Winnipeg is in the midst of another uninspiring municipal election. But unlike previous rounds, a handful of mayoral and council candidates have actually dared to discuss the ever-growing crisis of the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) budget, which has reached at least $320 million—or 26.8 percent of the city’s operating budget—in 2022 (the WPS said it again expects to blow past allocated spending, requiring the city to spend millions more).
In early July, current candidate and former long-time mayor Glen Murray pledged to sell off the police helicopter, an intrusive and widely reviled surveillance tool that costs millions of dollars a year to operate. Unfortunately, Murray proposed replacing it with drones, which would only entrench and expand such surveillance powers.
Meanwhile, two leftist council candidates—Natalie Smith (running in Mynarski) and Omar Kinnarath (running in Daniel McIntyre)—have pledged to cut the WPS budget by 10 percent and reallocate the more than $30 million a year to community services. Most recently, mayoral candidate and former Manitoba Liberal Party leader Rana Bokhari committed to this same 10 percent reduction and reallocation. Robert-Falcon Oullette, who is also running for mayor, has pledged to freeze the police budget.
This shift has been shaped by years of organizing by groups including Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg, the Police Accountability Coalition, Police Free Schools Winnipeg, and Winnipeg Police Cause Harm. And while campaign promises should always be treated skeptically—especially from those who have previously spearheaded police expansion—these particular promises are significant in a city where policing has long gone uncriticized.
Police don’t take kindly to any challenge to their power and funding, and as Kinnarath has noted, it has overwhelmingly been women and racialized people who have stepped up this election to do so. These candidates should be encouraged for their bold leadership.
Instead, much of the local wonkdom has rejected the possibility of such changes on purely bureaucratic grounds, claiming that mayor and council has no actual power over the police budget due to the existence of an arms-length police board or a collective bargaining agreement with the police union. For instance, respected CBC journalist Bartley Kives suggested in a recent article that “Winnipeg’s mayor and council do not play any direct role in devising the police budget.” Just as the BC NDP misled the public that it had no role in the Wet’suwet’en raids, and just as mayors across Canada acted like they had no ability to pressure police to dismantle the so-called “Freedom Convoy” occupations, this reaction is liberal mystification that provides convenient cover for politicians.
Cops are not rogue autonomous agents. Police do indeed possess unique and extreme powers. However, the only reason they can deploy such powers at the ever-widening scope that they do is because governments consistently award them more and more funding. Despite the real mediating roles of police boards and provinces, city councils retain significant powers to reduce police budgets and reallocate resources to life-sustaining services. Just because such power hasn’t been used in recent years doesn’t mean that it can’t be wielded now.
Clarifying this question matters a great deal. As Mariame Kaba writes in the New York Times, “the surest way of reducing police violence is to reduce the power of the police, by cutting budgets and the number of officers.” Reductions in the police budget would force the introduction of hiring freezes, service cuts, and overtime caps. And while lucrative salaries, benefits, and pensions earned by police (with most making six figures after a few years) are the purview of the collective agreement, funding can be reduced directly via the budget.
This gives the lie to the claim that governments cannot on their own cut the police budget. It’s just plainly untrue.
‘Council has final responsibility for budget’
Policing in Manitoba is governed by the Police Services Act (for a lengthy explainer of this legislation’s history, read my recent blog piece). Introduced in 2009 by the previous NDP government in the wake of several WPS killings, the act created several new institutions to provide oversight of police departments in Manitoba: the Manitoba Police Commission, the Independent Investigation Unit, and police boards. This brief article will focus on the latter.
Police boards were introduced as a supposedly arms-length oversight body to appoint a police chief, develop “priorities and objectives” for the police force, direct the police chief accordingly, and liaise between the police force and community. The police board essentially operates as a corporate board of directors, in which the CEO (in this case, the police chief) reports to the board and the board in turn provides directives. This structure is ostensibly intended to prevent the “politicization” of policing by city council, an objective reflected in the board’s non-involvement in day-to-day operations.
Yet this ‘arms-length’ relationship is barely arms-length. Board members are mostly appointed by city council, with the remainder appointed by the province. In combination with the cop-dominated security clearance process, this results in significant torquing of board membership to support status-quo politics and minimize public scrutiny. Further, despite there being no requirement of the sort—and, in fact, there being a limit on the number of councillors or city employees on the board—the Winnipeg Police Board has long been chaired and dominated by council interests. Current board chair Markus Chambers is vehemently pro-cop, consistently acting as an unofficial spokesperson for WPS interests. The notion that such a board can provide any kind of critical oversight is ridiculous.
But when it comes to the police budget—by far the biggest determinant of police activities, including day-to-day operations—the police board is borderline irrelevant. As clearly explained in the legislation, the board is merely responsible for providing an estimate of projected costs (itself provided by the WPS) to the city council as a means to “assist the council in developing the municipal budget.” This is an informational role. It is the council that “has final responsibility for budget” and “is responsible for establishing the total budget of the police service.” At that point, it’s up to the police board to allocate the funds provided by council for police operations.
