We had a full Council meeting on Monday, with several important topics on the agenda, But I am really busy his week, and I want to write about this one first and separately, because it seems to have caught a little media attention, and wouldn’t hurt from a more detailed discussion.
Before I start, I want to do one of my regular reminders that this blog is, as always, my personal opinion, and not official City communications. There are a spectrum of opinions on Council about this, and we have had a few split votes, so I don’t want anyone to think I am providing an official position of council, or that I am speaking for my Council colleagues. I respect where my colleagues are coming from here, this is a difficult topic, and will try really hard to avoid putting word in their mouths. There is a video available if you want to hear the full discussion.
New Westminster Municipal Police Board letter dated January 25, 2021 regarding New Westminster Police Department 2021 Budget
The Police Board has replied to Council’s previous request that they review their enhancement requests and revise the budget increase requested for 2021. They have replied with the assertion that the requested 2.9% increase is inflationary and does not support increasing police services, but maintains the status quo as far as service levels. That is an unfortunate turn of phrase, because the entire point of this discussion is that status quo needs to be challenged, but I don’t want to get mired in pedantry.
I’ve written previously in this post and this post about the jurisdictional challenges here. In short, Council has no authority to direct how police do their work, or even how they allocate their budget, that is the job of the Police Board. Council are required by law to approve a budget. If we do not approve the one offered by the Police Board, then the Minister of Public Safety is asked to adjudicate. In the past when Councils have not agreed with Police Board requests, the Minister has always sided with the Police Board. We know where this was going.
I had honestly hoped that the Police Board would come back to us with an adjusted budget, or a more detailed explanation of where their specific budget pressures are. They did not really do that. They did make it clear, however, that this was the budget they were offering. It did not include all of the enhancements (which is the term we use in municipal budgeting for “things we want to do/pay for this year that we didn’t do/pay for last year”) they were originally looking for when the budget process began, but it similarly did not represent an increase in service levels. It effectively equaled an inflation adjustment over last year. It is hard for me to challenge this, as one of the uncertainties I feel on Council is that the scale and nature of the Police budget is not as transparent to us or the voting public as most the rest of the City budget. This is by design of the Police Act, and it is troubling.
For those so interested, there is more information about the budget available in the Police Board agenda, which you can read here: (the “package” is the agenda with the attached reports and police budget tables).
If you read the correspondence between the Police Board and Council here, it seems we agree on a few principles. The Police Board acknowledges that aspects of the services they currently provide may be better provided by a non-policing model, and if you draw a Venn diagram of how this overlaps with “Police Reform”, it certainly wouldn’t be a circle. However, The Police Board strongly feels that until those alternative delivery models are in place, they cannot responsibly suspend, or in any way reduce, the current delivery model. This puts us in a chicken-and-egg quandary, as there is currently no one with the jurisdiction, resources, and willingness to bring those delivery models into place. So it could seem we are stuck.
Ultimately, change is going to require the Police Board to resource some review of their internal operations. It is going to require Local Governments to identify how their residents want services delivered, and potentially to see what services the Local Government can deliver and fund though alternative models. Mostly, it is going to require the Provincial Government to reform the Police Act, and to resource the Health Authorities, the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, and potentially other agencies to deliver their resources differently. This is going to take coordination, and cooperation.
The good news is that everyone is signaling that they want to do this. The New West Police Board has sent us some more details about their plan to begin addressing this process. It isn’t perfect, but it is clear in its intent. The Provincial Government has also begun to work on a Police Act reform consultation, and the City of New Westminster has made it clear to them that we want in at the ground floor on those discussions – we are the right City to be in the center of this, with our own Police Force, a very proactive group of community service agencies, and all partners willing to see change.
So, to get back to the decision before Council, the options now were to approve the budget presented by the Police Board or not. There is no mandate for negotiation. As much as I want to push for systemic changes that the Board is alluding to, that Council and the public have asked for, and that may arise from the provincial Police Act review, I am not sure these ends are served by the Police Board spending the next few months engaging in a Provincial Government appeal process to get their budget approved. This feels like time wasted when it seems certain the Province will deliver the budget the Police Board requests. There may be a message to be sent by forcing the Public Safety Minister to issue that order, but I think we have other pathways to send that message, including two new MLAs who are in a caucus with that Minister and are itching to represent New Westminster in Victoria.
So I voted to support the budget as proposed, and supported Councillor McEvoy’s follow-up motion to call on the Police Board to be more proactive in engaging with Council and the Community in the work we all agree needs to be done. I hope we can use our time more effectively rowing in the same direction, and I expect the Police Board to be accountable to the community they serve for the commitments they have made to the community along with asking for this maintaining budget.