Slash or spend? Police board hears 2 very different visions for Winnipeg police budget

One day after Winnipeg police shot a teen robbery suspect outside a convenience store, the Winnipeg Police Board heard two very different perspectives on funding the city's police force.

Some say police have too many resources already, others argue against deep cuts

WPS Chief Danny Smyth, seen here addressing the police board earlier this year, says his service needs the funds to operate as crime increases, but social problems have to be tackled by other agencies. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

One day after Winnipeg police shot a teen robbery suspect outside a convenience store, the Winnipeg Police Board heard two very different perspectives on funding the city's police force.

The board listened to budget submissions Friday in the shadow of Thursday's night's shooting at a West End 7-Eleven, as well as a wave of increasingly brazen and violent thefts at liquor stores in the city.

On one side, groups urged the board to slash the Winnipeg Police Service's budget, arguing less policing would actually improve the lives of residents, while others suggested a reduction in police funding would seriously damage partnerships that save lives on the street.

Mayor Brian Bowman and his budget working group have recommended some stiff budget targets for city departments, including a two per cent increase for the police service. 

WPS Chief Danny Smyth has warned the modest increase could force his management team to trim 34 officers and 25 cadets.

Some came to city hall Friday suggesting budgets for law enforcement have grown too big and others went further. saying officers with the WPS were a threat to personal safety.

University of Winnipeg criminologist Kevin Walby told the board the WPS budget has an "irrational amount of resources" and spending on policing isn't helping the most vulnerable.

"Public police do not feed people, they do not house people, they don't create families that are healthy or communities that are healthy," Walby said.

Nathan Loewen with Winnipeg Police Cause Harm went further than the academic.

Wearing a shirt with the names of people the group says died in encounters with police, Loewen said he believes the police are feared by many people — especially Indigenous groups — and should have their budgets slashed, if not eliminated entirely.

Nathan Loewen with Winnipeg Police Cause Harm says the police budget should be cut and funds used to reduce poverty, homelessness and addiction. (Sean Kavanagh CBC)

"We are saying the police should get less money. Less money, less of the budget. Decrease the amount of money the police get and put that money into the realms of municipal budgeting that address the basic needs of people in this city," Loewen told the board.

'Meaningful partnership' with police

Groups working on the streets with some of the city's most vulnerable say years of effort have forged strong links between police and their teams.

Diane Redsky of the social agency Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata disagreed with the views expressed by some of the other presenters, saying they have invested heavily in what has become a "meaningful partnership" with police. 

"We have countless, countless examples of examples of how this partnership has evolved over the years but also how this partnership has literally saved lives."

Redsky has advice for those who had "an alternative perspective" on how the relationship works with police.

"Go out with any one of these outreach teams between midnight and 8 a.m. They go into pretty horrific and dangerous places," she said.

Diane Redsky from the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre urges people suspicious of police to look closely at "meaningful partnerships" outreach teams have with officers. (Sean Kavanagh CBC)

Bear Clan spokesperson John Drabble called that organization's partnership with the police "crucial" and told the police board the top priority its members hear from citizens while on patrol is overwhelmingly the desire to feel safe.

"People above everything else want security in the North End," Drabble said. 

The Bear Clan started out with tentative relations with the WPS. Now the chair of its board is a sergeant with the service and former chief Devon Clunis is also a board member.

Police board chair Kevin Klein recognized there were two contrary views presented at Friday's meeting and acknowledged some people simply don't trust the police.

"It's very easy to beat up on an authority figure as opposed to looking at the big picture," Klein said.

That "big picture," Klein said, includes getting all stakeholders, from all levels government and the community, around a table to start brainstorming solutions.

He also said it means looking at the budget "realistically."

For example, Klein said the city has to stop charging the WPS extra fees for fuel and fleet management and define exactly what might accrue from any savings made from possible changes to the police pension approved by city council this week.