Police budget proposal step toward smarter public safety

Councillor Rawlson King successfully presented a motion to trim the police budget to envision a new community well-being model that embraces shared responsibility between the city and the police for public safety.

Over the past year, the Ottawa Police Services Board has been listening carefully to social service agencies, as well as the broader community, with a view towards reimagining public safety in the City of Ottawa.

We heard clearly that the community expected a budget that strikes a delicate balance in maintaining adequate policing levels, while respecting taxpayer dollars and contributing meaningfully to overall community safety and well-being. 

To meet this objective, last week the Board unanimously amended the draft budget that was submitted by the Police Service, with a view of moderating the police tax rate increase, without impacting frontline services to residents, or substantively impacting the base staffing complement of the Ottawa Police Service. 

While the Service had proposed a draft budget that sought a 2.86 percent increase, the Board, after extensive consultation with the Police Service, community and experts, limited the increase to two percent, reducing the proposed $346.5 operating budget by $2.65 million.

The Board’s amended motion asked the Service to find less than a quarter of the savings they found in 2021. Last year, the Police Service was able to find solutions to offset $14.1 million in budget pressures. This included $10.4 million in management efficiencies, including $9 million in reduced spending.  Since the Service was capable of finding over $10 million in efficiencies last year, the Board believes that its smaller suggested reduction for 2022 is reasonable, in an effort to bend the cost curve.

Bending the curve is important as policing is the fastest growing and most expensive component of municipal spending.  In order to arrest its upward trajectory, we must offset costs, where possible, to shift law enforcement interventions to social services, so that police are not unnecessarily intervening in situations better suited for social or mental health workers.

The Police Board took a historic step in achieving this goal by increasing the number of efficiencies found in the budget, while maintaining and expanding services to drive much needed cultural transformation in the Police Service, along with improving member health and wellness.

Although “defund the police” hyperbole has dominated public debate, defunding is a mischaracterization in Ontario, since municipalities here do not have the power to functionally defund or abolish police, unlike jurisdictions in the United States, where mayors, council and sheriffs have executive power to arbitrarily cut services.  In our province, Police Board responsibility involves ensuring our Police Service has the necessary funds for crime prevention, law enforcement, victims assistance, public order maintenance, and emergency response. 

In seeking realistic options for police reform, I am proud to be working with my colleagues to drive efficiencies in policing in order to enable alternative public safety response. A first step must be to make greater investments in communities to prevent criminal justice interventions where public health interventions would be better suited. I am therefore supportive of a measure that will be proposed by Councillor Diane Deans during City budget deliberations next week that will be designed to apply police budget reductions, along with $2.65 million in matching City funds, for the development of a community-led, centrally dispatched mental health crisis response program staffed by experienced crisis intervention teams. 

Such a program will be an excellent first step towards a new community safety and well-being model that embraces shared responsibility for public safety between the City and the Police Service, with a view to help residents and communities meet their social needs and enhance community resilience, while applying the appropriate resources necessary to address the root causes of crime, with a goal to ultimately reduce total police costs over the long-term.

Rawlson King is City Councillor for Rideau-Rockcliffe Ward and serves as Council Liaison for Anti-Racism and Ethnocultural Relations Initiatives. He is a member of the Ottawa Police Services Board.

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