Money taken from police budget could fund support programs, community safety initiatives, groups say

As calls to defund police grow louder, the people behind some community groups in Winnipeg say redirecting part of the force's budget could mean more resources for marginalized people and expanded community safety initiatives.

Fewer calls to police could lower WPS budget, Mayor Brian Bowman says

Signs at the Justice 4 Black Lives rally in Winnipeg on June 5 include calls to defund police. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

As calls to defund police grow louder, the people behind some community groups in Winnipeg say redirecting part of the force's budget could mean more resources for marginalized people and expanded community safety initiatives in their neighbourhoods.

The idea began to gain traction after video emerged of a Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee into the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, for almost nine minutes. Floyd died, sparking a wave of protests.

Redirecting part of the Winnipeg Police Service's $301-million annual budget to community groups would mean a lot to the people who depend on them, representatives from three Winnipeg organizations said on CBC's Information Radio on Wednesday morning.

The money could help fund services that help youth struggling in school, parents in need of support and people with intellectual disabilities without somewhere to live, said Dr. Jennifer Frain, chief executive officer of New Directions, which provides training and supports for people with disabilities.

New Directions runs on $57 million a year, Frain said, and a bump in funding could help it expand programming that is desperately needed in the community.

Increased resources would help address some of the issues at the root of crime and help reduce the need for police, she said.

"We have some job training programs for youth that could be augmented and increased to [help] kids who otherwise are falling through the cracks and who are not supported well enough in schools," she said.

Money taken from the police budget could help develop existing community safety programs in parts of the North End, such as the Mama Bear Clan Patrol, said Tara Zajac, executive director of the North Point Douglas Women's Centre.

North Point Douglas Women’s Centre executive director Tara Zajac says more money for the organization would bring more staff and expanded programs. (CBC)

The money the centre has every year to fund its services — which also include parenting and domestic violence programs — is about 1.5 per cent of the Winnipeg Police Service's annual budget, Zajac said.

Redirecting even a tiny fraction of the police budget to the centre would help it hire more staff and expand how often it can offer programs, she said.

At the West End 24 Hour Safe Space for Youth, which has eight staff members and runs on around $300,000 a year, the extra money would mean the centre could offer its daytime services at night and expand the supports it provides during the day, said director of operations David Cole.

Before COVID-19 hit, the drop-in centre was seeing up to 90 youth every night, Cole said.

Alternatives to police

It can be hard for people to wrap their heads around investing in community groups instead of police, because it doesn't necessarily deliver instant results, Frain said.

"People are impatient for change. They think if they can make a decision and shift something, that you're going to see immediate results," she said.

"It takes a long time to build relationships and to rebuild trust and to gain trust of people who have every reason not to trust."

From Zajac's perspective, building that sense of community and addressing problems without escalating the situation to involve police are already at the heart of what the North Point Douglas Women's Centre does.

"The core to working with [the] community, dealing with safety initiatives, seeing what the community needs, is built upon the relationships and the connections," she said.

Fewer police calls, lower budget

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said he wants to use council's human rights committee to start having more discussions about what kind of changes can be made to reduce the need for police in the city.

"What I think we have to ask ourselves is, 'Are we going to renew our commitment to each other and a commitment to build a city which we're all proud to call home?'" Bowman said.

The city is already participating in the year-long Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which is looking into how to reduce calls made to the Winnipeg Police Service, he said.

There is "always room for improvement" within policing, including within the Winnipeg Police Service Board, Bowman said.

He also wants to see data on how the province is measuring success when it comes to things like mental health, addictions, families in crisis and housing, which are linked to many of the causes of crime.

"If we see those results, we're going to see a reduction in the demand for calls for service for police," which can in turn lead to a smaller police budget, he said.