Winnipeg police take nearly a third of civic budgets, now groups call for their defunding

By | June 9, 2020

With many groups calling for police reforms amid anti-police brutality protests, the spotlight is on law enforcement accountability, but also the growing scope and cost of police activities.

This year in Winnipeg, the police service alone accounts for nearly 30 per cent of the city’s total operating budget. Two decades ago, in 2000, that amount stood at 17 per cent.

Aside from the fire paramedic service — which has also seen its share of the budget increase over time — most other city services have not benefited from similar increases. 

Molly McCracken, the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba, calls the current social mood a “watershed moment” and sees an opportunity to question the trend toward increased police budgets.

According to McCracken, we need to “move upstream from people who have become criminalized by police to preventative measures.”

In 2018, her team published what they dubbed an “alternative municipal budget,” in which changes to the existing funding structure were proposed.

“We would redirect money from the police budget to recreation to keep spaces open weekends, evenings,” among other changes, she said.

Budget documents show that recreational funding for the city, for example, has increased by only 6.3 per cent since 2010. During that same ten-year window, police have seen their operating budget increase by over 55 per cent.

Molly McCracken from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba says social issues that often fall on the shoulders of police need to be addressed before they reach that point. (Marissa Stevenson)

With the exception of a recent upward trend, police-reported crime in the province has trended downward for nearly twenty years.

However, what has increased according to police reporting is the volume of calls for service from the public — often for issues that the public wouldn’t consider part of traditionally police work.

McCracken sees this as an opportunity.

“If the police themselves are saying that there’s an increased need for response,, then we need to increase resources that are more appropriate to the needs of the response. Hiring crisis intervention workers, social workers, people with experience with addictions and a more holistic approach to people rather than a police response,” she said.

Police and social services ‘not mutually exclusive’, Chief Smyth

Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth told reporters today he’s open to a conversation about “withdrawing” police services in certain areas, but cautions the issue is complex and public safety considerations are part of the discussion.

“We have social workers on our staff, they won’t attend things unless [police are with them]. Many of our own paramedics won’t attend calls unless we are with them to ensure their safety,” said Smyth.

Smyth and McCracken both agree that a great deal of the burden now shouldered by police is the result of failings from other levels of government.

“I have witnessed social agencies have their funding cut back pretty dramatically over the last ten years over various levels of government, and really in a lot of ways downloading a lot of that work to front-line workers — like paramedics, like police,” Smyth says.

“I think the province does have a huge responsibility here, but also at a city level when you look at police budgets and why they’ve increased over time, it’s increased militarization, tactical units and wage increases above the rate of inflation,” said McCracken.

In response to these criticisms, the province said it has taken steps to address many of the issues in the justice system.  

The Policing and Public Safety Strategy creates a collaborative policing environment in which Manitoba Justice and all law enforcement agencies work together to keep Manitobans safe, especially those most vulnerable.

“Manitoba Justice supports and fosters collaboration amongst police and community partners, driven by data and analysis of criminal trends. Greater collaboration improves criminal intelligence and enforcement, better mobilizing our communities, and making our police services more innovative, efficient and focused on core police functions” Justice Minister Cullen’s press secretary Brant Batters wrote in an email.

However, while early results show promise, challenges remain and there is much more to do.

“It’s a little bit too early to just say ‘defund the police’ and forward all that [funding] to social services,” Smyth said.

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