Defund Winnipeg police to fund social and community needs

By Cam Scott 

As the Executive Policy Committee of Winnipeg’s City Council rushes to pass its 2021 budget, it’s hard not to see this document as a direct rebuke to community health and a show of deadly complacency against a growing social movement to defund the police. This movement extends in two important and related directions – against the active role and behaviour of the Winnipeg Police Service, and against the ongoing and deepening depletion of funds for essential services throughout the city, while the police budget only grows.

This dynamic – of overfunded security forces and underfunded communities – is too typical. Police-Free Schools Winnipeg has been talking about this for months, where Winnipeg School Division alone spends almost half a million dollars on nine armed police officers, while scrambling for substitute teachers, remote learning resources and protective equipment in a pandemic. Schools cut back on nurses, a necessity for student health, whilst investing in the appearance of safety. This is to say nothing of the direct, negative impacts of police presence on racialized, newcomer, low-income and disabled students. The Police-Free Schools Winnipeg campaign commenced from the acute reality and firsthand experience of funding shortfalls in classrooms, while police budget and presence expand with enthusiastic approval from city council.

The City of Winnipeg’s Preliminary 2021 Budget boasts record investments in police, increasing the police budget by 2 percent annually to $312.4 million by 2023. This transpires against the backdrop of record engagement from constituents, half of which ranked the police as a low priority. This is unsurprising, given the state of our city. Police presence feels ubiquitous in a downtown marred by real estate development and displacement. This presence is aerialized, in the form of a helicopter that costs thousands of dollars per flight. I don’t know a working person in the West End of Winnipeg who hasn’t complained about the impact of this costly surveillance on their sleep and health. This police presence is militarized in the form of a $350,000 armoured vehicle that was purchased without oversight or authorization from the police board, whose members were notified only after the fact.

The benefits of police bloating and overreach aren’t clear; but the drawbacks are manifestly so. This budget increase comes against the backdrop of a year of mass resistance to killings and profiling by the police. This wasn’t only in response to the killing of George Floyd in the United States, but the reality on the ground here, where violence against Black and Indigenous people is routinized. In April 2020, the Winnipeg Police Service shot and killed three Indigenous people in the span of ten days. As we remember the names of Eishia Hudson, Jason Collins and Stewart Andrews, we must insist that what the police actually do, and the harm they inflict, should be at the center of any budget conversation. Thousands of Winnipeggers rallied throughout the summer to demand change. None of that concern seems to have registered with city council. We were told, dismissively, that we’d been heard; yet this budget suggests the very opposite.

In early June, responding to the demonstrations organized by Justice 4 Black Lives Winnipeg, Chief Danny Smyth said that “it’s a little bit too early to just say defund the police and forward that all to social services … If you were to just rip a large segment of the budget all at once, then I think you would be putting our environment into a more volatile place than it is now.”

I disagree. I’ve heard firsthand that officers had eerily little to do throughout the months in which CERB was distributed without condition. Improvements in quality of life directly remedy the causes of crime. This is a fairly uncontroversial claim, so I can’t pretend to understand resistance to the suggestion that budgets like Winnipeg’s perpetuate a vicious cycle, where poverty is prosecuted at great social cost, rather than directly and lastingly remedied. We need to think holistically with respect to the very problems that policing purports to address. Again, this is to say nothing of policing as a prejudicial practice in itself, where the majority of those killed and incarcerated by the Winnipeg Police Service are Indigenous, on Indigenous land. Any budgetary discussion must consider community demands for real, substantive racial justice and the harms that police enact daily, or any conversation about police budgets remains hopelessly, even evasively, abstract.

The 2021 Budget does considerably worse than nothing in response to the most pressing concerns of Winnipeggers. Smyth says that “it’s a little bit too early to just say defund the police and forward that all to social services,” but this budget does the flagrant opposite. It proposes to re-fund the police, in a moment where their role is under examination, and truthfully, fails time and again by that closer scrutiny.

Councillor Brian Mayes notes that the Police Board is here to hear “both sides,” those who want defunding and those who want more funding, but this isn’t the sort of debate that you can just average out on the order of several million dollars. We can’t treat this budget as a matter of consumer satisfaction. In Winnipeg, where conservatively 1500 people are sleeping outside at this moment and many more are precariously housed, the city has more or less absolved itself of responsibility for public housing solutions, employing only one staff who might count toward a proper housing division. It’s recommended that a city hire one housing division staff for every one hundred thousand people.

As a city, we’re drastically underfunding the necessary institutions for healthy living, and policing the impacts of this shortfall in the meanwhile. The demand to defund the police isn’t only oppositional, but includes a sweeping recommitment to communities, and a reinvestment in the social good.

Cam Scott is a member of Police-Free Schools Winnipeg. This article is based on a presentation he made to the Winnipeg Police Board in December.

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