It’s official: Winnipeg has the second-highest level of support for defunding its police service of any major Canadian city. According to the nation-wide poll conducted by the independent think tank Angus Reid, 33% of Winnipeggers surveyed now support defunding the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS). Increasingly, Winnipeggers are recognizing that the WPS is a harmful institution, it eats up far too much of our municipal budget, and it takes away already-scant funds from life-sustaining services that address the root causes of crime. Public opinion is shifting, especially in comparison to other prairie cities.
But there is still much work that needs to be done.
First, despite the fact that arrests have significantly decreased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the WPS are on track to have their most lethal year in over two decades. With near-constant news coverage of instances of brazen police misconduct, including the four fatal police shootings so far in 2020 (including 16-year-old Eishia Hudson), police violence is in plain sight. As Winnipeggers are increasingly questioning the WPS’ ability to provide real public safety, public confidence in the cops is eroding. Just last week, we heard of yet another police shooting in the North End.
To make matters worse, tight-lipped and hostile WPS officers openly threaten on-the-ground reporting of these instances of police violence. While Winnipeg Free Press (WFP) reporter Ryan Thorpe was obtaining video footage from a bystander of last week’s police shooting, WPS Constable and spokesperson Rob Carver grabbed Thorpe’s phone and blocked the video from being made public. Instances like these have led formerly pro-police city council members to publicly decry the WPS’ lack of accountability. At a recent city council meeting, Councillor Vivian Santos highlighted that “[when] the Winnipeg Police can work with a sense of impunity, my respect for the police has been eroded. When we have a police service that can acost BIPOC with no accountability, my respect for the police has been eroded.”
Second, even amidst a pandemic, city council has left the WPS budget untouched. Costing over$300 million dollars in 2020, the WPS currently occupies 26.6% of the Winnipeg city budget. Yet, last week we heard that the city is considering taking from the Winnipeg Transit surplus to help recoup some losses from the pandemic. Winnipeggers need functional transit, public libraries, and community centres now more than ever. Maintaining the current WPS budget simply doesn’t make fiscal sense when cops are responding to far fewer calls this year (while still steadily increasing their patrol hours downtown and on Winnipeg Transit!).
Lastly, the WPS receives two and a half times more funding than the city’s entire Community Services Department (CSD). Not only does the CSD budget fund all city libraries and recreation centres, it also funds community service grants that help support many of the city’s community organizations. And while the vast majority of the calls the WPS currently responds to are not actually violent incidents, policing has become a stand-in for community services like those funded under the CSD. Offloading services like mental health crisis intervention (otherwise known as ‘wellness checks’) onto the police is demonstrably harmful-- and lethal-- to the community. Properly addressing these issues means redirecting funds back to sustaining community services that are formally trained in nonviolent crisis intervention. That is effective public safety. We do not need body cams. We do not need a chopper. And we absolutely do not need an armoured vehicle. These do not prevent crime and they certainly do not prevent police violence. They are weapons that only exacerbate violence in under-resourced communities. We need affordable housing, we need access to food, and we need safe consumption sites. Most importantly, we need leaders who do not just see more policing as the solution to Winnipeg’s problems.
Defunding the WPS is harm reduction.
Recently, Winnipeg’s Chief of Police told reporters that “any cuts made to the WPS budget will result in a reduction in services.” Chief Smyth is, in fact, on the right track. This is exactly the point. Make no mistake: when Winnipeggers say we want the WPS defunded, we mean we want to reduce the police budget, cut WPS services, and divert these funds to life-sustaining community organizations that are not only trained to fulfill the services they’re responsible for, but also address the root causes of crime and do so without killing people.
To date, over 115,000 people have signed the Justice 4 Black Lives (J4BL) petition, which specifically outlines ten initial steps towards defunding and abolishing the WPS. Despite this widespread support, municipal decision-makers (and their provincial counterparts, for that matter, who contribute $20 million dollars to the WPS’ operating budget) have remained largely silent on the topic of defunding the WPS.
It is going to take leaders with integrity and courage to advocate for defunding the WPS.
The WPS have a long legacy of causing harm in our communities and we cannot continue to stand by and fund this violence any longer.