Several residents, business owners, and volunteers from downtown Dartmouth want increased community policing, while others say the money should go toward civilian-led crisis responses and more supports for people living in shelters and tent encampments.
That’s what the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners heard during its virtual meeting on Wednesday night. The meeting was the first during which the public had an opportunity to have its say on the HRP’s 2024-25 budget.
As the Examiner reported last week, Don MacLean, acting chief of police, asked for 24 more officers in the 2024-25 budget, plus money for body-worn video cameras.
MacLean attended on Wednesday night and gave the same presentation from last week. That detailed the request for 18 more patrol officers, including several who will be trained to handle mental health calls, and six officers for communiity safety. The department wants another two officers for the police science program, and another constable to be trained to investigate hate crimes.
Fifteen members of the public signed up to speak at the virtual session and about a dozen spoke.
Call for civilian-led responses
Jamie Livingston, an associate professor of criminology at Saint Mary’s University, was the first to speak, and said his work focuses on the harms of carceral and coercive interventions that target people with mental health and substance abuse issues. He called for the board to reject HRP’s budget proposal.
“Such a proposal is not aligned with the priorities and recommendations articulated in HRM’s Public Safety Strategy, the policing model transformation study, the defund police report, or the Mass Casualty Commission’s final report,” Livingston said.
“All of these documents highlight the inappropriateness of police being first responders to mental health calls and other social inequity issues. They call for an investing in community-led non-police approaches, including a establishing civilan-response crisis programs that divert calls away from police and instead rapidly bring care and support to people in need wherever they are in the community.”
Livingston said such programs have been established in 220 communities worldwide, including in Victoria, Toronto, and Edmonton.
More community policing
Several speakers were residents, business owners, and volunteers in downtown Dartmouth and supported the department’s ask for more police, specifically more community policing.
Ursula Prossegger, a property manager who lives in downtown Dartmouth, spoke about some of the issues she said she’s dealing with her properties, especially since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Prossegger said she’s had to deal with “high-acuity individuals” causing “chaos” in her buildings.
“During this time, and since then, there has been no real enforcement of rules and no consequences for any wrongdoing,” Prossegger said.
Prossegger said downtown Dartmouth is now surrounded by shelters, tent encampments, and “hangouts” for the homeless.
“Drawing a line from location to location on a map, you end up with a noose that chokes the life, vibrancy, safety, and security out of our beautiful area,” Prossegger said.
Prossegger said rental property owners are regulated and have to be compliant regarding fire, while fires at tent encampments are left unsupervised. She called for a reduction in encampments and shelters in the downtown, and a highly visible police presence in the area, more social workers and street navigators for people living in the encampments.
“Individuals with criminal records for assault and murder should not be permitted to live in shelters without full supervision,” Prossegger said.
Sandra McKenzie and Libby Douglas who volunteer with Alderney Landing spoke about the need for more community policing.
McKenzie said the community was initially welcoming as more shelters opened in the downtown core, but now they have “overwhelmed the need” leading to more violent crime, including arson and assault. She said Alderney Landing created a new safety position, and also works with HRM, Alderney Gate Library, and the ferry terminal to address “immediate needs.”
She said Alderney Landing asked HRM for “circuit breaker intervention” who can break patterns of behaviour to prevent escalation. McKenzie said community police officers were hired in April 2023 to act as those circuit breakers.
“Community policing reduced violent incidents from five or six violent incidents a day to only a few per week,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie said those resources were exhausted, and Alderney Landing spent money on additional policing for its events it hosted over the summer.
“We ask that you give the HRP the community-based resources they need to keep our community safe and inclusion,” McKenzie said.
Libby Douglas, who chairs a safety committee for Alderney Landing, said they hosted a session that included residents and businesses, and identified 70 solutions to decrease violence in the downtown. Douglas said the top solution on that list was more community policing. A safety committee, more street navigators, and youth-at-risk programming were mentioned as other priorities.
Douglas said they are completing a report detailing those solutions, and offered to present it to the board.
‘It’s horrific down here’
Chandler Haliburtion, who said he’s lived downtown Dartmouth for 14 years, said the area has “gone to absolute despair and chaos.”
“It’s horrific down here. There’s no other way to describe it,” Haliburton said. “It’s not a safe place for children, it’s not a place for businesses to thrive. It’s not even a place I’m proud to show people, the downtown core, when they come here.”
Haliburtion said the police were underfunded, and more cops are needed in downtown Dartmouth.
“We can have all these romantic ideas about citizens intervening and doing more and fundamental changes to the systems. And yes, there’s a huge failing of all kinds of systems that may have got us here, but it is an emergency, damage-control situation… we need more policing, period.”
Vishal Srivastava, who owns a restaurant in downtown Dartmouth, said there have been thefts from the business and his staff have complained about being harassed by people on the street.
“I’m starting losing clients, so it’s not great a situation for us as a business owner, “Srivastava said.
Jeff McLatchey, the owner of Celtic Corner, said said there is an emergency going on in downtown Dartmouth, and said groups, including police, street navigators, and people who are unhoused, need to work together to develop “social empathy.”
“I want our community to develop more moral and ethical positions where they understand personal space, property, and safety,” McLatchey said. “I’m not going to judge anyone that lives in our community based on their mental health, but I do often have an opinion on people who do not recognize the personal safety, property, and position of others in the community.”
‘Tired of seeing cops get money they don’t deserve’
Trina James said she was disturbed by the “villianization” of people who are trying their best to survive living outside.
“This assumption that adding more police within encampments and in areas that are heavily populated by individuals who are navigating chronic homelessness is what’s going to fix the issue, and it’s not,” James said.
James said people need affordable housing, access to medical care, and a living wage.
Lou Campbell, who lives in District 8 not far from HRP headquarters, recalled having to call the police as a last resort when someone experiencing a mental health crisis went into their home. Campbell said the dispatcher was escalating the situation and the police traumatized them, their neighbours, and the person experiencing the mental health crisis.
“I don’t think it’s effective to give them any more money,” Campbell said. “When someone acts this harmfully, it’s time to pass the baton and put your money elsewhere… I’m really tired of seeing cops get money they don’t deserve.”
Campbell suggested the money go toward better shelters, more housing, and non-violent interventions.
Willa Oaks said the money for more cops should go instead into civilian-led resources to help others, especially those with mental illness. Oaks cited the defund the police report that said police shouldn’t be responding to calls in which people are in a mental health crisis.
“Having a mental health crisis is not a crime, we all know this. We need to start investing our money into failing police service that make people who need health care feel like criminals,” Oaks said.
Kate MacDonald was the final speaker. MacDonald has spoken at previous meetings, opposing increases in HRP budgets.
“Policing doesn’t contribute to community health or overall wellness,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald pointed out that many of the speakers from downtown Dartmouth are white, and they benefit from having police in the community.
“I would love for us as a city and a broad community to address our privileges in relationship to talking about systems of harm and policing at large,” MacDonald said.
MacDonald said she was at the community safety meeting hosted by Alderney Landing and said there wasn’t a good sample of community represented there. She said
“There were obviously cops there who were voting for more policing,” MacDonald said. “I just think we have access to other successful ways to take care of each other. I don’t think they have to be ways that perpetuate harm.”
On Nov. 15, Halifax police will be back at the board to present more information on the budget.
Nov. 22 is set aside for an in-person meeting during which the public can offer its feedback.