Report on 'defunding' Halifax police recommends reforms, no specific budget cuts

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A committee tasked with defining how to defund Halifax-area police has instead produced a wide-ranging report recommending a shift away from a "reactive" enforcement-based policing model -- but it includes no specific budget cuts.

The report, prepared for the city's Board of the Police Commissioners by a 14-member subcommittee, was formally presented to the board on Monday by subcommittee chairwoman El Jones. It makes 36 recommendations on police practices, oversight and accountability.

But the subcommittee said it did not have enough data to recommend a specific amount to be cut from the police budget.

"We have tried to find a middle ground between the two extremes of just offering a definition (of defunding) versus prescribing, step by step, how to defund the Halifax Regional Police," the report said.

"We lay out a suite of reforms drawn from our public consultation. In this way, our recommendations are designed to bring about a wholesale shift away from a reactive, enforcement-based model and towards a proactive, supportive model of community safety."

The police board tasked the committee to conduct its review in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd in the city of Minneapolis by a police officer. That incident caused a movement to "defund the police" in the United States, which influenced activists in Canada.

The subcommittee included in the report results from an online survey that received 2,351 responses. It said 56.8 per cent of survey participants indicated support for the idea of defunding the police, while 43.2 per cent of respondents did not. It noted that support for defunding was higher among women, gender-diverse people and people with disabilities, compared to men.

"There is not agreement on what defunding means," Jones said Monday during the police board meeting. "Some people that indicated that they did not support defunding nonetheless did support ideas such as removing mental health (response) from police."

Among its recommendations, the report called for "detasking," which would remove certain functions from the police, such as responding to mental health calls. Those calls would instead be given to teams composed of civilians. It concluded that the current model of mental health crisis intervention in the Halifax Regional Municipality is "outdated and no longer aligned with best practices."

Jones told the board that while police do not support the defunding concept, they recognize they should not be the first line of response for every incident. "In order to get there that is not just resting on the police … we also more broadly need to rethink about how we are constructing society," she said. "So, in order to shift away from policing, we also need to shift the way we resource other organizations."

The report said police should be "detasked" from other duties, including traffic enforcement and safety; third-party sexual assault reporting; and incidents involving homeless people, young people, gender-based and intimate-partner violence, drug overdoses and noise complaints.

The subcommittee called for a series of legislative and policy reforms to promote community safety, and it recommended tying police budgets to clear performance metrics. It also called for "participatory budgeting," which would involve members of the community and various organizations in helping to decide how to spend public funds.

As well, it recommended aligning the Halifax police budget with Canadian cities of comparable size, pointing out that the current level of $393 per capita is higher than the national average. "When we look at cities of a comparable size, we are in fact overfunding the police," Jones said.

The report also recommended the police board consider exploring ways of disarming some police officers, such as community response officers, and ways to minimize the use of firearms by police. It said the board needs to provide meaningful oversight of the use by police of special weapons teams, long guns, riot gear and other militarized equipment.

"Defunding the police is in many ways about reinvesting in fundamental and historically underfunded community resources," Jones said. The report recommended diverting some funds to areas such as mental health, substance abuse and affordable housing.

Board member and city councillor Lisa Blackburn said she would table a motion in a future meeting to direct the report to another subcommittee aimed at coming up with a working plan based on the recommendations.

"This report is everything that I wanted it to be and then some," Blackburn said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2022.

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