Councillors have sent the Halifax Regional Police budget back for revision, voting in favour of a smaller than requested increase in spending, 0.5%.
That private session lasted another hour and 10 minutes, totalling two and a half hours in camera, where Chief Dan Kinsella made the case for more staffing. It’s unclear why that had to be done without public scrutiny, and it’s uncommon for councillors to hold in camera sessions during budget deliberations.
Coun. Tim Outhit said Kinsella had “disturbing facts” for councillors during the in camera meeting, but it wasn’t enough to convince them to vote in favour of his full request for a $2-million increase over last year’s budget.
Kinsella has argued that he needs the funding to hire enough officers to stop a cycle of burnout within the force. At a budget meeting in December, he told the board HRP is in “dire straits.” To fix the issue, Kinsella argued he needs 26 new sworn officers and 10 civilians, for a total budget of $90.8 million. After hearing from two dozen people in opposition, the board voted in favour of the full request. Councillors heard more of that opposition from 20 people this week.
“I can’t support the proposed increase to the HRP based budget at this time and I’m not anti police,” Coun. Waye Mason said to start the public debate on Friday.
“I also want to take a minute to recognize the harms and dramas that we heard from residents on Wednesday. I think that’s an important thing that we need to acknowledge those are real, very real experiences and must be of concern to all of us. But I also want to recognize how important a well functioning and well supported police force is to our community and all communities, and recognize how important it is that during this time we have a lot of work to do to address both those issues the concerns we heard from the community and making sure we have a well run, well functioning police force.”
The debate was over whether it makes sense to continue to expand the police force while considering the sort of changes contemplated in the report from El Jones’ Subcommittee to Define Defunding the Police. That report, tabled last month, recommends, among other reforms, taking tasks away from police and allocating resources to other social services.
Coun. Lisa Blackburn, who voted in favour of the chief’s request at the police board, trotted out her analogy about a drowning man:
If a man is drowning, we don’t first workshop a risk assessment to prevent future drownings and then establish a committee to look at water safety and then do public consultations to gather information from the community. If a man is drowning, we toss him a life preserver, and then we do the follow-up work to change what needs to be changed to prevent future drownings. And that’s sort of how I’m looking at this budget. It has been made clear that the frontlines of our police are drowning, but big change is coming to policing.
In an open letter published in the Halifax Examiner, Jones and a long list of other signatories refuted that claim:
… relative to the rest of society, the police are not drowning. In fact, one might suggest that a better analogy would be someone standing on a dock, claiming they are drowning, being thrown rope after rope while other people thrash around in the water with no help. When a person is drowning, you fund the lifeguards, not the police.
But sticking with Blackburn’s analogy, other councillors weren’t even sure the life preserver would really keep the man from drowning.
Deputy Mayor Pam Lovelace said she didn’t believe adding more officers would fix the underlying structural issues at play, and she questioned the value of “adding bodies just for the sake of adding bodies to the workforce.”
“I also recognize, unlike Councillor Blackburn, the time to change policing is now,” Lovelace said.
“We have to do it now. We have the defunding report. We’ve read it. We’ve heard from constituents, we know that we have issues on the ground in our communities and in our police forces that need to be addressed. And I’m not convinced that adding more bodies is the right thing to do. I am convinced changing how we react to these decisions is paramount to moving forward for a different structure and better public safety overall.”
In the end, councillors voted for a middle ground that would add to the budget, giving Kinsella 13 of the new sworn officers, but limit the increase.
Coun. Tony Mancini brought forward a motion to add $1,393,850 to the target provided to HRP by municipal finance staff, $87,830,000. Kinsella’s proposal added $2,961,900 to that target, and about $2 million, or 2.2%, on top of the previous year.
Mancini’s motion would produce a total budget of $89,223,850 — an increase over last year’s budget of $413,050, or 0.5%.
Council can’t dictate how the budget is spent. Its job is to approve a budget amount. But Mancini, apparently believing that the life preserver would stop the drowning, explained how he came to that figure. He wanted to provide the funding necessary to hire 12 new patrol constables, one new “member reintegration” constable, and four of the requested emergency response (911) communicators.
That motion passed by a narrow 9-8 vote. For varying reasons, Lovelace, Blackburn, Cuttell, and councillors Paul Russell, Cathy Deagle-Gammon, Becky Kent, Sam Austin, and Iona Stoddard voted no.
That means the budget is back to the Board of Police Commissioners. The board may recommend a different figure, or a different use of the money. It has a meeting scheduled for Monday, and the debate could happen then, or at a future meeting.
After the board votes in favour of a budget recommendation, it will come back to council for a final vote, or potentially to be sent back down to the board for further revision. Chief financial officer Jerry Blackwood said that process would ideally be complete before March 15.