Action outside Winnipeg City Hall to oppose the 2021 Preliminary Budget on December 11, 2020. Image provided humbly in solidarity by Budget4All.
by Cerah Dubé and Rebecca Hume
Letter writing tool at the bottom of the article!
On Friday, December 11th, 2020 the City of Winnipeg’s Executive Policy Committee (EPC) held a special meeting to discuss the preliminary 2021 budget. Fifty-three delegations were registered to voice their concerns about the proposed budget. Of those fifty-three delegations, the vast majority opposed the proposed increase to the Winnipeg Police Services (WPS) operating budget. The preliminary budget would see an allocation of $313 million in total spending by the WPS, representing an increase of $8.5 million from last year and occupying 26.5 percent of total operational expenditures. But, as Dr. Joe Curnow powerfully stated in her presentation to EPC, this budget actively endorses white supremacy and further entrenches racism in our city.
Consistent with a July 2020 letter published by the City Councillor for Fort-Rouge East Fort Garry and member of the Executive Policy Committee, Sherri Rollins, Winnipeg Police Cause Harm (WPCH) is calling on Winnipeg City Council to propose an immediate amendment to the 2021 preliminary budget that includes a 10% reduction to the WPS operating budget.
WPS unmasked: One symptom of a larger sickness
After a year of brazen police violence and historical anti-police activism, Winnipeg’s city council is once again proposing a substantial increase in funding for the WPS. What is more, a rising number of first-hand accounts of interactions with unmasked WPS officers during the COVID-19 pandemic have recently come to light. Within these circumstances, such an increase not only absolves the clear pattern of brazen contempt routinely exhibited by the WPS, but actively endorses and rewards it. It is truly no wonder why this engrained attitude of impunity permeates the entire WPS. They can murder people and defy world health guidelines and still get a $8.5 million pat on the back from our city council. Yet, this issue will not be solved by mandating that WPS officers wear masks. They must be defunded. Immediately.
In early November, numerous members of the community reached out to WPCH about their encounters with unmasked WPS officers. WPCH further solicited experiences like these on social media to get a sense of the frequency of interactions with unmasked officers in Winnipeg. Within 48 hours, over 25 anonymous stories had been submitted. The stories included instances of multiple unmasked officers deliberately speaking close to someone’s face, entering a home without a mask, failing to properly physically distance, or becoming defensive and hostile when asked why they weren’t wearing a mask. WPCH then published a video using a number of these stories, which are read by volunteers.These stories were further substantiated by the emergence of another video that shows Patrol Sergeant Kevin Smith in complete violation of the now-longstanding provincial mask mandate. Smith (who has been named in many other videos/incidents of misconduct) subsequently threatened and eventually ticketed an individual when questioned as to why he was not wearing a mask while within 6 feet of the vehicle. Not only do WPS officers refuse to wear masks, there is evidence that they use it as an intimidation tactic.
Over a month into Code Red restrictions, these interactions further confirm that the City of Winnipeg’s highest-funded department is a risk to public health and safety. These first-hand accounts and experiences exhibit the systemic nature of public health and safety risks that the police pose to Winnipeggers. The performance and conduct of the WPS, as a city-funded department, is highly relevant to discussion of that department’s budget. Through the adoption of the 2021 preliminary budget, city councillors are actively endorsing the WPS' ongoing endangerment and harm of Winnipeg residents.
Furthermore, unmasked WPS officers are indeed a symptom of a larger pattern of contempt and impunity as exhibited by the WPS. This year alone, we can point to the senseless murders of Stewart Andrews, Jason Collins, Eishia Hudson, as well as the two other unnamed Winnipeggers who died at the hands of police this year in Winnipeg. Note that during the recent EPC meeting, members rudely interrupted countless delegations under the pretense that necessary and contextualizing features (like mentioning police murders or unmasked officers, for example) are not relevant to a budget discussion. If any other city department was responsible for killing members of its community, this fact would absolutely be relevant to budget discussions. In fact, reviewing and highlighting the performance of a department is integral to contextualizing the validity and deservedness of a pay raise, especially when it is derived from public dollars.
After nine hours of delegations during Friday’s EPC meeting, CBC quoted Mayor Brian Bowman claiming that “the advocates that are saying defund or abolish the police aren't saying what's the alternative.” This is interesting given Bowman’s repeatedly telling delegates that he was thankful for their input. This is especially interesting given that delegate after delegate not only denounced city council’s decision to increase the police budget, but also presented meticulously-researched and empirically-robust recommendations. Far from novel policy ideas, many delegates pointed to the clear, 10-step process for defunding the WPS over time as outlined by the Justice4BlackLives petition that was released earlier this year and has since been signed by over 115,00 people, roughly equivalent to 15% of Winnipeg’s population. This includes, among many others, the demand for the City of Winnipeg to publicly commit to no longer raising the WPS budget, indefinitely.
Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is that it is simply not the job of delegates to figure out how to defund the WPS. Fifty-three Winnipeggers took time out of their busy days to give Bowman and the EPC advice on how to improve our budget. It is our budget because it is our taxpayer dollars that fund their salaries. They work for us. We pay them six-figure salaries to figure these things out. It is literally their job.
The 2021 preliminary budget exposes an acute lack of external accountability from Winnipeg’s City Council. The WPS budget increase continues despite well-documented experiences of police violence and ample evidence of their harmful actions, behaviours, and attitudes. But we know that this institution is entirely incapable of being held accountable. And that is why it needs to be defunded, if only just by 10% in 2021, as a first step to the full defunding and abolition of the WPS.
Voice your concern
Let us be clear: this is not an issue that will be resolved by simply mandating masks for the WPS, though we support this and continue to question why WPS officers are not currently being held to the same public health standards as every other citizen of this province. The issue of unmasked police officers highlights a bigger, fundamental issue of the police as a risk to public safety. As one testimonial reads, “I had the police called on me for a wellness check a couple weeks ago and the five of them stood in my personal space with no masks.” Real public safety requires redirecting funds from the bloated police budget to life-sustaining community services. Wellness checks do not require the services of an armed and unmasked police officer. We need public 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, especially when one of Winnipeg’s biggest problems is actually, itself, the police.
Winnipeggers: we need to make sure our city councillors know that we do not want this budget.
Winnipeg City Council formally votes on the 2021 preliminary budget on Wednesday, December 16, 2020.
We are urging everyone to contact your city councillor immediately to call for a 10% reduction in the WPS budget. Below, you will see a convenient tool where you can not only find your city councillor and their contact information by simply entering your postal code, but you can also copy and paste a pre-written email and let your councillor know that you oppose this budget, and why you oppose it.
As a first step to the eventual defunding and abolition of the WPS, this 10% reduction sends a message to the WPS that they are no longer immune from budget cuts and public accountability. This 10% reduction signals to Winnipeg’s Black, Indigenous, and Communities of Colour that city council both hears their experiences of harm and rejects this budget, which is, as Dr. Curnow states, a tool of institutional white supremacy and racism.
Rebecca Hume (she/they) is a settler living on Treaty 1 lands, the homeland of the Métis Nation. She recently graduated from Ryerson University’s Master of Arts in Communication & Culture Program. Currently, she is a freelance researcher and community organizer.
Cerah Dubé (she/her) is a settler of norse and french canadian descent working and living as a guest on Treaty 1 and 2 lands, and the homeland of the Métis Nation. Currently, she is a MA graduate student in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Saskatchewan, as well as a community organizer in the areas of police and prison abolitionism.