Cars at police HQ. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Inside Calgary city council’s reversal on police funding

Councillors approved cuts — but ultimately gave cops more.

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The Sprawl first launched to cover Calgary's 2017 civic election. Now we're back for another round. We don't have paywalls, and we don't have ads. Instead, we rely on our readers and listeners to support our work. If you like what you see, become a Sprawl member today and we'll mail you our latest print zine, featuring exclusive stories you won't find online!

In the wake of an international reckoning on racial injustice and police brutality sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Calgary city hall hosted a public hearing on systemic racism in July 2020.

A panel co-chaired by Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra and University of Calgary political scientist Malinda Smith heard three days of testimony from BIPOC people about their experiences with racism in all sectors of society—education, law enforcement, healthcare, workplaces and city services.

“People are sharing their stories. These stories are re-intensifying the trauma they felt initially,” said Smith, who urged her fellow panelists to “act with integrity, with courage… and act to change the situation.”

Adam Massiah spoke on the hearing’s second day, succinctly summarizing his encounters with police as a 27-year-old Black man born and raised in Calgary. “I’ve been punched in the face, called [the n-word], choked out, called ‘boy’ by people wearing the uniform,” Massiah said at the time. “[Racism] exists overtly and covertly.”

In light of the hearings, Coun. Evan Woolley put forward a motion on November 2 to reduce police funding and redirect the funds into a community safety investment framework for mental health and addictions supports.

The plan was to cut the police budget by $10 million in 2021 and another $10 million in 2022—just 2.5% of the Calgary Police Service’s (CPS) annual budget. This passed 9-5 after acrimonious debate.

The plan was to cut the police budget by $10 million in 2021 and another $10 million in 2022.

Police came to council’s late-November budget deliberations with a proposal to re-allocate $8 million from their 2021 budget for this purpose, a move they had hinted at as early as September.

But by the end of the next day, council reversed its position from earlier that month, offering to redirect $8 million from the city’s reserves instead.

How did city council go from cutting police funding to giving the CPS more money than it requested?

What it means to ‘defund the police’

Central to this debate is the meaning of the phrase “defund the police,” which has served as a rallying cry from racial justice activists calling on municipalities to take funds from bloated police budgets and redirect them towards addressing the root causes of crime.

Activists at Defund2Fund in Calgary call for a 30% cut to the police budget—about $120 million—to “be reallocated and reinvested throughout our communities, to rebuild trust and to rectify systemic barriers.”

The backlash was swift against Woolley and the eight other council members, including the mayor, who voted for his motion to cut the police budget. Councillor and mayoral candidate Jeromy Farkas accused his fellow councillors of engaging in a “dangerous attempt to appease extremists,” while Alberta Justice Minister Kaycee Madu called the motion “left-wing virtue signalling” aimed at pandering to “a bunch of socialists.”

Woolley insisted he was doing nothing of that sort, saying the 2.5% cut he proposed was a far cry from what Defund2Fund were advocating.

“You can call it whatever you want. You can call it a flying sausage, but just call it what it is. Let’s be honest. It is ‘defund the police,’” said Coun. Sean Chu, who voted against the $10-million motion.

They went through all this trouble to get people [together] to listen, and then they did the complete opposite months later.

Leslyn Joseph,

Defund2Fund organizer & Ward 10 candidate

Massiah, who now works for Woolley as a liason to the BIPOC community, says he finds the “defund” terminology somewhat problematic. “It gives room for people to twist and misconstrue the meaning of what it actually is,” he said.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi agrees that this terminology can be misleading. “What we’re doing here is funding a better system,” Nenshi said in a December 2020 year-end interview. “But I think some people are—either ignorantly or wilfully—pretending that ‘defund the police’ means ‘abolish the police.’”

The question of $8 million—from whom?

Nenshi says it was a “great victory” for police to have come forward offering to reduce their budget by $8 million.

“The fact that police came to us in September and said, ‘We believe systemic racism is a problem in the police, we believe that we can do a better job on community mental health support and we’re backing that up with money’—that is a big deal,” said Nenshi.

He says council offered to pony up $8 million of its own as a compromise with councillors who insisted on a concrete plan before asking the CPS for funds—a position Nenshi said he disagrees with.

The mayor didn’t name names, but appeared to be referencing councillors Diane Colley-Urquhart and Peter Demong, who repeatedly voted against re-allocation at the decisive November 26 budget meeting until it came from reserves.

The motion that was ultimately passed allows police to contribute its own $8 million, but doesn’t require them to. That decision is ultimately up to the police commission—not council nor the CPS itself.

What we’re doing here is funding a better system.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi

Nenshi says he believes the police will contribute its voluntary share to the community safety framework, which will double the amount of money going towards the fund.

“There’s always going to be people who say, ‘I’d rather fight than win,’” said Nenshi. “But ultimately I’m interested in coming up with something that works for the city and makes sure that people of colour—particularly Black and Indigenous people—see the police as an element of their safety, not as something that’s threatening.”

As recently as 2019, the police commission said it had “no more flexibility to make cuts without changing the trajectory of Calgary’s police service.” A year, a pandemic and worldwide protests against police brutality later, it became clear that it is precisely the trajectory of the CPS that must change.

What was the purpose of anti-racism hearings?

Defund2Fund organizer Leslyn Joseph, who also presented at the July hearings, says she was spurred to action after learning of the “ridiculous” amount of funding the CPS gets annually—it is consistently the number one budget item, with transit coming a distant second.

