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In the month they’ve been in office, Vancouver’s new city councillors have promised at least $8 million dollars more to the Vancouver Police Department.
The ABC party swept into power on the back of promises to fund 100 new police officers and 100 new mental health nurses for the mental health response unit Car 87/88, which Mayor Ken Sim said would “combat the public safety and mental health crisis.”
But local advocates told the Straight that pouring more money into the police force doesn’t necessarily fix the problems it intends to.
For one thing, it could mean budget cuts to other areas that may have knock-on effects.
Spencer Powell, a keen City Hall watcher since 2019, recently caused a stir online when he highlighted how Sim had asked a Vancouver Public Library (VPL) representative whether they had considered “potential revenue opportunities” during a council meeting. Powell said the comment set off “a big red alarm” for him.
He suggested in a tweet that Sim’s comments implied that ABC wanted libraries to charge for basic services. He has since deleted that tweet for giving an inaccurate impression, but said his point was that ABC was speaking the language of budget cuts.
“That’s the kind of talk when you’re looking to privatize or otherwise offload funding sources from the city, from a department that should be fully funded by the city, on[to] other private services,” he told the Straight.
Powell’s comments caught the attention of freshman ABC Coun. Mike Klassen, who invited him to meet one-on-one with him and discuss his concerns on December 16. Powell said the invitation was “very confusing.”
“I’ve spoken to people from the VPL, who can’t get an appointment,” he said. As the accidental representative of public services, he said he intended to gather information from “frontline employees to find out what their complaints are, and how hard it is actually doing their jobs with the shoestring budgets they have now.”
The VPL does a lot of public good, Powell said, and freezing their funding could create problems.
“VPL branches are some of the few that low-income people can actually access and go to and get online services, get a break from the heat or the cold. These are really valuable community services,” he said.
“The fact that we’re casually considering either freezing their budget, or in the extreme cutting it … is super concerning.”
An unclear budget
It is currently unclear what Vancouver’s budget will look like in 2023, as the city has approved the capital budget (which funds things like ongoing plans, community strategies, and infrastructure projects) but voted to defer the operating budget until next year.
The former motion, tabled by Coun. Lisa Dominato, also includes $8 million to Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) to hire 100 “mental health nurses.” The motion originally proposed $4.5 million for police and $1.5 million for nurses, and was amended upwards during council discussion. The program is expected to cost the city $20 million per year.
The police department, meanwhile, has submitted a 2023 budget of $383 million—$38.5 million or 11.2 per cent higher than 2022. It pegs the cost of hiring 100 new officers (and 20 new civilian staff) at $15.7 million, and a body-cam pilot at $200,000.
City staff told the Straight they did not know whether the council’s $8 million motion was included within, or separate to the VPD’s $15.7 million ask. Dominato did not respond to a request for clarification before publication.
Cities are provincially mandated not to run deficits, and generally raise revenue through property taxes or user fees. The 2023 operating budget currently forecasts a property tax increase of five per cent to fund city spending, but notes that could increase to seven per cent if the police budget rises.
During the municipal election, Sim had claimed that hiring 100 new cops and 100 new nurses would not result in additional tax increases.
“The City, not including VPD, continues to operate with vacancies and reduced discretionary spending as part of budget mitigations that started during the pandemic,” the city’s director of finance, Colin Knight, noted in the budget.
The VPD accounts for 20 per cent of the city’s proposed 2023 budget. It’s the second largest expenditure after utilities, and the same as the total cost of the community-related services budget (which includes parks, arts and community services, libraries, development, and sustainability).
ABC has some noted connections to the VPD. First-term councillor Brian Montague is a 28-year VPD veteran, two-term councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung is married to a police officer, and the Vancouver Police Union endorsed Sim during the municipal elections.
“It’s very confusing how [the council] can summon $16 million out of the ether,” Powell said. “It’s going to be a story of departments coming cap in hand begging for money, when a lot of that has already been assigned to the city’s number one biggest and best-budgeted department already.”
Police and mental health
Fraser MacPherson is a registered nurse who works in primary care clinics and with unhoused people, people who use drugs, and people with complex mental or physical health issues. They told the Straight that they weren’t convinced expanding Car 87/88 was the best way to address problems with public safety or mental health.
“There’s no research or studies that have been done that show that when cops and nurses work together, that it improves outcomes for patients or clients, or that it improves safety for nurses or health-care staff, or that it reduces the violence that people are subjected to by police,” he said.
Car 87/88 has long wait times and does not respond to emergency calls. Even if the program increases that response time with the proposed new staff, and works as intended to help connect vulnerable people in crisis to mental health services, those mental health services may not help.
For one, staff shortages means there aren’t enough health-care workers to provide follow-up care; for another, mental health services are high-barrier to access in the first place.
“You have to book an appointment, you have to come to your booked appointment. Those things are hard if you don’t have any housing, if you don’t have a phone, you’re not sleeping in the same place every night,” they said.
While the police do provide wellness checks and respond to emergency mental health requests, some research suggests that the budget could be better used in preventing mental health from deteriorating to that point in the first place.
In MacPherson’s experience, “There were so many opportunities for intervention before the police were involved.” Sending cops to an emergency mental health call, even if they’re paired with a nurse, is a band-aid solution that doesn’t tackle the root causes of mental health crises. And increasing that funding to the police means less room in the budget for funding elsewhere.
A recent study into mental health and policing by researchers from Simon Fraser University and Wilfrid Laurier University found that mental health calls to police across Canada had remained relatively static through the pandemic.
“While there were significant concerns regarding police resourcing to address expected increases in [mental health-related] incidents, these concerns may not have been warranted,” the authors wrote. “We might suggest that funding may be better spent on preventative strategies that improve evidence-based predictors of mental health such as housing, basic income, and social services.” Neither researcher was available for further comment before publication.
MacPherson, who organizes with grassroots group Care Not Cops, said peer-funded initiatives would make a big difference to people’s lives. So would lower-barrier health-care services, or more nurses who aren’t tethered to police-run programs, or the expansion of well-funded public services.
Although the proposed increases to the police budget are couched in the language of dealing with mental health problems, he is worried that it won’t actually help those who really need support.
“This council is very pro-criminalization and pro-police, and we know that that harms our most vulnerable neighbours and community members most.”