On February 25, 2019, community organizations, including the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project, Sanctuary City Network, and Overdose Prevention Ottawa, presented to the Ottawa Police Services Board their concerns with the proposed increase budget. Herein is our presentation:
OPO argued that as a City, we need to divest from the police and start investing in communities, through health and social services, education, food programs, and rent-geared-to-income housing. An increase in the police budget means that we are divesting from our communities and choosing violence and exclusion instead of community support. I urge the police services board to reject the requested increase in the budget and instead support a decrease in funding for Ottawa Police Services.
We have three main concerns regarding the increase in the police budget, which are also areas where funding could be redirected to reduce the need for police. The first is the relationship between Ottawa police and folks accessing harm reduction services, the second is the number of police attending calls for service, and the last is the number of police on the sunshine list.
At OPO, we repeatedly heard stories of police harassing people accessing harm reduction. These harassing tactics include following people as they walk through the city to access services, breaking drug using equipment that health and social services distribute, mocking people who exert their rights and ask the police why they are being stopped, and purposefully parking cruisers outside of services to deter attendance. These tactics create a barrier for accessing services and people will die as a result of them. In Vancouver, Pivot Legal Society’s Project Inclusion found very similar practices were being used to deter people from accessing harm reduction services. Their research found that policing practices, directly and indirectly, lead to negative health outcomes, opioid-related harms, and safety issues for their study participants. Police actively disrupt harm reduction activities and basic survival activities in ways that undermine the health and safety of residents. In the face of the ongoing overdose emergency, we need to ensure that the City is doing everything possible to prevent death, and this includes putting an end to these common police practices.
Another common tactic by Ottawa police is to have multiple officers attend calls for service. When people see multiple cruisers at a situation, they assume that there is a serious incident underway. However, this tactic has been used for something as mild as public drinking. If I were on the Board and asked to approve an increase in the budget, I would ask to see the data on how many police attend calls for service, and how many police attend each different type of call for service. OPS’ practice of over attendance is a means to inflate the need for police and justify more funding, and it takes away from other community services that can prevent interactions with police. In 2018, the budget for the Ottawa Police Services represented 9.5% of Ottawa’s total expenditures while the Toronto Police Services represented 8.8% of Toronto’s total expenditures. Toronto is the largest city in Canada and the fourth largest in North America. Ottawa may be a growing city, but our population is nowhere near the size of Toronto’s. If we were spending a higher percentage of our expenditures in 2018 on policing, why does the police service need more funding this year?
Related to my questions about police over attendance, is overtime pay and the number of Ottawa police on the sunshine list. The sunshine list every year publishes the names of people paid through public funds that make over $100,000 per year. In 2017, there were 3,363 employees of OPS on the sunshine list. In 2018, that number more than doubled to 7,474 employees of the Ottawa Police being paid over $100,000. Are police officers being paid this rate as their base pay or is this a result of overtime? If it is a result of overtime, it would be important to know how officers are incentivized to do overtime within the police services culture. What is the connection between police over attendance at calls for service and overtime pay?
Police undermine safety for poor and working class, drug using, racialized, and queer and trans residents. It is of the utmost importance for public funds to be spent responsibly and in keeping with evidence on how to create a safe community for everyone. OPS’s budget should be decreased and funds should be allocated towards community initiatives and social services that are identified through community-based processes, have transparent budgets, are accountable to the community, and have shown they can respond and support our well-being and safety.
Increasing the police budget legitimizes the violent tactics used in Ottawa and inflates the need for surveillance, security and regulatory tactics that target certain communities and benefit others. Investing in police means we are divesting from our communities. To the City Councillors on the Board, you have a responsibility as administrators of the public purse to listen to residents and also to listen to evidence. A multitude of evidence demonstrates that police are an inappropriate response to social issues, and increase harm through marginalization and the criminalization inherent in the policing model and criminal justice system.
We need a city budget that supports community, not criminalization. As the capital city, Ottawa should be a leader in innovative, evidence-based solutions to social issues without falling into the global current that encourages fear of crime, the myth of escalating danger, and mistrust of our neighbours.