Regina Police Service once again seeking millions more for budget

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And you get an airplane, and you get an airplane – everybody gets an airplane! Brano via Unsplash

Other neglected social problems grow

by syd mcwilliams and sara birrell

The city of Regina recently went through a round of pre-budget talks. In the proposed budget for 2022, the Regina Police Service (RPS) is requesting an additional $3.5 million in funding, which would be a four per cent increase in their budget over 2021. The proposed total operating costs for 2022 are $103,695,300. RPS say they are aware of the fiscal constraints caused by the pandemic, have reduced spending in all possible areas, and reduced the request for additional personnel, putting them behind on their growth plan. This is to say that rather than seeing 27 new personnel added to the force, it will see only 24.

Activists in the city have pointed out that the $3.5 million increase could allow an overdose prevention site to operate 24/7 in the city for the next three years. The service is also making a bid for an airplane, or “aerial support unit,” which would need ongoing and significant funding for staffing, maintenance, and fuel, and which goes against the city’s Renewable Regina plan meant to reduce the amount of pollution coming from the city. According to documents, SGI has offered up to $120,000 in supportive funding for mapping or thermal imaging if the police service buys the plane.

Many different factors create police budgets, but the majority of any police service’s budget goes to paying its staff. RPS has 634 permanent employees and 15 casual full-time employees that in total take up 88 per cent of their operating costs. The 2022 budget allows for hiring one deputy chief, 16 police positions, and seven civilian positions. Regina has a lower cop to population ratio than the Canadian average, with only 166 officers to every hundred thousand people, and the average being 185. However, the city of Regina also spends a more significant percentage of its annual budget on policing than much larger cities like Edmonton, Halifax, Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. Another reason the city is seeing an increase in police expenditure is a general increase in operating costs due to inflation, vehicle operating costs and insurance, salary and benefit changes, increased facility operating costs, and other general expenses such as vet care for the K-9 unit. Police Chief Evan Bray was the highest paid civil servant in Regina last year, with a salary of $257,375.

Police budgets, in general, have been a contested issue for years now. After the murder of George Floyd in 2020, protests swept across the United States and Canada, and many activists called for the police to be defunded and for the money to go to organizations working on reducing the root causes for crime, such as poverty, addiction, mental illness, and homelessness, rather than criminalizing those causes and relying on the police to remedy them. Kale MacLellan, a Regina antipoverty organizer, said, “I’m sick of seeing people treat the cops as some kind of neutral third party, or as a mediator between community members who feel uncomfortable dealing with their own neighbours who have a mental health crisis or are using drugs.” Many organizations within the city, such as the Heritage Community Association, have spoken out about the way the police budget eats up money that could have gone to community services. In the past, Police Chief Evan Bray has also said that investment in social justice issues is something that is extremely important “to make a long-term and sustainable difference in [..] health and happiness and wellness in our community [and] in crime and safety as well.” He added that “We need to ensure as a society that those supports, instead of police, are going to be funded and resourced to the point where [those groups] can deal with” the social determinants of crime.

Many people present at the last budget meeting are taking issue with how the police budget has gone up almost 20 million dollars since 2016, yet crime levels haven’t decreased. Still, there is a lot more to consider than just crime numbers because police are responding and using resources for a lot more than what is regarded as a crime in the traditional sense. For example, police are called to overdoses, to mental health crises, and to situations like people being poor in public places. These encounters with the police can often be violent, and for mentally ill people, especially racialized and Indigenous people, these encounters can be deadly. Despite all this, the police funding continues to increase because we haven’t been able to separate them from the work they shouldn’t be doing anyway, allowing them to focus on other crimes and reduce their operating costs.

Rick Ruddell, a professor of Police Studies at the University of Regina said, “Whenever you start talking budget, you have a lot of people say, you know, well maybe we should call up people other than police to deal with these things then when we can save money and reduce the police budgets, and they have a point. One of the problems though, is that very few of these agencies are able to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So, the police just become the people you call in because there’s nobody else who’s going to deal with the problem.” However, the primary reason that other agencies are not able to respond 24/7 is not a lack of willingness on their part, but rather the fact that they don’t have the financial and structural resources required to do so.

The RPS has made efforts to more appropriately respond to mental health services by creating their PACT team, which pairs a police officer with a social worker to respond to crises. However, the PACT team is still responding to crises with a police officer, and there is no guarantee that these interactions will not result in arrest or other violent harms against the individual in crisis, or cause psychological anguish. “I don’t think people understand how awful it is to see people literally fill with terror when they find out the cops are here,” MacLellan said.

But figuring out how to change the system isn’t as easy as simply pulling funding from the cops to give it to other organizations. Those organizations would need the infrastructure to deal with situations, and to do that, they also need funding. So, upon speaking with Professor Rudell further about how the culture of policing is changing, the answer might be that “you might actually require a period of time of double funding, where you have to support those addiction services, plus the police. And then maybe the hope is that you know, those addiction services, mental health services will actually reduce demands on the police to enable them to focus more on their core policing and save money to reduce budgets.” Which is to say, the city of Regina might have to put their money where their mouth is and actually commit to funding organizations and programs that address the social determinants of crime.

The Regina Police are going to see another increase in budget for 2022. The city needs to find a way to support crime reduction services and create a system that allows police not to respond to calls regarding mental health or addictions without jeopardizing those services while a transition happens. Until that point, the police will continue to demand more funding. But changing an entrenched system is a lot easier said than done, and it will be a while before we see the changes that so many people are demanding.

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