Island Voices: Why funding VicPD fairly is essential

Posted on February 18th, 2019 · Posted in General

The following op-ed letter was published in the Times Colonist on Sunday February 17, 2019

The Downtown Residents Association recognizes that Victoria City Council faces many challenges in setting the 2019 budget, including determining Victoria Police Department funding, the largest single component of the operating budget. Arguments for curbing the VicPD budget include the facts that BC crime rates have been trending down and that Victoria has a high number of police per capita. A statement of this position by Stan Bartlett, a local tax watchdog, was published recently in the Times Colonist. (“How much for policing? A daunting challenge.” Comment, January 13th, 2019) The counterargument is that calls to police per officer remain higher in Victoria than in the region, the City continues to face relatively greater crime rates than other parts of the metropolitan area, and indeed, by some measures, faces more serious crime levels than larger communities in the Lower Mainland. Victoria’s Downtown is the de facto core of Greater Victoria and bears a large part of the policing burden because of the concentration of tourism, entertainment, business and residential uses on the one hand and homelessness, drug use, and street populations on the other. Del Manak, the Police Chief, made this case in response in the Times Colonist. (“Decisions about policing in Victoria must use best evidence.” Comment, January 16th, 2019)

The DRA has a keen interest in this issue because what makes Victoria a policing challenge is precisely the mix in its Downtown. As Downtown residents, we need safe and lively streets, residences and businesses secure from violence and property crime, and adequate and timely help for distressed people. And all people who come to Downtown to work, shop or seek entertainment share these same safety needs. Polling in Victoria found 39% feel unsafe in Downtown at night. Proactive police response is required.

Police are often first responders in a whole range of situations that affect public order. That includes dealing with persons in distress because of mental health and addiction issues, and homeless and street-involved persons. Some City Councillors question the role of police in this regard. Their concern is that this use of police may criminalize distress and further stigmatize poor and marginalized persons. The argument is that social and medical problems require other response systems, not the police. Indeed, police would agree that they are not the best response in all circumstances and certainly not an adequate response by themselves. Police are increasingly becoming part of team responses and are seeking additional service partners. But, even if social and medical services strengthen their outreach capacities (and that will require a shift in provincial budget resources), police will remain key first responders.

Police, more than any other service system, are in regular contact on the streets with the most marginalized persons as well as those with mental health or addiction problems. They provide direct and immediate assistance, call ambulances, call support services and manage problem behaviour without resorting to arrest. They come to know and be known by street-involved people. They help prevent victimization and violence against marginalized persons. When there are incidents, these relationships are critical to deescalation and a safe resolution.

That is, if police are to respond effectively and without further harming already marginalized persons, they have to emphasize this progressive community policing model. In the Downtown, this model is important to the Patrol Division but central to the Community Services Division, with its mandate for proactively dealing with street disorder, homelessness, mental health and substance use. In many instances, police make ACT Team intervention for persons with mental illness possible; there are safety concerns that only police can allay. Other outreach workers often need similar support. The Beat and Bike Squad and foot patrols literally bring police in closer contact with street communities. The Housing Action Response Team can intervene on behalf of homeless persons. That emphasis on being visible to the community, establishing relationships with community members, using those relationships to respond more safely and effectively, and working in partnership with other systems, serves our Downtown best. Cuts to these kinds of services hurt.

Failure to adequately fund VicPD services will have a disproportionate impact on Downtown Victoria.

Board, Victoria Downtown Residents Association