Or take it from the Winnipeg Police Board itself. Its website explains that it consults with the WPS about anticipated spending and “accepts the Service’s advice” or “gives direction to revise its estimates before submitting the estimates to the City of Winnipeg for analysis.” It provides a “recommended budget estimate to Council,” outlining how much it thinks is required to provide “adequate and effective police services” (a metric that is not defined at all). Then, most importantly, “Council considers the Board’s estimate, budget constraints and other factors, then decides the total amount of the Winnipeg Police Service’s budget for the next year.”
In a police board FAQ, a response to a question about whether council can set the WPS budget at an amount different from what the board recommends, explains:
Yes. Winnipeg’s City Council has the authority to set the total amount of the Winnipeg Police Service’s operating and capital budgets each fiscal year …. [Council] may choose to increase investment in the Service, use investment in other areas to promote public safety, or balance the funding needs of the Winnipeg Police Service with municipal budget constraints. If Council sets the Winnipeg Police Service budget at an amount that is higher or lower than the Board’s recommended estimate, the Board works with the amount set by Council to allocate within the Service.
There’s no ambiguity here at all. The board provides an estimate. The council, weighing many other variables, determines the budget. Far from merely choosing “whether or not to place a rubber stamp on the budget it receives from the board,” as alleged by Kives, the council is the body that sets the police budget. Suggesting otherwise is a minor variation on the classic trope of total police autonomy, with the WPS providing a gigantic bill to the police board that it then passes on to the city, which has no choice by to approve. It absolves mayor and council of responsibility for police violence and offloads responsibility to a toothless intermediary board, preventing any kind of radical change.
What does this mean politically?
What does this all mean? For starters: mayor and council does indeed have the power and ability to cut the police budget, regardless of the estimate and information provided by the police board. The relevant legislation and the police board’s own documentation confirms this. Like with every other city department, council can freely adjust spending as it sees fit. And while departments clearly have vested interests in certain outcomes, council is not beholden to them.
Another common retort to the spectre of defunding is that mayor and council can’t specifically determine what the police get to spend money on, such as Murray’s announcement that he would ground the helicopter. This critique technically has merit, as the police board is ostensibly responsible for allocating the total budget determined by council (although in 2015, the WPS didn’t even bother to notify the police board before buying its $343,000 armoured vehicle).
However, this is where politics comes into play. Almost 90 percent of WPS spending goes to salaries and benefits, and there’s at least a decent chance that the force will respond to funding cuts by selling off recently procured equipment like the $257,000 robot dog in order to protect officer salaries. Another approach would be to condition future funding on certain requirements being met, whether that be selling off a helicopter or initiating a hiring freeze. Plenty of government spending is rolled out in this way. There’s no reason to think the same couldn’t happen for police.
The biggest obstacle to defunding in Winnipeg isn’t the police board or other bureaucratic entities but the threat of reaction from the right-wing provincial government. Indeed, provincial legislation enables the government to invade municipal jurisdiction if it believes that “adequate and effective policing” isn’t being provided by a force, including suspending “in whole or in part” the force’s operations, replacing it with something else (RCMP or otherwise), removing the police chief and police board members, appointing a third-party administrator to oversee operations, and to “take any other steps that the minister considers necessary to provide adequate and effective policing services in the area in question.”
While far from reaching that level, we have already seen some provincial interference in BC and Alberta. This is not a threat to take lightly, particularly given the creeping provincial support for a hostile police union over the WPS chief.
However, as with the aforementioned situations, such a reality requires commitment to political struggle. The definition of “adequate and effective policing” remains completely undefined, a fact pointed out in a recent review of the legislation. This opens up significant opportunity for progressive municipal leaders to politicize the very concept as deeply flawed and biased towards carceral response, making the case that public funding should be directed to life-sustaining services that actually keep people safe.
Such an approach would echo language by the police board that council can “use investment in other areas to promote public safety.” Given the upcoming provincial election, there’s also a need to pressure other provincial parties to commit to allowing municipalities to pursue defunding and reallocation without fear of reprisal, as well as a reopening of the legislation to broaden the scope of safety well beyond police.
The police budget is at once the largest cost to the Winnipeg public and the most pressing issue facing the city on numerous intersecting fronts. Failing to confront this fact will only drive the city into further austerity and violence.
It’s imperative that any political candidate aspiring to help build genuine community safety comes to terms with the real opportunities and obstacles that face us. Council can indeed slash the police budget, regardless of what the police board has to say. This fact is clear as day. The province may well try to initiate a backlash but this represents a much-needed political fight to win a better future for Winnipeg, not something to be avoided on fictitious bureaucratic grounds propagated to protect a broken status-quo.
James Wilt is a freelance journalist and graduate student based in Winnipeg. He is the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk (Between the Lines Books) and Drinking Up the Revolution: How to Smash Big Alcohol and Reclaim Working-Class Joy (Repeater Books). You can follow him on Twitter @james_m_wilt.