Calls for defunding police a hard sell in Peel where 94% of operating budget is committed to wages
On Friday, the Peel Police Services board will face some of its toughest questions in years.
The board will meet for the first time since community voices calling for police reform drew widespread attention, and members will have two incredibly important documents to review.
One is a report from the Peel Regional Police’s finance department describing the potential $2 million shortfall by year’s end as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The other details nearly 100 letters from community members, many of them calling for reform and defunding of the police.
Board members also have to decide on a potential $1.4-million bill to equip all officers with body cameras.
Calls to reform police spending, or a “defunding” of the police, involve shifting public funds that would typically go to police budgets, and putting them into social programs for housing, mental health support, domestic violence prevention, youth engagement and addictions, or services that provide food security and other general wellness initiatives. This “upstream” approach understands that people who are housed, fed, and healthy and happy will be far less likely to need police intervention for the growing list of responsibilities, primarily fighting crime, that forces are currently expected to look after.
A demonstrator carries a sign during a march in Brampton last week.
In the long term, escaping the cycles of poverty, violence and under-employment could dramatically reduce the funding needs for policing, by addressing crime and other contributors to sometimes fatal altercations with police, before these ever occur.
In Peel, and for many police forces across Canada, defunding is close to impossible as the vast majority of police budgets – 94 percent of the operating budget in Peel’s case – is committed to salaries and benefits.
The remaining six percent for PRP’s 2020 operating budget is allocated to new programs, including additional traffic safety blitzes and cyber crime initiatives. So any discussion around reallocating funding from the police to other services, such as mental health supports, can only involve six percent of the current operating budget.
Current labour contracts are not open to renegotiation, and the police services board does not have the power to cut or freeze salaries at its discretion. The provincial government is able to issue an order to freeze public sector salaries, including police, but this would do little to assist with the immediate demands of many in the community as it would not impact existing labour costs, which will eat up $417.4 million this year, out of a total overall budget of $490 million.
For Peel Regional Police 85 percent of its overall budget (94 percent of its operating dollars) go toward labour costs which are tied to fixed contracts.
Capital costs or the amount currently contributed to reserves could be areas from which funds might be redirected away from police, but that would leave little room for expenses such as new police cars, crime-fighting technology, various community programs, enhanced enforcement for issues such as drinking and driving or cannabis-related violations, not to mention infrastructure spending to keep up with the rapid growth of the two cities.
Currently PRP has far fewer officers per capita compared to the national average, which last year sat at 194 officers per 100,000 residents (in Ontario it was about 181) while PRP only had about 140.5 per 100,000 residents in Brampton and Mississauga.
Despite the already low numbers, there is the option of laying off officers, however, one would be hard pressed to find an example of this ever happening in Ontario, aside from disciplinary action. Any reduction in officers, or even a hiring freeze, would be in the face of rapid growth projected for the two cities out to 2041, when Brampton’s population is projected to reach at least 900,000.
The new contract for officers sees a first class constable start at $100,420 representing a 41 percent increase from the $71,400 starting salary in 2006. The deal is backed by the powerful police union, which would undoubtedly fight strongly against any effort to freeze salaries or reduce staff levels.
A staff report for Friday’s board meeting explains how PRP has taken on unexpected costs for health and safety supplies, additional cleaning and personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pushing the deficit deeper, the police force has seen reduced revenue usually derived from record requests – work that has been shut down since March – and prisoner escort transportation.
The initial $2 million deficit can be covered by PRP reserve accounts, the report explains, but only takes into account the first wave of the pandemic. Subsequent waves could push the deficit further into the red.
“It should be noted, a second wave of the pandemic would negatively impact this forecast, including risks related to further revenue reductions,” the report reads.
The financial hit to the police from COVID-19 could be compounded if members of the board decide serious questions need to be asked about the unsustainable rise in the PRP budget over the last 10 years.
The $490 million police budget for 2020 represents a 69 percent increase from the roughly $290 million budget in 2010. If such increases are to continue, it means regional council will be approving a budget of more than $828 million for Peel police by 2030.
The proposed increase for 2020 was driven mainly by $11.9 million in additional labour costs, $2.7 million in “operating and inflationary pressures” and a $2.6 million decrease in provincial grant funding.
To date, small changes have been evident within the Peel Regional Police organization to suggest that the 2021 budget might offer some new approaches under new Chief Nishan Duraiappah, which could establish him as the force’s first progressive leader in decades, after the hardened, traditional stance toward policing exhibited by former chiefs Jennifer Evans and Mike Metcalf.
The new chief had little time to work on the 2020 budget which was mostly set by the time he arrived in the fall, but some of his fingerprints were still seen on the document.
Peel Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah
According to budget forecasts presented to regional council in June of 2019, the police force was projecting a 6.1 percent budget increase for this year. But when the document was approved after Duraiappah’s arrival, the force found approximately $3.1 million in savings. Part of those savings resulted from reducing the number of new officers from a planned 55 new hires to 35, but bringing on more strategic civilian staff, at a lower cost, to address modern crime.
