2023 Hamilton Police Services Budget
Why did I support the 2023 Hamilton Police Services Budget? My detailed thought process is below
I voted 'yes' to the requested budget increase for Hamilton Police Services. The following paragraphs explain how I got to that decision.
Council has had to deal with several complicated topics, but I think this one has been the most significant for many people all across our City. As an acknowledgment of its importance, I invested a great deal of time thinking on this topic - and more importantly - talking to those who are impacted. I met with many racialized Hamiltonians and community leaders and listened to their stories. I also talked to police officers from many different ranks and have even spent an entire shift on a ride-along to witness policing firsthand. I have received a lot of input and heard many perspectives, along with one common theme: our police officers are working beyond their mandate and the current system is not working well for anyone.
The 2023 proposed Hamilton Police Services budget didn't give the Chief everything he thinks the HPS needs to do their jobs - it has been presented as a maintenance budget - and the increase is largely required to absorb pay increases dictated by collective bargaining for existing staff and for adding additional staff to keep up with the city's growth. It also requires his staff to continue doing work they shouldn't be doing: much of the non-police work that many of us agree should be removed from their workload.
To racialized and marginalized communities, any increase to the police budget is received as offensive and harmful. I talked with people who broke into tears relating stories about their interactions with police and how fearful they are of any interaction with them. We've heard - in Council chambers on Feb 6 - passion, anger, and fear about the police and the harm to communities in our city.
To those that need support through more shelter spaces, mental health support, more affordable housing - and a long list of other supports - more money for the police is perceived as unhelpful.
To residents in suburban and rural wards, the proposed budget increase - which only maintains current service levels - doesn't help address concerns about car theft and break-ins since there will not be any material improvement in police coverage in those areas. Resources available for noise complaints that don't pose a risk to public safety have also been scaled back this year.
It also doesn't solve the request for traffic enforcement to help improve road safety which is a request from all across the city. There is much evidence that enforcement may have a small role to play, but it is NOT how we improve road safety - that needs to be done through much better engineering of our streets, but that is a topic for another time.
When it comes to voting on matters such as this, it's our job as council members individually, and council as a whole to weigh all of these perspectives. And we need to be thinking well beyond just our votes on the 2023 budget. We need to be advocating for substantial change on how to improve this situation which (as I have summarized) is failing just about everyone. We need to provide leadership to get us to a better place because I believe we are all roughly in the same place; that today's system is not working. This reality has been expressed in several different ways by my colleagues and the public.
We need to have a roadmap - a plan to do better. To serve our communities more effectively and completely. I've spoken with Chief Bergen and I believe he wants to do that. I've spoken with leaders from our staff, and I KNOW they want to help the vulnerable and the marginalized. The City of Hamilton has some amazingly talented leaders who don't seem to get the public credit they deserve, so I'm taking this opportunity to acknowledge them.
But, they need us - Council - to lead, to provide the direction. These are tough decisions and there is no simple way to make wholesale change, especially without funding from higher levels of government.
But that said, it is important to note that the Healthy and Safe Communities budget - the team at the City that will lead much of the work that needs to happen - is the largest percentage departmental budget increase with a huge focus on Housing and Homelessness. And there is much more to come. There is a lot of work to do, but the decisions we made in the budget indicate where this Council's priorities lie.
I very much want to see work re-directed from police to the professionals and community groups that are trained and can do a much better job. There needs to be a plan to do this. We need to get aligned on a plan on how to re-direct that money, and we need to ramp up that effort starting immediately. I will admit that I don't know the specific steps we need to take to get there, but I know that many of us are motivated to work together to start moving in the right direction.
The multi-year outlook for the HPS budget shows an annual 3% increase. That appears to me as a simple placeholder. My counsel is that - given the feedback I have received and what I have observed in our city - those future increases need to be put aside and we need to reallocate work so that we can get police back to their actual mandate, and allow the many other talented professionals in our city to play a larger role. Based on ALL the feedback I have received, that will be a much more effective use of funds.
With this budget, though, we need to consider ALL perspectives and acknowledge that policing is a critical function in our society. Further, from a police officer's perspective, only 37% believe their workload is manageable and 36% feel they have the resources to do their job effectively. As an experienced business leader, those numbers are shocking and the solution is not to pull money from a stressed workforce. That would only lead to more fraught interactions with the public as resources are stretched even thinner.
In conclusion, I have heard a consensus that how we invest in our community needs to change. We need the appropriate professionals to take over portions of the work that police officers are doing today. That needs to be done urgently but in a thoughtful manner. Without a detailed plan on how to change, it would be irresponsible to withhold funds from the Police.