Comment: Find solutions to build safer community

After weeks of public consultations, the newly elected Victoria city council will soon vote on its yearly budget. As in previous years, the Victoria Police Department has put forward a request to increase its budget — this time by 6.1 per cent or a total spending of $57 million for 2019-20.

With this money, Police Chief Del Manak wants to hire six new officers and a civilian, the majority of whom will form a quick-response team for the downtown core. In response to this proposal, community members have voiced questions and concerns about the budget increase itself (which largely exceeds inflation and the national average), the percentage of city budget allocated to policing as opposed to other programs and priorities, and the “need” for more officers, particularly in the downtown core.

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They have also proposed innovative, rigorously researched and feasible community-based solutions to address issues that do not require police intervention in Victoria.

In 2015, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police released a report entitled The Dollars and Sense of Policing, Public Safety and Well-Being in Your Community. In this report, the association argued that crime rates — which are at an all-time low in Canada — fail to capture the calls attended by police officers. In fact, up to 80 per cent of these calls are not related to criminal offences.

This is consistent with Manak’s assessment of the situation in Victoria, where he states that “the bulk of the calls” attended by police officers are related to “social disorder” (i.e. mental health, substance use and homelessness).

As nurses who work closely with marginalized communities disproportionately targeted and affected by law enforcement, we are deeply concerned by the optics of investing more public funding into an approach that can be harmful, costly and counterproductive, while leaving the root causes of “social disorder” unaddressed. Adding more police officers is a Band-Aid solution that is unlikely to pay off for the citizens of Victoria.

Manak was right when he said, on Jan. 16: “Decisions about policing in Victoria must use the best evidence.” As researchers, we understand the importance of evidence-informed policies and public spending.

However, “best evidence” requires us to go beyond the data produced by the police department (i.e. number of calls, number of officers, crime rates, etc.) and include research evidence produced by independent researchers and organizations.

We should also look at best practices across the province, the country and even internationally to determine how to address issues related to mental health, substance use and homelessness without defaulting to law enforcement.

The logic is simple: These issues are social and health issues, not criminal issues. And the research is clear: Increasing law enforcement does not lead to positive social and health outcomes for marginalized communities. Cost-effective and evidence-based solutions that are known to produce positive outcomes include affordable housing, safer shelter spaces, community-based programs and services including building strong community associations and networks, school-based programs, access to public washrooms, crisis teams staffed with peers and trained frontline workers, just to name a few.

As a city, we need to do our own research. We need to understand the underlying reasons for increased police calls when crime is going down. We also need to understand why the bulk of these calls are related to “social disorder.”

What are we not doing that is driving these calls? What are the consequences of asking police to intervene with people who live with a mental illness, who use substances and/or who experience homelessness? What misunderstandings, fears and stereotypes are at play when a call is placed to the police department?

It seems to us that we should try to tackle these questions as a community and invest in solutions that can contribute to building a stronger and safer community for all.

Marilou Gagnon, RN, PhD, is an associate professor, and Bernie Pauly, RN, PhD, is a professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Victoria.

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