Police board makes 'condescending' decision to explore budget cut it has no intention of making

Hamilton's police services board is getting a report back about what a 20-per cent budget cut would look like, but local Black Lives Matter organizers say the whole exercise is a waste of time and "a little bit condescending."

'The momentum is growing with or without their review,' says one Black Lives Matter organizer

Sarah Jama was one of the activists who read a list of demands in front of Hamilton institutions this month. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Hamilton's police services board will examine what a 20-per cent budget cut would look like, but mostly to demonstrate why it's a bad idea, says the councillor who initiated the study.

Local Black Lives Matter organizers say the exercise is a "condescending" act by the board.

The Hamilton Police Service (HPS) oversight board voted unanimously Thursday to look at the implications of a 20-per cent cut. Coun. Chad Collins (Ward 5, Centennial) introduced the motion, says his constituents don't want it, and abolishing police is "nonsensical." But people asking for it need to know the implications.

"I think those people who are advocating for those reductions need to know what they're asking for," he said. 

"It's my own opinion that providing less resources for the police prevents or prohibits them from doing their job properly, and ultimately leads to reduced public safety."

Cries to defund the police, he said, are "an attempt, essentially, to neuter the police, and that's my own opinion."

And calls to abolish the police, he said, are "nonsensical."

The service's budget is $171 million, and a 20 per cent cut would amount to $34.3 million. The motion did not contain any direction about what policing services to prioritize, nor was there discussion about how the millions taken out could be used to further other social goals.

Police board members and city councillors have received dozens of letters asking for money to be taken from HPS and put into causes like education, job creation and housing, which advocates say would reduce crime. Local Black Lives Matter organizers want HPS to be abolished and replaced with a less militarized, more community-based method than the one they say puts Black residents at risk.

Collins said he expects the requests will keep coming. In Toronto, city council will debate a 10-per cent reduction to the police budget. If any of his fellow councillors are "flirting with the idea," he said, "they need to know the implications politically."

"It's incumbent as a board and city council to make sure that everyone has the same information in front of them."

Other board members echoed that — neither they nor their constituents think a reduction is a good idea, but they'll look at the report anyway. 

"I'm OK with looking at budgets and options, and I'm OK with approving this for our information," says board member Fred Bennink. But he thinks Bill 175, the Safer Ontario Act, is a better bet. The act, passed in 2018, increases the scope of what the province's three police oversight agencies can investigate.

Just a day ago, before the intent of the motion was apparent, black community members called it a "welcome start." That reaction changed after Thursday's meeting.

Sahra Soudi said Collins's motion was a waste of time, since it's clear no one intends to go through with it anyway. "The person who put forward the motion made that apparent in the way that he was speaking."

The whole exercise is "a little bit condescending," she said. "They don't think we know what's going on with their budget."

More time, she said, was spent "discussing why a reduction is out of the question … They want to stick to business as usual."

Sarah Jama, a Black Lives Matter organizer who read a list of demands in front of the HPS headquarters this month, says abolishing existing police structures "is not a new conversation."

"I am excited about the discourse online and offline around what policing should look like," she said. 

"The momentum is growing with or without their review."

Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who also chairs the board, says he thinks there's room to look at whether police are involved in "social services" they shouldn't be, and cited the COAST program that deals with mental health calls.

"The impacts of the cuts need to be quantified and I think people need to understand it," he said. "It doesn't mean that we're going to or not going to. I think some members of council might be asking for that, and they also need to understand and appreciate [what it means]."

Eisenberger said he doesn't know of any plans for a Hamilton city councillor to bring a motion forward to cut money to the police.

The vote came at the same meeting where the board approved HPS spending a budget surplus of $1,425,221. The amount includes $61,040 for 18 new Colt C-8 carbines, which will replace shotguns in HPS's arsenal. HPS says this is necessary to deal with a nationwide increase in incidents involving active shooters.



Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca