Protesters calling for police to be defunded set up tents at city hall

Protesters calling for police to be defunded have set up tents outside Hamilton city hall and say they won't leave until their demands are met.

Group wants police budget cut by 50%, with funds to be used for housing instead

Protesters calling for police to be defunded have set up tents outside Hamilton City Hall. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Protesters calling for police to be defunded have set up tents outside Hamilton city hall and say they won't leave until their demands are met.

Organizers say they're demanding the Hamilton Police Service budget be cut by 50 per cent with that money being reinvested in free, permanent housing. They also called for a surplus in the police budget, which the service reported earlier this month was roughly $567,875, to be put toward housing.

The group says their call for defunding extends beyond Hamilton, to the provincial and federal governments, with the same goal — using money currently budgeted for police to invest in housing instead.

A handful of tents had been erected Monday afternoon. During speeches, protest organizers spoke about encampments in the city, saying housing, not policing, should be the priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"We are not going to leave this property until our demands are met," one protester told the crowd. "We will not leave. We are prepared to stay."

Hamilton police say they charged the organizer of the protest because the demonstration exceeded the numbers permitted for an outdoor gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Police say anywhere between 80 to 100 people showed up.

Sarah Jama, the organizer of the demonstration, will appear in court on Feb. 22, 2021 and if convicted, is liable to pay a minimum fine of $10,000.

Still, protesters said Monday that they won't leave until Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who also chairs the police services board, met with them and agreed to their demands.

Mayor believes 'reallocation of funds' possible

In an email statement to CBC, Eisenberger said he respects the right people have to peacefully protest, saying city staff are ensuring the demonstrators are following COVID-19 protocols and provincial health orders. 

According to a press release from the city, issued Monday afternoon, bylaw officers "are encouraging demonstrators to reduce their numbers to 25 or less to meet provincial orders and adhere to physical distancing rules." The city says officers "will take appropriate enforcement measures, which can include issuing fines" if demonstrators don't reduce their numbers.

The email also said that "it is unlawful to camp in front of City Hall at any time and that anyone who may attempt to camp outside City Hall will be asked to leave."

The mayor said the city's approach to police funding reductions will be based on discussions from Hamilton's Community Safety and Well-Being Plan advisory committee, which includes a range of community organizations. 

"While I do not support defunding of our police, I do believe reallocation of funds is a possibility," said Eisenberger. "These are complex and challenging conversations that need to take place – with all voices at the table."

The police service is reporting a budget surplus so far this year, but there are several caveats.

During a recent police services board meeting, staff said the service has made roughly $400,000 less than expected this year, but has also spent nearly million dollars less than projected through measures such as delaying hires and cancelling training. 

Anna Filice, the service's chief administrative officer, also said police also took about $600,000 out of reserves in order to avoid increasing the operating budget this year.

The demonstrators said they won't leave until they demand that the police budget be cut by 50 per cent and the money invested in housing is met. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

HPS is also looking at about $12,000 more in COVID-related costs than it anticipated earlier in the fall, Filice said.

By year end, "that number will change," she said of the $567,875 surplus. "It's likely to go down."

The board asked Chief Eric Girt back in June to report on what a 20-per cent cut to the service's budget would look like.

He said it would amount to cutting $34.3 million, including money earmarked for traffic safety, victim services and street outreach. It would also cost 279 sworn officers.

But supporters of defunding police said his response amounted to a "two-page letter" that did not show the type of research, analysis and context they expected.

On Monday the protesters draped a banner that read "DEFUND THE POLICE" and "INVEST IN HOUSING" over the Hamilton sign in the forecourt.

Bylaw and police officers could also be seen standing around the forecourt, some taking pictures of the protesters as they set up the tents and spoke at the microphone.

Police and bylaw officers could be seen standing along the perimeter of the forecourt as protesters set up tents. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

With files from Bobby Hristova and Samantha Craggs