Hamilton MP Bob Bratina used the occasion of a memorial vigil for shooting victim Yosif Al-Hasnawi to suggest that politicians and police have allowed the city to become less safe in the three years since he was mayor.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger called the comments and their timing "totally outrageous" and "inappropriate."
At the vigil attended by hundreds, Bratina, MP for Hamilton East-Stoney Creek, talked about the recent rise in gun violence and suggested the city's ratio of officers-to-people, and its per capita spending on police, should be increased.
'What does the data say? It tells us a story.' - Bob Bratina, Hamilton East-Stoney Creek MP
Shootings in Hamilton have risen in recent years, from seven in 2014, to 14 in 2015, to 22 last year and to 40 so far this year.
"Would this be happening if there were more police officers visibly patrolling our neighbourhoods?" Bratina said Saturday night at the city hall memorial for 19-year-old Al-Hasnawi, whom police have called a "Good Samaritan" shot and killed after trying to help someone he didn't know.
"If there is anything positive that can come from the loss of this beautiful life perhaps it should be a safer city where officers are more visible to make these criminals think twice before they even brandish those weapons," he said.
'Wrong at every level imaginable'
Eisenberger blasted his mayoral predecessor over the comments.
"Totally outrageous inappropriate comments during the solemn memorial for this brave young man and his family," he said on Twitter. "Wrong at every level imaginable as well as inaccurate self-aggrandizing nonsense."
In an email sent late Saturday night to CBC News, Bratina added more criticism.
"The city is seriously under-policed and the deployment of officers under the 'ACTION' program has diminished following the departure of former Chief De Caire," he said.
In another email to CBC News on Monday, he suggested city council actions since he left amounted to "the hounding out of office of the previous chief."
The Hamilton Police Service overall budget for 2017 is up nearly 9 per cent over its 2014 levels and has risen every year since Bratina left office.
The ACTION unit is known for its high-visibility yellow jackets and flexibility to patrol the core and canvass neighbourhoods after major incidents like homicides and shootings.
Under De Caire, staffing for that unit dropped from 40 officers to 32 officers between 2013 and 2014, the last year that Bratina was mayor. There were 30 officers in the ACTION team in 2016, the first year that Eric Girt was promoted to chief.
'We had made such great progress'
In an interview Tuesday, Bratina said that he has not felt the same kind of visible police presence as he did when the ACTION team, targeting high levels of crime downtown started.
He said he meant no disrespect to Girt or to police officers. Rather, he said decisions like council's 2013 scrutiny of police budget increases served to leave the service under-equipped for the job it has to do.
"What I'm seeing is, and it disturbs me, because we had made such great progress, in visible policing with the ACTION team, is the sense of public disorder that's reflected in the shooting statistics," Bratina said.
"What does the data say? It tells us a story," he said. "We have to address the problems that resulted, whatever they are, in the loss of [Al-Hasnawi's] life. That will be something that the family can at least hold on to, that their son left a legacy."
'To say there's been an aberration is inaccurate'
On Tuesday, Girt said he doesn't tie the increase in gun violence to officer staffing levels.
"To factor it to one particular item, I believe, is inaccurate," he said. "There's multiple effects that we're looking at, whether it's distribution/sale of drugs, the availability of handguns."
Girt also denied the assertion that he has diminished ACTION's potency. He said when he was deputy chief, he and his predecessor De Caire discussed how to keep ACTION relevant to the safety needs of the whole city, in light of direction from the police oversight board.
Now, the ACTION team is sent on assignments like patrolling Hamilton's outdoor rail trails, where there were multiple sexual assaults by strangers earlier this year.
"To say there's been an aberration is inaccurate," he said. "We have redeployed in other areas beyond the central core. … It's the total city and it's contextual to whatever the crime is, and the risk to the population."
The chief is proposing adding nine new staff positions, some sworn, some civilian in a budget coming before the police oversight board this Thursday. He said it would be "premature" to talk about his rationale for that before presenting it to the board.
'I don't believe our streets are less safe'
The chair of that board, Coun. Lloyd Ferguson, said he also didn't find Bratina's comments appropriate.
"I don't believe our streets are less safe," Ferguson said.
He highlighted the quick work police made of tracking and arresting two suspects in Al-Hasnawi's death.
"I believe that's exceptional," he said. "I don't accept the fact that our officers aren't doing the job."
Ferguson agreed with Bratina that Hamilton's ratio of officers to population is lower than other cities, but added "it's always a balance" in trying to land on budgets that are responsible.
But he questioned the premise of tying the officer numbers to Al-Hasnawi's death.
"I'm not sure if we had more officers on the street if it would've helped that young man," he said. "That was a random thing."
Bratina said it's a "simple question" that city leaders, and the police service, need to answer in light of the increase in shootings.
"It's certainly not that [police] are not doing their job," Bratina said. "It's that, do they have the resources, are there adequate resources to provide what is required … adequate and effective policing?
"And if somebody wants to convince me that it is, fine," he said. "But I think that question has to be answered."