Calls to defund Vancouver Police Department have been steadily growing online over the last week, with petitions and social media campaigns demanding that the City of Vancouver reallocate the current budget.
Activists and community members have been actively circulating information about defunding, but the concept is not entirely new to Vancouver.
In 2019, the Carnegie Community Action Project, Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, Pivot Legal Society, and the “Our Homes Can’t Wait” campaign put a public call to action out ahead of the last city council budget for 2020.
Meenakshi Mannoe, a registered social worker and criminalization and policing campaigner with Pivot Legal Society, spoke to Daily Hive about what defunding police would actually look like, and why she says “people feel over-policed and under-protected.”
According to Mannoe, the work around defunding the VPD is apart of the campaign started last year, by groups primarily based in the Downtown Eastside, to simply freeze a 5.2% increase to the police budget in the 2020 overall budget.
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Currently, the VPD budget for 2020 totals $314 million.
According to Mannoe, many of the people served by Pivot Legal Society, do not feel protected by police.
“We see that police are receiving over one-fifth of the city’s operating budget,” she said.
“Yet from Pivot’s work, which is with folks who are overrepresented in police interactions, specifically people who experience mental health issues, who use substances, who experience homelessness, or who work in informal economies like sex work, street-based vending — their needs are not being met by police.”
She says, that instead, interactions with police directly undermine their health and safety.
Black Lives Matter Vancouver outlined similar concerns in a list of demands made to the City, which include:
- The City of Vancouver must redirect financial resources from the VPD towards initiatives that demonstrably support long-term community safety, including child care support, education, comprehensive mental health intervention, and social support, local restorative justice services, employment programs, access to recreational facilities, community directed public investment, peer-based programming, culturally led policies, and more.
- The City of Vancouver must commit to improving social conditions across the city with a commitment to the goal of eventually abolishing police and prisons.
- The City of Vancouver must condemn the actions taken by colonial police forces with respect to silencing and violently suppressing Black voices and demands for systemic change.
- The City must address the past and current harms that the destruction of the Hogan’s Alley neighbourhood has caused Black and Indigenous people and other marginalized communities of colour.
In describing what this change would look like, Mannoe says that in the absence of police protection, many vulnerable communities have taken on steps to keep themselves safe.
“Specifically, communities of drug users, who have formed drug user unions, or who have also spearheaded things like peer-witnessing in the overdose crisis,” said Mannoe.
“I’m also thinking of how sex workers have created bad date lists, where they inform each other about clients who are dangerous or violent, and again, in recognition that even when people do report violence to the police, its often not taken seriously, or not followed up depending on the complainant’s identity.”
Mannoe says that people are calling for peer-led supports, to step in where police forces often fail vulnerable communities.
“I think police response to people in crises also represents the abysmal funding for mental health services, for trauma-based services,” she added.
“We see that the police are really the only ones who are funded to respond. Structurally, because of mental health legislation, they are the only ones able to apprehend people in the community, but there’s a major systemic issue around access to safe, culturally responsive mental health care, and that has been defunded, while policing budgets have increased.”
She says if the VPD’s budget continues to increase, it could have negative consequences for those who are consistently over-policed.
“If that were to continue, we’d see increasing austerity measures enforced. People are calling for increased peer-based services, people are calling for increases to income assistance rates, people are calling for safe working conditions, and specifically thinking of sex workers, and yet if the only budget that’s growing is that of police, we are not able to fund those other interventions,” Mannoe added.
“When we’re talking about defunding VPD, it allows us to imagine and open up funding for other services that would actually meet the needs of communities, and it’s vital that people also pressure all levels of government and not just elected city councillors.”
A motion was approved by Vancouver City Council on May 13, 2020, calling for a 1% reduction to the VPD operating budget for 2020 as a result of COVID-19.
“The VPD’s budget represents 21% of the total operating budget for the City of Vancouver; excluding utility fees that are not available to fund other services, 27% of the City’s revenue is allocated to the VPD,” says an information bulletin from the city.
“The motion also calls for the VPD to pursue collective agreements that provide for 0% compensation increases for 2020. VPD’s operating budget includes a contingency for costs associated with a 2% increase in compensation, which would be available for reallocation as savings without an impact on the department’s operations.”
In response to the motion, the Finance Committee Chair of the Vancouver Police Board wrote to Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, strongly opposing the cut to the budget.
“Any discussion of reducing the VPD’s operating budget would translate directly into service cuts, which would have a detrimental effect on public safety, in particular during a time of crisis such as this,” said Finance Committee Chair Barj Dhahan.
The VPD says they are aware of calls for defunding, but they say their specialized training is important for public safety.
“As the frontline public safety response, police are required to step in 24/7 when no other help is available,” said VPD Const. Tania Visintin in a statement to Daily Hive.
“This means that officers are routinely trying to find solutions for people in crisis where significant gaps in other services exist and long-term solutions are simply not available.”
According to Visintin, these gaps exist across the county.
“Services for mental health, homelessness, and substance use are woefully lacking. Police leaders share this concern and also advocate for better support and proper resources for people in need,” she added.
She says the proper discussions are needed in order to keep safety front of mind.
“Our officers are trained in a number of situations, so we aren’t willing to give up a level of public safety we provide without the proper discussions,” added Visintin.
“We want to make sure that public safety is not jeopardized and citizens will remain receiving the services they need. Having said that, we have to pay attention to what people in the community are telling us and we are open to discussions and ways to address issues of change.”
Instead, she says VPD advocates for community partnerships, “so people in need get the help they need.”
Three things Visintin noted include:
- Car 87/88: A plain-clothes constable teams up with a registered nurse or a registered psychiatric nurse to provide on-site assessments and intervention for people living with mental illness
- Assertive Outreach Team: “Another health care and police partnership unique to Vancouver. This program serves to stabilize high-risk clients and transition them to the appropriate level of care in the system.”
- Assertive Community Treatment: provides long term tertiary level care to clients in the community. The ACT program is one police officer engaged with five ACT teams who serve 350 clients in the community.
According to Mannoe, however, the police force is “not aligned with public opinion.”
“Of course if you talk to police forces, they’re going to say that they have a vital role to play, and that they are the only ones who are equipped to respond to crises — any sort of crisis –and that’s where I think we need to see action from elected officials as well to recognize that people are not calling for more policing, people are calling for peer-led supports.”
According to the City of Vancouver, Mayor Stewart will be making an announcement related to policing on Thursday.