Victoria police seek budget increase to hire six new officers

Victoria police want to hire six new officers, including three dedicated to working with a psychiatric nurse in response to 911 emergency mental-health calls.

The 2022 police budget, to be presented at a joint meeting of Victoria and Esquimalt councils next Tuesday, calls for the addition of one officer to the Assertive Community Treatment team. Last summer, the ACT team was reduced from three officers to one, despite concerns from mental-health workers that the loss of two officers would jeopardize their safety and reduce their ability to help the city’s most vulnerable.

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Victoria police want to hire a cultural liaison officer to build bridges with the Indigenous, Black and people of colour communities and a sergeant to investigate cybercrime. The department also wants to hire civilians, including a records specialist, a data analyst and front desk staff to ease the workload of front-line officers. “It’s a big ask,” said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, lead co-chair of the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board. “But it’s what’s necessary.

“I think probably both Victoria and Esquimalt councils realize this budget fills needs that are unmet. I’m optimistic council will look at this and see the hard work that the police board and the police department have done. It’s a budget that needs to be passed. It’s a budget that meets the needs of our community.”

The requested 2022 budget of $63,399,705 is an increase of 7.05 per cent over 2021. Victoria police face an increase in crime and violence, and have been plagued by a rash of attacks on officers. Three officers were taken to hospital in early September. In late September, an officer was run over by a stolen car outside Our Place, which helps vulnerable people.

Helps said she is optimistic at least five members of Victoria council will support the core budget and see these new resources “as necessary for public safety to patch holes in provincial mental-health funding.”

Council has heard over and over that many are opposed to having police officers respond to mental-health calls, said the mayor. If the budget is approved, three new officers will be deployed to a co-responder or mobile crisis team. When a 911 call comes in, a psychiatric nurse will respond to the call with an officer in plain clothes.

“The nurse will go in first, see how things are,” said Helps. “If police are needed, they’re there. If they’re not, they’re not. And right now that doesn’t exist. If you call 911, only the police can go.”

Right now, the lone ACT team officer is dealing with 400 clients, which is not sustainable and doesn’t make sense, said Helps. Hiring a second ACT team officer will make the caseload lighter.

The co-responder teams come at a cost of $446,000. The estimated costs for the ACT team and cultural liaison officer is $98,745 each. The cybercrime investigator is expected to cost $127,500.

Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, co-chair of the police board, said the budget provides much-needed resources for the Victoria Police Department and its officers, who are being challenged to maintain public safety while significantly shorthanded. “VicPD needs help and this budget is being built to make up for years of not requesting possibly what was needed,” Desjardins said. “But because of the crisis VicPD is in right now, absolutely I’m supportive of getting this budget to councils to have a look at.”

Desjardins said she could not comment on whether her council will approve the 2022 budget. “We don’t even look at it until the new year,” she said. “This is always just an information session for council.”

Staff Sgt. Matt Waterman, executive director of the Victoria City Police Union, said he is happy to see an increase in staffing, although he believes the department is 20 to 30 members short of what it needs.

“We want anything that will enhance public safety and help us deal with street crime and appropriate mental-health care,” said Waterman. “Now is not the time to underfund us.”

The joint council meeting is open to the public. Each council will then deliberate and make decisions on the police budget in their respective budget processes in late 2021 and early 2022.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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