Calgary police emerge from 4-day budget debate with more money than they asked for

·4 min read

Calgary police showed up at city council with a proposal for cuts, but most of that money was restored by councillors on Thursday.

City council voted to invest $8 million in one-time seed money earmarked for examining alternative call responses — essentially working with community partners with the goal of reducing police call volumes for things like mental health checks.

The approval means the city can start examining ways to make that happen.

The funds were supposed to come from the 2021 police budget as proposed to council, but will now come from city reserve funds, with the Calgary Police Service contributing $2 million to the process.

CPS is welcome to continue providing its own $8 million to the process, but that's not required.

Council also opened the possibility of up to $10 million in additional funding if the province shows up with more money for the police.

City council does not direct the police where and how to spend their allotted money, that is up to the police commission.

The police serivce said it could absorb $20 million in costs associated with COVID as part of its budget adjustment, and council was to debate whether to pull back a $10-million increase scheduled to kick in next year.

A motion to prevent taking that $10 million from next year's police budget was defeated earlier in the day.

Tension in chambers

The vote came after a tense morning of debate in chambers, where Coun. Ward Sutherland lamented council had hit "a new low."

Debate was heavy on rhetoric around public safety, law and order, taxes and other services, including the arts, and started with a proposal from Coun. Joe Magliocca to restore $10 million in funding to the police for new recruits.

That was later amended by Coun. Jeromy Farkas to pull that money from arts funding.

Both of those motions were defeated.

Coun. Ward Sutherland said those supporting cuts to arts were hypocrites who attended cultural events throughout the city and then wanted them gutted.

"Yes, you can have different views, but overall we need to work together to govern our city, and it's not happening," said Sutherland.

"This year has been the most disappointing year in my life."

Other departments cut

Councillors questioned why council would ask every city department to absorb cuts to their budgets and then increase funding to police after the service presented a framework for cuts they could live with.

In the end, a compromise was reached, with the funding coming from the fiscal sustainability reserve.

The tense debates in the chamber have followed months of heated rhetoric around just what it means to "defund" the police, with proponents calling for more money for mental health and addictions issues and for partners to alleviate the burden on officers.

Police Chief Mark Neufeld has supported the reallocation of money to other organizations but wants to see a direct link to reduced call volumes for officers.

Defunding has been a rallying call for Black, Indigenous and people of colour who say the police must face up to systemic racism and change the way they operate.

Those who called for changes will likely be disappointed, as outlined by Coun. Evan Woolley, who first proposed $20 million over two years be cut from the police budget and reallocated to other services.

"I hope that the community will continue to hold our feet to the fire, and to continue to hold us accountable because the work is not done yet, it's not nearly done yet," said Woolley.

'We need reform'

Opponents of reallocating funds have painted the move as an assault on front-line officers who could suffer without more police on the streets, although Neufeld said that would not happen if the service lost the $8 million.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said earlier in the day that he was pleased to see council moving toward coming up with concrete solutions.

"We need reform. We need policing reform. But the second half of defund-to-fund is the important part for me: what is it we're building?' he said.

"I'm not interested in being punitive. I'm not interested in saying I want to take away money from you because you have money. I want to say I want to fund something great."

That reduction is part of the city's plan to cut $90 million in spending across all departments in order to bring in a tax freeze for 2021. It occupied two days of the week-long budget adjustment debates.