The Hamilton Spectator
No rubber stamp for this police budget
In the understandable noise after a gallery full of protesters disrupted and ultimately forced the adjournment of a City of Hamilton budget meeting on Monday, a significant news story is nearly obscured.
That is the amount of opposition to the proposed Hamilton police budget that currently exists on city council.
We’ll return to the protest later, but first let’s examine the situation around the budget.
The police budget ask this year is a considerable increase — 6.71 per cent. That amounts to about $12 million more, and will add up to capital and operating expenses of about $196 million.
Police management refers to this as a “maintenance” budget, and warns that the service and city will lose 19 full-time officers for every percentage point the budget is reduced.
Some will say this is scare talk, while others will argue that considering the increasing demand on police resources, it’s not unreasonable. And it is worth noting that inflation increases police operating expenses as it does everyone else’s.
We’re not going to get into whether it’s fair or too much, at least not right now.
More interesting is the fact that the budget is not getting an easy ride from this new city council. Historically, police budgets are all but rubber-stamped by council. There have been some exceptions, where fiscal hawks have attacked the size of the requested increase, but ultimately budgets, sometimes slightly revised, pass. But these days are not those days.
This year, we have a council grappling with larger than life financial issues and the threat of a significant budget increase to taxpayers. And we also have significant public support for allocating less for traditional policing and more for other community services that advocates argue will do more to get at the roots of crime and other matters that end up being handled by police.
(Notice, we avoided saying “defund” police, because that outmoded and inflammatory term doesn’t fairly represent what serious advocates want — less for policing and more for more proactive community supports.)
In any case, members of this council have more than their share of reasons to either oppose the budget or have serious misgivings about supporting it.
Some have actually said already they won’t be supporting the police service request in its current form.
Which raises an interesting question. What happens if council rejects the police request? The budget could end up going back to management and the police services board for a rework. Or the board and service could appeal the rejection to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission.
There is no record of the OCPC ever supporting an appeal. Doing an end run around local government would not be wise or productive, we would argue, but we’re not there yet and hopefully won’t end up in that spot.
Back to the protest for a moment. The 100 or so demonstrators who filled the public gallery did nothing legally wrong. Council chambers are a public space. But are their tactics wise or productive? Does it make sense to shut down a public meeting with rude and uncivil behaviour?
Many public delegates, most probably delegating against the budget, were shut out of making their case. How does that help? Are the causes the protesters represent — the homeless, housing, the opioid crisis and other real social issues — advanced by keeping a democratically-elected local government from doing its job?
If you think the answer to those questions is yes, you may support the protesters. We suspect the majority of Hamiltonians would disagree.
Certainly, Mayor Andrea Horwath did when she said in a statement “... disrupting a peaceful discussion, shouting people down, and refusing to listen to one another cannot replace respectful dialogue.”
There are a lot of people in this city who would agree that the question of police funding and of adequate investment in community supports and social services is worth a serious discussion. What happened Monday night won’t get us there.