Dana Larsen: Soaring police costs threaten Vancouver's public events

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      Policing costs for community events have skyrocketed in Vancouver and across Canada, forcing many local events to shut down.

      It's that time of year again. Our annual April 20 4/20 protest is approaching, and with that comes endless headlines about how expensive the event is for Vancouver's overburdened taxpayers. But behind the 4/20 headlines there's a bigger story: about how soaring policing costs are shutting down public events and parades not only in Vancouver, but all across the country.

      Vancouver used to have a fun St. Patrick's Day Parade, but it's been cancelled for the past two years because organizers can't afford to pay the high policing costs for their event. Vancouver used to have fun New Year's Eve event at the art gallery downtown, but it got cancelled because of the rising costs in policing. High policing costs almost killed Vancouver's annual Santa Claus Parade last year; the event was only saved with last-minute support from a major corporate sponsor.

      Vancouver used to have two amazing community events put on by a group called Public Dreams. Its Illuminares Lantern Festival at Trout Lake and its wonderful Halloween costumed community gathering called "The Parade of Lost Souls" were both beloved local traditions in East Vancouver.

      Unfortunately, as these events grew in popularity, the city and police demanded more and more money. Eventually these grassroots community organizers were forced to shut down due to the city demanding they pay "soaring policing, security, and infrastructure costs".

      Vancouver's Pride Parade also struggles with soaring policing bills. In 2010 its entire bill for police, sanitation, transit and park permits was $58,425. By 2016 the bill had more than doubled to $125,000, with the increase almost entirely due to higher policing costs. This unexpected jump in policing costs threatened to bankrupt the Vancouver Pride Society, and ultimately the city decided to forgive $75,000 of the debt from 2016, on top of the $59,000 in subsidies the Pride Society already receives from the city. Without this debt forgiveness, the Vancouver Pride Society would likely have been forced into bankruptcy.

      If the Vancouver Pride Parade, an event whose dozens of corporate sponsors include major brands like TD Bank, Fido, Microsoft, Walmart, and Bud Light, can't survive without substantial subsidies and debt forgiveness from the city, then how can any smaller community event without corporate sponsorship possibly hope to avoid to keep up with soaring police costs?

      The Pride parade was nearly put out of business because of rising policing costs.
      Craig Takeuchi

      High police costs is a Canada-wide problem

      This isn't just a problem in Vancouver. Events like Mississauga's Bread and Honey Festival and the Brampton Santa Claus Parade are also under threat of cancellation due soaring policing costs.

      In Edmonton, events like the Pride Parade are also worried about rising costs forcing them to shut down. Every police officer at a public event in Edmonton receives double-time pay, plus a 30 percent "administrative charge" on top of that. Like other cities, the police make their own decisions about how many officers they send to public events.

      Event organizers have no voice in the decision, but they're often expected to foot the entire policing bill, no questions asked. The Edmonton Journal wrote a passionate editorial, saying "city costs shouldn't put festivals out of business" and declaring that popular civic events "are as much a part of the fabric of this city as its museums, libraries and sports venues".

      Yet while soaring city fees, mostly policing costs, are crushing grassroots public events, cities seem more inclined to throw much larger sums of money at elite sporting events. For example, in 2016 Edmonton had a budget of just $1.7 million to help put on all 49 of the city's local community events and festivals. Yet the city has no problem spending $1.2 million on the ITU World Triathlon, or another $1.2 million on FISE, the Festival International des Sports Extrêmes.

      Just to cite one easy example in Vancouver, the city was happy to spend $1.2 million on a two-week all-ages beer garden downtown for 5,000 people to watch the FIFA Women's World Cup. The cost of this one event would have covered the combined policing costs for Pride, 4/20, the St Patrick's Day Parade, and the two Public Dreams festivals for a five year period.

      However, the real city subsidy in Vancouver is to the bars and pubs on the Granville strip. Every year, Vancouver spends well over a million dollars in additional policing for just the Granville strip alone. Again, that's about five times the combined cost of Pride, 4/20, the cancelled St Patrick's Day Parade, and the two cancelled Public Dreams festivals. The pubs on the strip that sell the booze don't pay any of that policing cost. How does this make any sense?

      There needs to be a better way. Either policing costs have to come down, or we need to accept that policing is a basic civic service, and that the policing cost of public events should be covered by the city as standard practice. The current system of shutting down some popular events, cancelling the unpayable debt for others, and then just writing off policing costs for others, really makes no sense, and needs to be fixed as soon as possible.

      Dana Larsen is an organizer of the annual 4/20 protest and festival in Vancouver.

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