B.C. overruling council `alarming'
Councillor worries police budget call bodes ill for accountability
The decision by B.C.'s director of police services to overrule Vancouver council's 2020 decision to trim the 2021 Vancouver Police Department budget has been called an alarming example of the province stepping into municipal affairs.
In a rare move, the Vancouver police board asked the province in March 2021 to review city council's December 2020 decision to approve a police budget of about $316 million, which was slightly more than the previous year's budget, but around $5.7 million less than what the board requested.
B.C.'s director of police services, former RCMP assistant commissioner Wayne Rideout, delivered his decision this week, ordering the city to restore the $5.7 million to the VPD. The successful appeal was welcomed by police Chief Adam Palmer, who issued a statement saying the 2020 budget “shortfall had a direct impact” on the number of officers the VPD could hire.
On Tuesday, OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle called the decision “pretty alarming in terms of public accountability.”
Council sees “very few actual details of the police budget” and does not direct the department on policy or priorities, Boyle said, “and now also has no authority over how much funding we approve year after year. That's a big black hole in terms of transparency of public funds and accountability for decisions made about them.”
The police department is about 20 per cent of the city budget.
“Police budgets shouldn't be a blank cheque councils are forced to rubber stamp,” she said, pointing out that the 2020 police budget decision was a fiscal decision at a time when COVID -19 had cut city revenues and all other city departments faced budget reductions.
Boyle said council should be able to spend on public safety other than only policing, citing a pilot program approved this month aiming to reduce crime and street disorder through increased community outreach in certain neighbourhoods.
West Vancouver Coun. Craig Cameron added his voice to the debate, writing on Twitter Tuesday afternoon that he agreed with Boyle's position, saying: “Policing activities shouldn't be politicized, but police budgets most certainly should be subject to democratic oversight and accountability. The local representatives of the local taxpayers who foot the bill should have the final say.”
At a news conference Tuesday, Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who chairs the police board, was asked if he felt city hall had been “undermined” by the province. Stewart did not criticize the province's ruling, and he applauded the hard work of the police board and Palmer, saying he and the chief have “a great relationship.”
Stewart added that “we all could have used the decision a little faster.” In the 12 months between the board filing the appeal and this week's decision, council had already approved the city's 2022 operating budget, which boosted police funding to $367 million, including arbitrated wage increases.
On Tuesday, Stewart said the $5.7 million will come from city reserves, and Vancouver's next council after October's election will have to decide how to replenish those reserves.
City manager Paul Mochrie said permanent funding will be needed to make up for the hit to the reserves, estimating the $5.7 million would require a property tax increase of about 0.6 per cent.
VPD spokeswoman Const. Tania Visintin said the $5.7 million will allow the department to “maintain existing services, which includes keeping up with recruiting.”
Rick Parent, who spent 30 years as a Delta police officer and now teaches criminology at Douglas College, said the decision suggests the board and department made a compelling case for why that $5.7 million was necessary for public safety. While rarely used, this appeal mechanism in B.C.'s Police Act exists because of the potential for serious consequences if police are not adequately funded, he said.
David MacAlister, director of Simon Fraser University's criminology department, said he can understand why a municipal politician like Boyle might be unhappy, because “nobody likes to have their authority usurped.” But ultimately, he said, the province is responsible for ensuring adequate policing. Other B.C. municipalities and police departments “are probably watching this quite closely,” MacAlister said.