Final decision on Vancouver police budget could rest with B.C. bureaucrat

Case involving Victoria Police Department provides example of appeal process

A rarely used section of the Police Act may come into play as city council decides whether to approve a VPD budget that city staff has recommended should be cut by $3.1 million | File photo: Dan Toulgoet

The Vancouver Police Board’s decision Monday to approve a $322-million provisional budget for the Vancouver Police Department that is at odds with a city staff recommendation to cut the police budget by $3.1 million is now in the hands of city council to sort out.

Or is it?

A rarely used section of the Police Act could be tested by the police board or city council, if either body is not satisfied with the outcome of council’s decision Dec. 8 on the board’s requested operating budget for police in 2021.

Precedence for the use of such an appeal mechanism can be found in a dispute that occurred on Vancouver Island when the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board requested an additional six officers be added to the Victoria Police Department’s 2018 operating budget.

Victoria city council agreed to fund a portion of the $642,000 cost of hiring the officers, but Esquimalt council did not. That led Esquimalt council and the police board to make separate applications under a section of the Police Act for a determination of whether funding for six new officers should be included in the Victoria police’s budget.

The board said at the time the six additional officers were required in order to provide an adequate and effective level of policing and law enforcement in Victoria and Esquimalt.

The applications were made to the B.C. government’s director of police services, who was Clayton Pecknold at the time. Pecknold conducted a review, with the assistance of two independent consultants, including retired RCMP superintendent and former West Vancouver police chief, Peter Lepine.

In February 2019, acting assistant deputy minister and director of police services, Tonia Enger, wrote a letter to Esquimalt’s chief administrative officer and the mayors of Esquimalt and Victoria to inform them the six officers should be included in the Victoria police’s budget.

“Matters related to public safety, mental health, addictions and other challenging societal concerns impact the demands for police time and resources; while innovative cross-disciplined teams such as community action teams and outreach are attempts to put policing into the proactive and preventative place among health and social services responses, the fact remains that front-line policing will continue to be required for the maintenance of public safety and ensuring public confidence in police,” Enger said. “When resource pressures exceed available personnel, what greatly suffers first is the proactive and preventative work. In my view, such work is not ‘nice to have’ but is in fact a necessity.”

On Monday, as reported by Glacier Media, the Vancouver Police Board approved a $322-million provisional operating budget for the VPD in 2021. The budget’s amount equates to a $6.4 million increase, or two per cent, over the department’s 2020 budget.

Police Chief Adam Palmer described the budget to council Tuesday as a “status quo, keep the lights on” budget, which includes $350,000 to help fund the city’s 11 community policing centres.

Palmer also talked about the increase in crime in the city and how an independent review of the department’s operations in 2017 led to the previous council agreeing to hire 120 police officers and 52 civilians between 2018 and 2022.

At least 20 officers and 10 civilians were to be hired next year but that is not included in the department’s police board-approved budget, which the board’s finance committee said was omitted in recognition of the city’s financial pressures from the pandemic.

City staff, meanwhile, released a report last week that recommends city council shave $3.1 million for the VPD’s budget — a move to have police fall in line with other city departments required to make at least a one per cent cut to alleviate the city’s revenue losses related to the pandemic.

Staff have estimated revenue loss at $85 million.

The difference in what the police board approved and what city staff has recommended is $3.4 million, or $3,493,668, which could translate to council adding the increase to an anticipated property tax hike, or cutting from other areas of the city’s overall $1.6-billion operating budget.

Alternatively, council could agree with city staff’s recommendation to cut $3.1 million from the VPD’s budget, which may trigger the board to write to the director of police services, a position now held by Brenda Butterworth-Carr, the former head of the B.C. RCMP.

The roots of this division in dollars goes back to May when city council voted in an in-camera meeting to request the police department cut one per cent from this year’s budget. The votes were never released, but Glacier Media polled councillors in June and heard from five who supported a cut. 

Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who doubles as chairperson of the police board, was more nuanced in his answer. He said he has two advisors in city manager Sadhu Johnston and Police Chief Adam Palmer.

“With that hat on [as mayor], I would say yeah, I think all departments should do their part,” Stewart said. “On the other side, the chief says this will affect operations. I also believe him when he says that. Both the top advisors on these are both correct, but we have to find a middle ground, and I think that’s where this discussion will get to.”

The VPD’s budget has dominated the first two days of hearings on the overall $1.6-billion operating budget, with more than 200 people registered to speak to council. 

Some have supported the VPD’s provisional budget, many want police funding diverted to services for mental health, addictions and homelessness and at least one person called for the department to be abolished.

A third day of hearings is expected Thursday before council reconvenes Dec. 8 for debate and decision.

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

@Howellings