Sask. police chiefs, mayors say reducing enforcement is not as simple as defunding police

Police chiefs and mayors in Saskatoon and Regina say defunding police services is not the best approach to reducing police enforcement in Saskatchewan communities — saying more provincial resources should be put into addressing social issues that contribute to high crime rates. 

'What causes crime ... these are issues that are beyond the scope of the police service,' says Regina mayor

There are calls for some of the money spent on policing to be moved to support mental health workers and other resources. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC News)

Police chiefs and mayors in Saskatoon and Regina say defunding police services is not the best approach to reducing police enforcement in Saskatchewan communities, saying more provincial resources should be put into addressing social issues that contribute to high crime rates. 

"The answer is not at this time in our community, given the levels of crime we're seeing and the levels of violence, to say that you need to do this by pulling money out of police," said Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark on Monday. 

"What we need to be doing is building a much better system to respond to those issues."

A petition calling for the defunding of the Regina Police Service had about 2,300 signatures late Monday afternoon. 

Calls to redirect funds away from police services were reignited after the death of George Floyd, who died after a white police officer held his knee to Floyd's neck for more than eight minutes in Minneapolis.

Some councillors in that city, under pressure from weeks of protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality across the United States and around the world, now say they will vote to dismantle the city's police force.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has committed to moving money from the city's police budget into youth and social services. In Toronto, two city councillors have put forward a motion to reduce the police budget by 10 per cent. 

Proponents want funds redirected to social supports

Proponents for defunding police services want money that goes toward enforcement redirected to community and social support services to reduce the need for police involvement in the first place.

Funding that currently goes to police services could instead, for example, pay the wages of social workers and other support staff who have more dedicated training and do not carry weapons, proponents say. 

Participants showed up at the Saskatchewan Legislature Building on June 7, 2020. (Heidi Atter/CBC News)

In Saskatchewan, calls to establish an independent police oversight body have been ongoing for years. Premier Scott Moe says discussions about changing that are underway. Body cameras will be tested in Saskatoon starting this year. 

A petition calling for the Regina Police Service to be defunded outlines its reasons for wanting to cut police funds. 

"The police budget increases while community groups like White Pony Lodge and Mobile Crisis, which provide low-cost alternatives to policing, are forced to rely on GoFundMe campaigns, personal donations, and small grants from the city," the website reads, in part. 

"[This is] in spite of the fact that they provide many of the same services as police, without requiring weaponry, communications departments, cells, or armoured vehicles."

The petition had around 2,300 signatures late Monday afternoon. 

Sask. crime rates too high: Police chiefs, mayors

But police chiefs and mayors in Saskatoon and Regina say the crime rate is too high to simply cut funding for officers.

There were 18 homicides in Saskatoon last year, the highest number ever recorded. Regina has recorded seven homicides in the year to date, and Saskatchewan overall has one of the highest homicide rates of all the provinces. 

Regina Police Chief Evan Bray said the police budget cannot be reduced unless more funding from the provincial government is put into social support services, such as those for mental health and addictions. 

Hundreds gathered outside the legislative building in Regina, Saskatchewan on June 5 at a solidarity rally showing support for those in protesting injustice in the United Stated and Canada. See police officer 'taking a knee.' (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

"We are responding to … year-to-date, 370 overdose calls, more than two a day," said Bray. 

"On average, especially through this pandemic, we are responding to 19 domestic conflict calls per service per day. Firearms calls are a daily activity for us and multiple times daily in many cases and so we are an extremely busy police service."

He said partnerships with community groups would be welcomed if they reduce the social work that police do so they can focus on safety. 

Issues 'beyond scope of police service': Fougere

Regina Mayor Michael Fougere said redirecting more funds to support services for domestic violence, homelessness and addictions is not as simple as removing funds from the police service. 

"That becomes difficult because [the question is] how do we continue to provide a safe community, but also how do we engage other orders of government in a much larger conversation about what ends up being crime," he said. 

"What causes crime, what causes disadvantage, what causes alienation — these are issues that are beyond the scope of the police service." 

Saskatoon Police Chief Troy Cooper said systemic changes that go beyond additional funding are needed to reduce the need for enforcement. 

Saskatoon Police Chief Troy Cooper said he supports funding other parts of the commuinty to reduce interactions with the police. (CBC News)

"If there is a way to have other parts of the community funded so that it results in less interactions with justice then absolutely I'm supportive of that," said Cooper. 

"It's not always about funding actually. If we're talking about structural change some of it is about legislation with an eye on the impact on the community. Some of it is about public policy." 

Cooper cited the Gang Violence Reduction Strategy, which was funded with $11.9 million from the federal government, as an example of a crime reduction approach that is not all about enforcement. 

Programs that have received funding through the program include Str8-Up, which helps individuals leave gang life for good. 

But he said more funding for services like a provincial drug strategy would help reduce the need for police involvement. 

"Enforcement is an important part of that but so is addictions treatment and so is education and so is harm reduction, so I think that when we fund all of those sort of broader strategies and public supports or social supports, we have to do it with the reliance on a community response rather than just an enforcement response."

Cooper said Saskatchewan police are already working toward more partnerships in that vein. 

Cities can't control ministries that fund social issues: Clark

Saskatoon Mayor Charlie Clark said he recognizes that the community is not going to be able to "arrest our way out of crime."

But he said the city does not control funding that goes toward addressing the root causes of crime. 

"For the city to simply think that by us reducing our funding to police that we can address these issues when we don't actually have control over the ministries that fund the social issues — it doesn't work that way," said Clark. 

He said aligning the community efforts with those of the provincial government is key to improving the situation. 

"The Safe Community Action Alliance, along with the community safety and well-being partners table, has put forward dozens of recommendations to the provincial government, particularly around youth, addictions and mental health and some of these issues. 

"And we've been getting engagement with the provincial government and these ministries. We think there's a lot more opportunity to address these issues and to work together."

He said anybody who is interested in the conversation about redirecting funds toward social services can contact the city to participate in their efforts. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said restructuring police services is not being actively considered but that he is open to discussions. 

"There is a very important conversation I think as we move forward through the next number of days and it's been an ongoing conversation," said Moe.