Council rejects call to slash police budget

Prince Albert city council rejected a call from a group of Prince Albert residents to never again vote for an increase to the Prince Albert Police Services budget.

The group also asked council to cut a minimum of $750,000 from the current Prince Albert Police Service budget, and prioritise community-led health and safety initiatives that are separate from the police department.

The requests came in a letter signed by 23 Prince Albert residents. They argued that investing in body cameras, civilian review, de-escalation tactics and implicit bias training doesn’t work, and urged council to initiate programs that reduce police violence against marginalized people, with the eventual goal of abolishing the police and prisons, and truly decolonizing Prince Albert.

“Instead of investing in the police, our city must prioritize alternatives like education, increased mental health services, housing initiatives, free transit, income security, harm-reduction services, accessible rehabilitation, arts and culture programs, social workers, conflict resolution services, transformative justice and other vital community-based support programs,” the letter reads. “Reconciliation and decolonization begin here.”

Mayor Greg Dionne said it’s unlikely council will reduce the police budget, since most Prince Albert residents want more police funding, not less. However, he also said more police are not the answer. Saskatchewan needs more investment in things like mental health, addictions counselling and low-income housing, but the City of Prince Albert doesn’t have the funds to address those issues alone.

“People want to feel safe in their own homes. Do we need more policeman? Yes, we do, but do we need as many as the public thinks? No, we don’t,” Dionne said after Monday’s meeting. “If the province would deal with mental health that would bring our calls down. If the province would deal with the homeless that would bring our calls down, so it’s (about) working with your partners and convincing them that they have to do their part and do a better job, because that’s how you’re going to bring your calls down.”

Prince Albert police responded to more than 37,000 calls for service in 2019. Police say that number is comparable with what’s commonly seen in communities of 100,000 people.

Dionne said the provincial and federal governments are the only ones with the resources to support those areas. He said the City always brings up the issue when provincial cabinet ministers visit Prince Albert, but acknowledges it will take significant resources to address the issue.

“It’s not just a PA problem,” he said.

Council voted 7-2 against sending forwarding the letter to the 2021 budget deliberations committee.

Couns. Terra Lennox-Zepp and Dennis Nowoselsky were the two dissenters. Lennox-Zepp said council needs to considered whether or not police funds could be spend more efficiently. She asked council to consider whether crisis workers could assist police officers, and perhaps respond to certain types of calls in a more productive way. She said this would allow the City to divert those funds to other important areas.

“Other municipalities in Canada do get into … subsidized housing programs,” Lennox-Zepp said. “They have mental health programs. They’re much larger cities than we are … but there are templates out there where cities do that.”

Nowoselsky said the issue was a personal one for him, since his son assists police in Calgary as a mental health officer. He hoped that some of the issues raised in the letter were already being dealt with, and if not, argued the city should take the initiative.

“I should hope some of this has at least started to happen right now, and if we need to negotiate with other levels of government, that it is being done,” he said during the meeting.

Most city councillors flatly rejected the proposal. Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick said other levels of government had deeper pockets, and could offer more support in areas like mental health and homelessness. He said he agrees with much of what is in the letter, but argued the city can’t support those projects on its own.

Coun. Evert Botha said he didn’t object to seeing if the City could spend its money in a more efficient way. He said the urgency of the need should be communicated to the provincial and federal governments, and recommended strong partnerships with local organizations before cutting the police budget.

“I don’t begrudge our police women and men in uniform the wages they are paid for doing the work that they do putting themselves in harm’s way,” Botha said.

Coun. Blake Edwards said his constituents have no appetite for a police budget decrease. Most of them, he told council, actually want more police officers on the streets.

He also rejected the idea that hiring crisis workers or counselors would lead to fewer police officers, since it would be foolish to send a support worker to a call without at least one police officer as backup.

“A lot of times it escalates into violence, and violence needs to be controlled by trained people,” he said. “Crisis negotiators are trained to talk down people, but someone on substances cannot often be talked down. Therefore, you best be going with a police officer, so it certainly doesn’t reduce our police work.”