New Westminster city council has backed down from its demand for a 0% budget increase for the police department after encountering resistance from the police board.
In response to calls for police reform across North America, council voted 4-3 in December to ask the police board to bring forward a budget that incorporated a 0% increase for 2021. At its Jan. 19 meeting, the police board unanimously agreed to “respectfully decline” council’s request, with the police chief saying it would put staffing levels below or around those it had in 2004.
The political hot potato landed back in council’s hands on Monday.
In a 5-2 vote, council voted to accept the recommendation from the police board for a 2.9% increase and to instruct the finance department to incorporate the recommendation into the draft 2021 budget bylaw and to proceed with public notification of the draft bylaw.
Coun. Chinu Das said the police board is genuinely supportive of working on reforms.
“When we are talking about police reform, and if that is the objective we want to move toward, then we have to look at what are the current police responsibilities and how do we identify which responsibilities can be culled from the police department, who else is going to take it up, how that transition will happen seamlessly without hurting anybody in the process,” she said.
On Monday, council received correspondence from the police board outlining its position on the budget, as well as an overview of initiatives it’s undertaking in 2021 related to police reform. These include: completing a review on the use and deployment of police equipment and weapons; engaging with the provincial government on alternative models for addressing crisis health management; researching police reforms occurring in other parts of North America; and retaining an external consultant or agency to review how the NWPD is deploying its resources – including an analysis of services now performed by police but could be de-prioritized or transferred to appropriate community agencies.
The New Westminster Police Department’s 2021 budget includes inflationary costs related to negotiated wage and benefit increases, as well as funding enhancements that will support the diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism framework that’s being developed for the city and NWPD and will provide police with personal protective equipment and naloxone.
Coun. Mary Trentadue said she would have hoped the police board would have presented council with “a really concrete work plan” about how to make some of the changes that were included in its July 2020 motions on police reform. She also expressed concern about the police board’s reference to putting forward a “status quo” budget.
“In my mind, that means way more than just numbers,” she said. “It’s about continuing with the status quo of how we do policing in this community.”
Coun. Nadine Nakagawa said the police department, the police board, city council and staff and the community acknowledge there needs to be a shift to a new model that cares for the most vulnerable members of society. She said the police department’s budget provides the city with an opportunity to push for change and she believes cities have a “powerful” message to share with the province about the need for a better system.
“I think that we can continue to work with the police board to work toward these changes, even if we were to reject this budget,” she said. “I think that sending it back to the province … somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose on paper here. But I think putting it back to the province is where it belongs. They need to engage with us on this work and they need to engage more deeply with communities, cities and police boards on this work in a really meaningful way.”
Cote, who also chairs the police board, said the choice of the words ‘status quo’ in the police budget wasn’t meant to be a trigger or to be misinterpreted as if the board supports leaving things just the way they are, but to indicate the budget increase wasn’t proposed to grow the police department, as most of the budget increases were due to inflation and enhancements supported by council.
Cote said the police board understands council has a strong desire to pursue police reform and wants to collaborate with the city on those initiatives. He said a series of motions adopted by the board in 2020 provide a good framework for that “difficult and important” work.
“The feeling from the police board was we want to engage in that conversation but we feel uncomfortable reducing the resources for the police unless we have a good understating of what that model is and how those matters will be taken care of, and people will be taken care of in the community,” he said. “There’s also a really important conversation to include the provincial government. Although there are things that we can do locally here on our police board and with our own police department, I think we need to recognize this issue is bigger than a local City of New Westminster issue.”
Cote said the provincial government is engaging in that work this year and is expected to provide recommendations in October. He said it’s expected the review will consider the Police Act, the Mental Health Act and all the ways that the provincial government engages in policing in the province.
A lot of the work currently done by the NWPD has “fallen upon police” through the decades and should probably handled by a different model, as there may be other professionals that can deal with a lot of the types of calls that currently land with the police, cote said.
“Regardless of council’s decision regarding the budget related to this, I think the police board remains committed to the work and the motions we have done related to police reforms and remains committed to working collaboratively with council on that work and wants to do that regardless on the outcome and what will transpire related to this here,” he said. “Hopefully we will be able to work together and this time next year be able to actually have some real concrete and important work that we can stand behind.”
Avoiding dispute resolution
In December, councillors Patrick Johnstone and Jaimie McEvoy joined Nakagawa and Trentadue in supporting the motion asking the police board to bring forward a 0% budget. On Monday, they voted to support the 2.9% budget, rather than having the NWPD’s budget held up in a dispute resolution process with the province. (The BC Police Act includes a dispute mechanism that must be followed if council is not in agreement with the police board’s budget.)
“The question I am asking myself is: really what is beneficial in terms of going forward here? I think that having our staff work on that, having the focus be on that instead of what we could be doing in our city and the leadership we could be providing to this process in our city isn’t the most desirable option,” McEvoy said. “And I think the community wants to have a discussion and the community wants to be part of that discussion. I don’t want to short-circuit that, and I don’t want to focus it on conflict in the community.”
Johnstone said he doesn’t want to spend the next four months having a dispute over this budget gap instead of actually starting on work related to police reform.
“I have a feeling we would end up in a dispute mechanism that will get us back to where we will be if we just move this resolution today. I am not satisfied by that,” he said. “I don’t think that is the best solution to where we are but I think that is the solution that serves us best. It allows us to get the work done that has to happen.”
On Monday, council voted five-to-two in favour of McEvoy’s amendment to ask the police board to adopt an action plan that includes short-term actions that can be taken related to police reform.