Good morning, my name is James Wilt and I am a member of the volunteer run organization Winnipeg Police Cause Harm.
I’m here to present mostly on the police board’s recent Environment for Policing in Winnipeg report. However, I want to begin my presentation by referring to the police board’s 2023 Communication Plan that sets out priorities for the organization. On pg. 3 of the plan, the aim of the board’s communications are described as working to “encourage citizens and stakeholders to connect with the Board to inform the multi-year strategic plan and annual updates” and “incorporate citizen perspectives and priorities into the strategic priorities of the Service.” These seem like positive and worthwhile goals.
Only two pages later, on pg. 5 of the plan, several risk factors are identified. These risks include “low levels of public engagement and participation” and that “the public or interest groups do not feel their input or participation is treated seriously or respectfully.” Evaluating the latter risk, it is identified that “the likelihood of this occurring is high because residents have diverse and sometimes conflicting perspectives on public safety priorities.” So the police board is apparently aware that there are issues with engagement, input, and participation and supposedly desires some sort of improvement from the status quo.
This brings me to the so-called “value free” Environment for Policing report. In sharp contrast with this apparent realization of inadequate participation and engagement, this report does a blatant smear on the organizations and movements that have been advocating to defund police and reallocate resources to other city services. It knowingly caricatures and misrepresents the demand, the very opposite of what it would look like for input or participation to be “treated seriously or respectfully.”
For starters, the report conflates the defund movement with the far-right movement that occupied Winnipeg’s downtown for many weeks in protest of COVID-19 public health measures. Specifically, on pg. 3, the report describes increasing public expression of “anti-government and anti-authority feelings” that “affect institutional trust and the role and function of police in the context of public order and safety.” Later, on pg. 11, the report alludes to “distrust in legacy media and previously trusted sources of public discourse” and blames social media for contributing to “lack of credibility and value in what is offered as information.”
Amazingly, in media coverage of the report, Councillor Chambers exclusively focused his comments on the defund movement, claiming declining support for it, in direct contradiction of the police board’s own survey data.
This purposeful conflation is contemptible for several reasons. Firstly, the defund movement, as with many other progressive movements, has constantly exercised extreme caution with regards to COVID-19 and ensured mask compliance at all public actions and engagements since the start of the pandemic: a measure that, I must add, is clear that the municipal government does not itself continue to exercise.
Secondly, the Winnipeg Police were deeply complicit with the far-right occupation of the city’s downtown in early 2022, exhibiting widely condemned sympathies for the movement including repeatedly describing it as the “Freedom Convoy” in public communications and having their presence described by an organizer as “absolutely amazing to work with” and that police were “like part of the team, they’re just like us, they’re just in uniform.” The police refused to enforce basic traffic or noise bylaws and it wasn’t until federal legislation was enacted that the occupation finally ended. As with other cities in Canada, the experience was a total disgrace that highlighted the total inability of the police to keep us safe. Instead of attempting to learn from it, a complaint was filed against Councillor Rollins for criticizing the response.
Thirdly, the defunding movement is anything but “anti-government,” as implied in this report. Nor has it failed to “include any plan for managing the calls for service from residents of Winnipeg that police must respond to,” as claimed on pg. 6. From the very beginning, this movement has been abundantly clear about the demand: it’s to defund police and refund community. As has been detailed many times to the board, we’re talking about life-sustaining services like public housing, harm reduction including safe consumption sites and a safe supply of drugs, food security, public transit, income supports, and non-violent crisis response.
This is about government actually providing people what they need to survive, rather than people being forced to live in encampments and bus shelters or resort to food banks for basic sustenance — and no, tiny pilot projects are not remotely sufficient. It’s about government confronting the root causes of violence and harm, rather than only reacting to it with force, displacement, incarceration, and violence, all of which only worsens the situation of people involved. It’s about government applying evidence-based decision-making to police, admitting that a 10.1% clearance rate for property crimes is a tremendous indictment of the claim that increasing police funding is the best way to keep us safe. It’s about government being honest about the real stakes of the police budget, rather than coming up with excuses not to act.
Indeed, as always, all of this comes down to the police budget. As acknowledged on pg. 9 of the report, it is “largely felt” that the cost of policing is “not sustainable in its present form.” This is unquestionably true. Policing costs have skyrocketed by 122% between 2004 and 2021, compared to only 38% for community services. While policing “only” accounted for 16.9% of the city’s operating budget in the year 2000, it’s now up to 26.8%. More than 85% of this budget goes to salaries and benefits, with almost 1,300 officers making six-figure salaries. This is an obvious financial crisis. And the reality is that the police board and city council more broadly has absolutely no plan for confronting it.
Just yesterday, the city authorized an additional $4.25 million to the police. In the authorization report, it was explicitly described that “any options to reduce costs that have a detrimental impact on service delivery were deemed not feasible and therefore were not presented as a contingency plan.” Literally every budget cut has a detrimental impact on service delivery. But this kind of blanket protection is only afforded to the police, not to other city departments like libraries, public transit, recreation, and 311. Instead, they get cut and underfunded, with no regard for the impact it might have on their service delivery. And this of course doesn’t even address the areas that the city should be funding like public housing, harm reduction, and food security, in which service delivery is effectively non-existent.
The Police Board likes to pretend that it represents the interests of community and broader public safety. But this Environment for Policing report, in conjunction with many other interactions we’ve had with the board, prove that the Police Board exists to protect the interests of the Winnipeg Police and their 1,500 members, many of whom don’t even live in the city. It functions to deter participation of people critical of the city’s funding priorities and issue a legion of excuses for why the police budget can’t be cut. And the rationale for this is profoundly ideological, refusing to consider any other definition of public safety other than that narrowly defined by police, who have very clear self-interest at play.
Homicide rates are up, check wellbeing is the number one citizen-generated dispatched event, and clearance rates are plummeting. Any evidence-based approach to the question of public safety would quickly realize that dumping ever more money into policing is not working. Instead, the police budget must be cut — something well within city council powers — and its resources reallocated to life-sustaining services that actually keep people safe. The only path to reducing harm and improving public safety in Winnipeg is to defund police and refund community.