other community groups like Budget For All, Functional Transit Winnipeg, and the Police Accountability Coalition in delivering presentations to city council and committee meetings to oppose the trajectory of this budget.

While we’re not naïve enough to believe that our council will be morally persuaded into defunding the police by being inundated with correct facts and sound logic over Zoom presentations, we also know that some councillors are concerned about maintaining a progressive veneer and may face actual leftist challenges to their jobs in the next municipal election. And they should be.

For this reason, it is especially important to remind these councillors, some of whom are on the powerful Executive Policy Committee, that many Winnipeggers are deeply unsatisfied with their police-friendly decision-making that consistently undercuts funding to real community safety alternatives.

Postering campaign by local abolitionist group Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. Photo by Rebecca Hume.

As one example, the organization Millennium For All was able to successfully pressure Councillor Sherri Rollins—also a member of the powerful Executive Policy Committee (EPC)—to exercise her powers as the chair of the Standing Policy Committee on Protection, Community Services and Parks to reject a request from library management to make permanent the downtown library’s airport-like security. The intrusive security screening has since been removed completely, although libraries are currently closed due to COVID-19.

Moreover, during the 2020 budget proceedings in March, Councillor Vivian Santos challenged ever-increasing police funding. Santos—who represents the Point Douglas ward, which has a high percentage of Indigenous and low-income households—was subsequently forced off of the Winnipeg Police Board in July following a failed security clearance conducted by the Winnipeg Police itself. Anonymous police sources leaked information about the clearance to the media.

In July, Councillor Rollins wrote a letter calling for a 10 percent reduction in the police budget and reallocation to community health, crisis intervention, and social supports. However, nothing came of this letter and Rollins has seemingly acquiesced to supporting police budget increases after an encouraging but inadequately-resourced attempt to cancel the controversial school resource officer (SRO) program in Winnipeg’s schools.

Unfortunately, at this point, the 2021 budget will likely only undergo minor changes based on recommendations by standing policy committees. The ongoing failure by supposedly ‘critical’ councillors to scrutinize increasing the police budget indicates their passive support for it.

But, our struggle does not begin and end with this undemocratic budget.

We are among a strong and vibrant community of Winnipeggers who understand that a healthy Winnipeg depends on defunding and eventually abolishing the WPS and reallocating its budget to housing, transit, libraries, food security, harm reduction, and more. Winnipeg Police Cause Harm, for one, is developing a resource list of community organizations in Winnipeg who provide services and programming for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Justice4BlackLives, moreover, has set up a fund to help support Black sex workers during the pandemic and a holiday hamper program for families, among many other important J4BL projects.

We, like many others, are fighting this fight on many fronts, including: holding our elected leaders accountable via presenting at city council and committee meetings, consciousness-raising via postering campaigns, amplifying underreported information through social media blitzes, and even conducting and publishing original research that media outlets continuously refuse to run.

These efforts are, of course, insufficient given the scale of the problem. We know this. We are trying to challenge the power and authority of a hyper-violent force that receives one-third of a billion dollars per year and is supported by all politicians regardless of party.

Organizations in other cities including Hamilton’s 1492 Land Back Lane and Defund Hamilton Police, Toronto’s Parkdale Organize and People’s Defence Toronto, and New York City’s Unfare NYC and Swipe It Forward demonstrate how to effectively escalate demands and militancy against state violence.

We are still only in the preliminary stages of building community organizations and collective power that is indeed capable of fighting these kinds of fights. It’s a long-term struggle, one to be fought over many years, but these efforts are absolutely imperative if we want to live in a just and truly safe society for all—one that does not require police or prisons.

A previous version of this article stated that the city’s funding for libraries will rise by $47,000 in 2021. The correct figure is $566,000. Canadian Dimension regrets the error.

James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is a frequent contributor to CD, and has also written for Briarpatch, Passage, The Narwhal, National Observer, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. James is the author of the recently published book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books). He organizes with the police abolitionist organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. You can follow him on Twitter at @james_m_wilt.

Rebecca Hume is a settler living on Treaty 1 lands, the homeland of the Métis Nation. She recently graduated from Ryerson University’s Master of Arts in Communication & Culture Program. Currently, she is a freelance researcher and community organizer.

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