Kieran West’s arms are covered in tattoos. From roses to his childhood dog’s nametag and the Los Angeles Dodgers logo. He’s a walking art gallery.
One of them is ‘Milo,’ the nerdy mascot of a ‘70s rock band called the Descendents.
“The music I listened to growing up was completely influential,” said West, 29. “I think the music I listened to turned me into a radical.”
Because of that influence growing up, West said has adopted strong views about police forces and how they’re funded, including the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) in his hometown.
As well as a student at the University of Winnipeg, West has now been an educational assistant in a school division for eight years.
“I definitely grew up with a lot of misunderstandings around race and racism, because I grew up in a very sheltered way,” said West. “But I never struggled with relinquishing those things I grew up with and recognizing I have a massive amount of societal privilege.”
Along with that, West worries money currently spent on police officers in schools is robbing students of needed resources.
The 2022 Winnipeg Police Service budget was set at $320 million — 26.8 per cent of Winnipeg’s annual operating budget. It’s currently forecasted to spend $7 million more this year than projected, according to the Winnipeg Police Service 2022 Second Quarter Financial Report.
Salaries and benefits make up 88 per cent of the cash, according to WPS financial reports.
That’s causing some to question, even condemn, how much room the police take up in the city’s overall financial picture.
‘They’ve had all the money in the world for the last 40 years’
Kevin Walby is an associate professor at the University of Winnipeg in the Department of Criminal Justice and has written about the WPS budget in books and papers.
“The police have had reforms and they’ve had extra training. They’ve had all the money in the world for the last 40 years and it hasn’t changed anything about this institution,” said Walby.
The 2020-2023 preliminary budget proposed a 2 per cent annual increase to the budget from $289 million in 2019 to over $313 million by 2023, according to the City of Winnipeg.
He thinks there are lots of grassroots, community-based groups with specialties in mental health and addictions that could work more effectively and be cost-efficient.
The 2022 budget has already exceeded the anticipated $313 million budget for next year by four per cent.
In a recent series, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives laid out how city hall’s tax policies, over time, have led to a financial crunch. While spending on emergency services has grown, dollar-for-dollar spending on social amenities like libraries, recreation and parks has declined — in some cases, significantly, since 2008.
Negative perceptions of police in schools, EA says
Through West’s work as an EA, he’s heard straight talk from students about School Resource Officers (SRO), a program that sees police work inside select city schools.
“The only kids I’ve ever spoken about the school resource officers have had negative things to say,” said West. “They don’t like police in their schools.”
The SRO program supports the WPS Constables at all school levels and “provides support to the school community as a whole, which includes students, parents, school staff and administrators,” according to Public Safety Canada.
Police-Free Schools Winnipeg is an advocacy group of parents, students and teachers wanting schools without police involvement.
West thinks the money spent on SROs should be put toward other programs that students can benefit from.
“It should be used to fund breakfast programs but be available to all students and they’re currently not,” West said.
‘Kids don’t trust the police,’ criminal justice expert says
Walby says the police like to create these kinds of positions and the idea they’re necessary for safety.
“The kids don’t trust the police,” said Walby. “They feel like they’re under surveillance.”
On Oct. 5, 2022, researcher Fadi Ennab released a study partnering with Police-Free Schools Winnipeg.
The presence of police in schools generated feelings of fear and intimidation for Indigenous and Black families, said the study.
Walby says there are alternatives to the SRO program, but they need to be funded.
“If you divert the funds, there are resources to fund the community instead of the institution,” said Walby.
In Ennab’s research, some participants felt police in schools can protect students and build relationships with them. They were seen as being more convenient than calling 911 or the non- emergency line.
‘No return on investment,’ prof says of police spending
Walby suggests residents need to look at the investment put into the WPS as they get ready to head to the polls on Oct. 26.
“I would like for Winnipeggers, leading up to the election, to think about why we prioritize policing when we almost get no return on the investment that we put money into,” Walby said.
West wants to stay in Winnipeg, despite his strong feelings about police.
He remembers growing up in Osborne Village and being able to walk with his friends at night, which isn’t the case anymore.
West, who has a nine-month-old son named Isaiah, doesn’t want to fear his son’s future activities.
“I want my son to grow up in a city where he feels like he can walk around at night, and I’m not going to be terrified imagining where he is and what he’s doing,” West said.
“Our city is falling apart in a lot of ways and the police are directly responsible for a lot of it,” says West.
In the upcoming civic election, few candidates are committed to outright cutting the WPS budget. Rana Bokhari has pledged to cut it by 10 per cent and allocate that money to a new social services budget.
Rick Shone and Robert-Falcon Ouellette have promised to freeze police spending.
Kevin Klein, Scott Gillingham, Jenny Motkaluk, Chris Clacio, Shaun Loney, Glen Murray, Idris Ademuyiwa Adelakun and Don Woodstock are also running for mayor.
Winnipeg Better has published voters’ guides for all the mayoral candidates — in them you can find the candidates pledges on how they pledge to deal with police funding. The guides are located here, or from the site’s main page.
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Edit, Oct. 18 12 p.m. for clarity