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Critics call $12.4 million increase to police budget 'incompatible' with problems facing region

Calls are growing for regional council to deny a big budget increase request by Waterloo Regional Police Service
WRPS recruit class 106
Waterloo Regional Police Service recruits.

Calls are growing for regional council to deny a $12.4 million increase in the Waterloo Regional Police Service’s 2022 budget and instead reallocate that funding to community organizations that can better address the root causes of crime and violence in Waterloo region.

During Wednesday’s community input session on the region’s draft 2022 budget, four delegations spoke in support of a call to action campaign led by ReAllocateWR and GroundUpWR.

The coalition of concerned residents believe funding police to this extent fails to address the underlying issues fuelling crime in the region.

They’re demanding a more balanced approach that addresses homelessness, addiction, mental health and equity for underfunded communities as a way to prevent crime and reduce the need for police response.  

Last week, the police service board backed a proposed budget increase of 6.71 per cent, hiking WRPS's overall budget to $198 million next year. That's almost a third of the region’s entire operating budget, with most of that increase dedicated to hiring 35 more officers.

Chief of Police Bryan Larkin told the board he wouldn’t be asking for more resources if the community didn’t need it.

Waterloo Region Police Service has the third lowest ratio of staffing in the country with 187 staff members per 100,000 residents.

But University of Waterloo students Elizabeth Robertson and Rachel Jones said they believe keeping the community safe, starts with addressing the root causes of crime.

Robertson said the police budget represents a “huge imbalance” and said the region should invest more heavily in ways to prevent a crime rather than focusing on police.

Police can’t prevent the problems we are concerned about, she said.

“If we want fewer drug overdoses, fewer mental health crises and less gun violence, we should be investing in addiction services, mental health services, community cultural centres and affordable housing,” Jones said.

This year saw over 35 per cent of the region’s overall budget go toward reactive services like police and paramedics, Jones added. While only 16 per cent went to prevention services like housing, mental health, income support, public health, and crime prevention.

Robertson said with a new police station being built at a cost of $45 million, and more officers being added, she’s not optimistic the police budget will shrink in the next few years.

A budget increase now will continue to affect the availability of funds for other services in the future, she said.

“Do we want to keep playing catch up by reacting to issues like houselessness, opioid addiction, or do we want a future where such issues are a striking rarity?” Robertson said. “We believe that saying no to further increases of the policing budget is the first step in allocating funds to a health and safety of our future community.”

Kristen Thompson, a lawyer at Waterloo Region Community Legal Services, said much of her work over the last year has been providing advice and legal services to low income tenants who are arrears due to mental health crisis or addictions.

She’s asking the region to allocate more funding to affordable housing initiatives, mental health services, addiction treatment and rent subsidies to help people like “Laura,” a 61-year-old woman living on a disability payment of $1,110 each month, 90 per cent of which goes to rent. 

Thompson’s client is now facing homelessness as early as January because her landlord couldn’t offer a cheaper apartment and she owes $3,000 in back rent.

Another client she called “Cindy” suffers from a mental health disability that requires medical assistance that often isn’t available when she needs it. 

Right now Cindy is getting help to stay housed, but the outreach team helping her doesn’t provide crisis services after hours. Instead those calls go to police, creating a potentially dangerous outcome for Cindy. 

Reallocating money from the police budget would help make our community healthier, safer and more inclusive, Thompson said.

Kitchener resident Stephen Furmaniuk said he felt compelled to appear before council knowing how badly other areas need funding.

Local food bank use is at an all-time high, he said, unhoused people in the region now number over 1,000, mental health issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and shelter services are at capacity.

He says the proposed increase in the police budget struck him as “incompatible with what is happening in the region at this moment.”

On the other hand, he recognizes "the complex and varied role of the police in the community."

“Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see a police car patrolling the neighbourhood where I live,” he said.

But these issues “just won’t be solved by police funding."

That money should instead be directed to community groups so they can take the pressure off police and allow them to focus on the core of their job, he said.

“Council has the authority to send that huge budget back to the police services board and I request that you strongly consider doing that,” Furmaniak said. “This crisis is real and demands compassionate, courageous and creative solutions.”

In a written statement, Kevin White said the funding imbalance caused by this year’s police budget likely exacerbated the current housing crisis by limiting the amount of funding available to upstream services like homeless shelters and other support services.

“Of all the services that were stretched more than ever, the only one to receive an increase to budget was police services, an institution” that “has the audacity to ask for such an increase while acknowledging immense institutional and systemic failure which continues to go unaddressed.”

With others, White is asking council to support calls from ReallocateWR to reject the proposed increase in the police budget and allot the equivalent to a community-led homelessness and housing affordability strategy including the immediate development and/or procurement of housing stock and shelter space.

The group also wants the region to develop an Indigenous community hub at the Charles Street bus terminal, fulfill a commitment to lead community conversations and action plans for a police free community care model and commit $1 million towards funding mental health resources and services for Indigenous Black and People of Colour (IBPOC), 2SLGBTQIA, persons living with disabilities and "other communities impacted by the trauma of police violence."