She says the group’s membership runs the gamut from those who want to outright abolish the police to those who seek relatively minor re-allocations. Joseph says her focus is on demilitarizing the police by getting rid of its armoured vehicles and helicopters. Two new HAWC helicopters cost the city $5.5 million each last year, while a new armoured vehicle purchased in 2019 cost more than $500,000.

You can call it a flying sausage, but just call it what it is. Let’s be honest. It is defund the police.‘

Sean Chu,

Ward 4 councillor

Joseph, who’s running for council in Ward 10, said she addressed the anti-racism hearings because she thought it was a good opportunity to discuss her experiences as a Black woman in the city’s northeast, despite concerns she shared with other presenters that the process was rushed, with each speaker only allotted five minutes.

But council’s ultimate reversal on police funding made her question the hearing’s purpose.

“Did you actually listen to us, or were you just there?” Joseph asked rhetorically. “They went through all this trouble to get people [together] to listen, and then they did the complete opposite months later.”

After the budget vote, Woolley said he appreciates activists’ frustration, despite his having voted with the majority to dip into city reserves.

“Where the money sits is where the power lies,” Woolley told the Calgary Herald. (Woolley didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.)

“The power and accountability of the money staying within the police budget as opposed to the power and accountability of council taking that money and owning that budget—that is I think where the disappointment will be.”

Farkas, Chu and Magliocca sought to take funding from arts

When Farkas, who didn’t make himself available for comment on this story, voted against Woolley’s motion, he said that any money going towards alternative response models should come from the city’s rainy-day fund.

But when it came time for budget deliberations, Farkas kicked off a series of proposed amendments by demanding the community safety funds be taken from the arts budget, which was rejected 11-3, with councillors Joe Magliocca and Chu joining Farkas in support.

When the final compromise motion came forward and council voted to take the $8 million out of its reserves rather than the police budget, the trio still voted no.

Chu, a former CPS officer, believes the city should only fund “core services,” which includes policing but not, he says, the arts.

“For any prosperous society, you’ve got to have strong law and order,” said Chu. “When you don’t have a lot of money, and you’ve lost your job and home, do you buy a beautiful piece of expensive art to put on your wall so you feel better? No, I’d suggest that’s not the case.”

Chu says he voted against re-allocating funds from reserves because the community safety framework is another example of an unnecessary “feel good” expense.

Police were surprised by council’s manoeuvre

Deputy CPS chief Katie McLellan says the police went to the November 25 budget meeting with the full intention of accepting an $8-million reduction to start the community safety fund. But the next day, council passed its motion to cull the funds from reserves.

“We had not expected that,” she told The Sprawl.

Chief Mark Neufeld, who was unavailable for comment, presented to council about the consequences of removing $8 million. This cut would result in less travel and training, which had already been reduced by COVID, a decrease in officers through attrition, slower investigations and a reduced ability to deal with day-to-day crimes.

However, the CPS’s position was that it was worth it for the assistance to citizens in crisis, reduced call volume and increased efficiency.

McLellan says the police service “verbally committed” to using the $8 million it had initially offered to continue funding anti-racism work, enhancing community partnerships, examining possibilities for call diversion, and its diversity, inclusion and equity work—as well as launching reviews of the body-worn camera and school resource officer programs.

Where the money sits is where the power lies.

Evan Woolley,

Ward 8 councillor

The cops weren’t the only ones surprised by council dipping into its reserves. “We didn’t expect it to come from reserves at all,” says Joseph. “When that came up we were like, ‘What is happening?’”

It’s now up to the police commission to hold the CPS accountable and ensure those funds are re-directed accordingly, Joseph added.

In the wake of council’s $8-million vote, Defund2Fund gave out grades to the various actors in the debate—including F for Chu, Magliocca, Farkas and Carra; D for Nenshi, Colley-Urquhart and Demong; and C- for Woolley.

In an ironic twist, the highest grade was a B- for Chief Neufeld.

“[Neufeld] didn’t waffle, so we gave him a passing grade,” said Joseph. “Councillors waffled quite a bit and settled on something that was not asked for by anybody, so we gave them Ds, Cs and Fs.”

‘This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon’

Although council ultimately didn’t move to take control of $8 million from the police budget, Massiah and Joseph are hopeful the discussion sparked by the anti-racism hearings and Coun. Woolley’s motion was the start of something bigger.

Massiah describes watching the 30% Defund2Fund initially demanded dwindle down to 2.5%, which he said is still an improvement over the status quo.

“This is a step in the right direction,” he said. “At least it shows there’s some skin in the game.”

Massiah recalls being puzzled by the $8 million figure offered by the police and then pulled from reserves.

“If you think this is a small problem—that $8 million is going to address decades of systematic racism in a city of over 1.3 million people—then I don’t think you’re really looking to solve the problem, looking at the longevity of what this is going to take,” he said.

But Massiah still credits Woolley for bringing re-allocation to the table, Mayor Nenshi for his support, and Chief Neufeld for his willingness to re-allocate $8 million, even if it didn’t quite come to fruition.

“This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” said Massiah. “There’s going to be push back. There’s going to be downs.”

So what’s next for Defund2Fund? Joseph says to stay tuned.

“We’re not done,” said Joseph. “We’re quiet but we’re still here.”

Jeremy Appel is the municipal politics reporter for The Sprawl.

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The Sprawl first launched to cover Calgary's 2017 civic election. Now we're back for another round. We don't have paywalls, and we don't have ads. Instead, we rely on our readers and listeners to support our work. If you like what you see, become a Sprawl member today and we'll mail you our latest print zine, featuring exclusive stories you won't find online!