By Margaret Spratt
‘Defund the police’ is a rallying cry that grew louder and louder as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement swept across the globe in 2020.
BLM is a response to deaths and violence at the hands of police. Since then, some are imagining what society would look like without police presence — and if police funding was diverted to other services like health, education and social welfare concerns.
But taking money away from the police service isn’t that simple.
The 2022 Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) budget is $320 million, which is 27 per cent of the city’s total annual operating budget. This is up by around $9 million from 2021— and most of it goes towards WPS salaries and benefits.
Police Chief Danny Smyth was the highest-paid city employee in 2020, according to an annual compensation disclosure report. Smyth made $291,834 in 2020, which is up by $20,000 from 2019. Mayor Brian Bowman earned $204,449.
A major factor of the increase in police compensation in Winnipeg is the contract that the city negotiates (or, is drawn up through binding arbitration) with the Winnipeg Police Association (WPA) — the union for rank-and-file police members. Senior officers (ranking Inspectors or higher) have their own bargaining unit, the Winnipeg Police Senior Officers Association.
The WPA is a politically influential entity in city politics, experts say. Former mayor Sam Katz, for example, routinely saw the WPA’s endorsement during elections.
“Police have unions and they’re incredibly powerful in municipal politics,” said Kevin Walby, an associate professor for Criminal Justice at the University of Winnipeg.
“They’re a self-serving entity,” Walby said. “Their union heads are constantly in the news and on the radio, putting forward a specific political view about increasing police funding,” he said.
The police union doesn’t see the bigger picture of municipal politics and municipal budgets, Walby believes. In 10 or 20 years, as the budget potentially continues to rise from 27 to 40 per cent of the city’s total operating budget, running the city into bankruptcy could become a very real possibility, Walby added.
“People need to think about the way we address conflict and harm and transgression in our society differently,” Walby said. “We’re so used to offloading the responsibility onto police, and we basically give them whatever kind of budget they want.”
At the same time, the WPA has pushed in recent years for the service to improve workplace conditions for its members, and spearheaded a study, released in 2021, that found “serious challenges” inside the WPS.
“There are growing morale challenges facing our members and serious workplace issues throughout the service. Certainly, the COVID-19 pandemic is a mitigating factor, but it is clear the roots of these problems go back five years or more,” WPA President Moe Sabourin said in a press release upon the release of the study.
Local abolitionist voices gain prominence
There’s been a rise in recent years of voices in Winnipeg calling for drastic police reform — even total abolition.
Winnipeg Police Cause Harm is one of them. The group formed shortly after the BLM protests in 2020. Like Walby, they want to redirect the money from the WPS budget back into Winnipeg communities.
“Things like housing, harm reduction, food security, nonviolent crisis response, and all sorts of things,” said James Wilt, a member.
Wilt urged that Manitobans should think about this issue when filling out their ballots at the upcoming 2022 civic election.
“Voters should care because policing is not a neutral institution — It’s an institution that creates enormous harm against a lot of people,” Wilt said.
Recent ‘police funding model review’ nets status quo
The city asked for Winnipeggers’ feedback in a survey presenting some ideas to make the police budget’s growth in coming years more sustainable. Staff presented five funding model proposals — all of which would still ultimately increase the police budget. The initiative was panned by some as ineffective.
The funding proposals were:
- Status-quo: the model currently used.
- Inflation increase: the budget would increase based on inflation.
- Modified inflation: the budget would increase based on inflation, without including wages and benefits which would be determined by wage and benefit agreements.
- Public safety levy: the same as the modified inflation option, with a levy on property taxes to cover police wages and benefits.
- Share of tax revenue growth: this would lower the budget by $5.6 million, but it would still be increasing annually.
None of these ideas include lowering the overall budget, let alone defunding the service.
City hall has also in recent months been embroiled in arguments over police oversight and funding which have spilled out into the public sphere.
Conversations about the police budget should include some discussion of the efficacy of police funding, regardless of total cost. Winnipeg has incredibly expensive police BUT ALSO terrible crime rates. So not only are we paying too much, we’re simultaneously getting too little. Even fiscal conservatives (who normally rally around the police) should have some consistency and look into reforming the police to improve the things they claim to care about, such as efficiency, return on investment, protecting the public purse…etc. It’s not just that we’re spending too much, we’re spending it badly… and the only solution given is to spend more. Maybe if we get conservatives to the table, using their own convictions as leverage, we could make some progress on this budget issue.