From the very beginning, the new chief has made it clear that reforming Peel Regional Police has been front of mind for him. He walked into a police organization that was one of the worst in the province for police misconduct, and had absolutely shattered its relationship with much of its large visible minority population.
Chief Duraiappah is still sharing his mantra of change, telling The Pointer earlier in the month that progress is happening behind the scenes, but fierce demands for reform arising from recent events have now ramped up the pressure to fix what many believe is a broken approach to funding police.
In a world suffering under a global pandemic, with a surge in Black Lives Matter activism following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and most recently the Peel police fatal shooting of a 62-year-old father of four in Malton, after a wellness call to reportedly address his mental health issues, the demands for police reform are louder than ever in Brampton and Mississauga.
George Floyd's death has prompted demonstrations and calls for action across the world. The graffiti above was seen in Berlin.
When the victim, who reportedly suffered from schizophrenia, was shot and killed by police in Malton over the weekend, the calls for defunding police and the need for improved methods for dealing with those in mental health crisis were swift and are only growing louder.
They have now reached the police services board, where 91 letters, the vast majority telling the board to defund the police and put the money back into the community, will be addressed Friday.
A sampling of requests:
“We need proper action from the Board. I call for the Board to seriously take into consideration defunding of the police department. We as citizens do not find that the money allocated towards the police is protecting our people and therefore need Peel to listen to our suggestions.”
- Farida Ibrahim, Mississauga resident
“We need serious conversations about policing even after this intense political climate. We need to work towards defunding the police and investing in services that actually keep people safe and allow them to thrive. People need secure housing, employment, social services. Not more police.”
- Samuel Yoon
“Defunding the police means imagining a better world for ourselves. Defunding the police (when you think about how we have defunded education, healthcare and many other societal infrastructure) is neither an arbitrary nor impossible idea.”
- Sanna Wani, Mississauga
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie and Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, both of whom sit as members of the police services board, have publicly voiced support for equipping Peel officers with body cams. Beyond that, neither have offered concrete commitments to reform the police budget.
Mayor Crombie, who has been a strong voice for change at the board since she first joined in 2014, offered vague statements about her ideas for the police budget moving forward, saying the 2021 budget process will be viewed through a “different lens”.
“I have been saying publicly that we have to change the mindset to ensure that police have the best supports that they need to maintain and build community trust. But we also have to explore reforming community policing and calling for additional funding from all levels of government to address those very critical issues such as mental health, disability, community safety and really deal with the root causes of crime such as unemployment, housing affordability, addiction,” Crombie said during a press conference Tuesday. “We know law enforcement can’t be the answer to every one of the issues in our community, so we will be looking at the police budget line by line and looking at how policing can be done differently with the goal of community policing and well being… Certainly there are no [easy] answers to these issues.”
With 94 percent of the police operating budget tied up in salary contracts, the calls to defund Peel police have limited weight. The police board has the option of limiting capital spending, but that could lead to a lack of service infrastructure, faulty or outdated equipment and aging vehicles.
Chief Duraiappah has said the solution to this problem lies in the Region’s comprehensive Community Safety and Wellbeing plan under recent requirements by the province.
“That’s the tool that I’ve got at my disposal and what we’re working on at the Region is to pull systems together at the highest level to coordinate services to reduce gaps,” Duraiappah told The Pointer, saying he would advocate for pouring funding into other areas outside the police budget, like housing, “all day long.”
But finding the money is the problem.
“I guess the question is, do you take from one to the other,” he said. “I think theoretically, you can’t immediately do that either until the other ones are set up in a fashion that they are in a position of strength.”
That’s where the Community Safety and Wellbeing Plan comes in. The provincially mandated document is designed to take a holistic approach to fighting crime in municipalities across Ontario. In Peel, the plan will focus heavily on youth crime, and helping Peel’s younger populations avoid paths that could lead them to a life of crime. As these programs become more entrenched, studies have shown cost savings would materialize with them, and as the region saves more money, it bolsters its ability to boost other sectors in need, like the ongoing housing crisis or the drastically underfunded mental health and addictions sector.
According to data from the region, dollars spent on public health initiatives for social development, especially those aimed at youth, yielded more than five-times the original investment through cost-saving in the health system. Other studies have shown that for every $1 spent on programs geared at youth crime prevention and those that promote positive social development, $25 are put back into the local economy.
A statement released by the Police Services Board on Monday says recent events will be taken into account during the tough discussions ahead.
“Over the next few months, the grave impacts of these tragic events will undoubtedly inform the Board’s work on key issues, such as community engagement, strategic planning and the 2021 Budget,” the statement reads. “In collaboration with Chief Duraiappah and the Region of Peel, the Board is also engaged in a new Community Safety and Well-Being Plan that will ensure mental health calls, public health and safety, and community relations are considered in a more holistic way when it comes to community policing.”
The question is, where will the board find the money?
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