Talk of 20% cut to police funding is suddenly on the table for Hamilton's police board
Thursday's motion will ask for a report back on what a reduction would look like
Hamilton's police services board will discuss slashing police funding by 20 per cent on Thursday after calls from supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement to defund the police.
Chad Collins, board member and Ward 5 (Centennial) city councillor, has drafted a motion asking to see what a reduction of $34,296,070, or 20 per cent of the operating budget, would look like for the Hamilton Police Service (HPS).
The move comes amid protests asking to defund or dismantle police after the high-profile murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. At least six letters on the Hamilton Police Services board agenda call for some reduction in police spending, and for those tax dollars to be reallocated into services such as health care, mental health, jobs and affordable housing.
"A budget reduction of 20 per cent would substantially alter the current services provided by Hamilton Police Service staff," says the motion from Collins, who is also president of CityHousing Hamilton.
He's asking for staff to "present a report to the Hamilton Police Services board detailing the service implications of a 20-per cent operating budget reduction."
Another common theme in the letters is the call for body cameras, an issue the board has voted against four times in recent years.
"I believe the police force of Hamilton is overfunded and not taking the necessary precautions to provide safety to black folks, and people of colour in our community," says a letter from Mariel Rutherford. "For example, the Hamilton police force is not equipped with body cameras."
Collins says his constituents haven't told him they want less policing, but he thinks the discussion around police funding is "a healthy one."
"The fact that [letter writers] are advocating for services for individuals, especially for those that are the most vulnerable in society, we're on the same page," he said. "I'm not sure defunding police is the answer, but I'm not opposed to listening to the suggestions people have."
"The message that came to us was the police should be defunded, in whole or in part, and reinvest those budget reductions into other social services like food and security issues, affordable housing, services for individuals, homelessness, shelter. I don't think that's an unreasonable discussion."
Evelyn Myrie, a diversity consultant who has advised HPS and the City of Hamilton, says Collins's motion is "a welcome start."
"It seems that there's an openness to look at the issues," she said, although any moves that ultimately result from it should involve consulting people who are calling for change.
Sahra Soudi, who is involved in the local Black Lives Matter movement, worries the vote could actually derail the efforts of organizers, who are calling for the abolition of HPS, not a budget cut. A police budget reduction is only meaningful, she says, if the money is taken from HPS and put toward other services that help the community.
The group read a list of demands outside HPS headquarters this month, and it plans to stick to those demands, she says.
Some residents want more police visibility
Tom Jackson, board member and Ward 6 (east Mountain) city councillor, says he's open to looking at what a reduction would mean, but his constituents don't want less policing. His ward has seen two major drug busts in recent years, as well as issues with break and enters, auto thefts, and vandalism at parks.
"My community is asking overwhelmingly for more police visibility," he said.
Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who chairs the board, says police have gotten more involved in "social service" areas in recent years, and he's open to looking at whether that should change.
"I will say there's probably a reasonable conversation to have," he said. "I'm not on for taking funding away from policing indiscriminately."
Aside from its appointees on the board, Hamilton city council has little control over the police budget. It has no say over specific items in the budget, and can make requests, but HPS doesn't have to follow them. The most the city can do is refuse to pay, in which case the matter ends up at the Ontario Civilian Police Commission for arbitration. In 2013, that would have cost about $300,000.
City has little control over police budget
Municipalities usually don't win those battles, says Brad Clark, Ward 9 (upper Stoney Creek) councillor and former provincial cabinet minister.
"We can request them to come in under a certain amount, but they don't have to listen to that," says Clark, who doesn't sit on the police board.
"If he can secure that, excellent," he said of Collins's motion, although "I don't know where that 20 per cent would come from."
Maureen Wilson, a Ward 1 (west end) councillor who also isn't on the board, says she supports looking at less funding.
"Over the past number of decades, we have seen a dramatic increase in police budgets that have exceeded all other parts of the city's operating budget," she said. "This has had the effect of starving services and programs that are better equipped to deal with many of the real needs of Hamilton residents. It has also had the effect of criminalizing public health conditions and early intervention programs."
In a separate item on Thursday, the police board is set to approve how HPS will spend a $1,425,221 surplus. That includes spending $61,040 on Carbine Colt C-8 firearms for front-line officers.
Nrinder Nann, Ward 3 (central lower city) councillor says the annual surpluses come at a time when the city is struggling to find money for services that improve the health of its residents.
"There are important questions being raised of every police service: What does the future of policing look like? Are police services the appropriate public service to administer wellness checks? How can we redesign community-based services for crisis intervention to meet the needs of residents facing mental health, addiction or housing crises?" she said.
"Each of these questions in turn ask us what outcomes are we looking to achieve in Hamilton, what services do we need to redesign, and how do we invest strategically and sustainably to deliver those outcomes?"
On Monday, community response also prompted the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) to review a program that sees police in schools.