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Victoria police defend call for more officers, role in overdose prevention

Critics say harm reduction alternatives a better investment
Victoria Police chief Del Manak addresses a question about hiring requirements for VicPD during last night’s budget town hall. VicPD took to Twitter during the meeting to discuss their request for increased funding in the 2019 budget. (City of Victoria)

The Victoria Police Department took to Twitter during last night’s budget town hall to defend its call for a six per cent increase to the city’s policing budget and its role in overdose prevention.

In November, the department requested over $57 million for their 2019 budget from Victoria and Esquimalt – a $3 million increase that would fund the hiring request of additional police officers – 12 new staff members, who would come in over the next three years – as well as operating costs and adjustments for new policies. The proposed police budget amounts to a 1.22 per cent increase to property taxes.

The provisional budget carries over the request for six officers denied by the Township of Esquimalt last year.

VicPD’s tweets followed comments from speaker Kim Mackenzie, who urged the city to put the money requested by police towards community-based solutions and harm reduction.

“This city is the most over-policed city in Canada,” she said. “Over-policing is hurting our marginalized communities.”

Police took to Twitter during the meeting saying: “It is not just crime trends you should look at when talking about our budget. Calls for service, complexity of investigations as well as a lack of increase to our strength in 8 yrs [sic], a period that has seen significant growth in the population of our jurisdiction.”

RELATED: Victoria Police department seeks to hire 12 new staff members

During her time at the mic, Mackenzie said policing has too much power in society and asked council to explore other options.

“Alternatives to policing not only reduce the harms inherent in our law enforcement, they eliminate the extreme imbalance of power between police and marginalized citizens who experience criminalization,” she claimed. “We need to start thinking about alternatives that are more cost-effective and better for our community.”

Mackenzie isn’t the only critic of the VicPD’s request for funding.

Marilou Gagnon, whose Twitter profile says she is the president of the Harm Reduction Nurses Association, tweeted to police that they should not be responding to overdose calls – something she said increases VicPD workload and deters drug users from calling 9-1-1.

VicPD spokesperson Const. Matt Rutherford said the police force’s priority is saving lives.

“Initially when the crisis began we were attending these calls, but it was quickly determined that it was a health crisis.,” he told Black Press. “We are not the primary responder to overdose calls – it’s the B.C. ambulance service.”

Still, some officers are equipped with Naloxone, Rutherford said, adding that officers are dispatched when they are closer to the overdose call.

“If we’re close to somebody who’s dying we’re going to try to assist them,” he said. “Our role is saving lives. As police officers we have a common law duty to protect life and property.”

Rutherford addressed concerns that police make arrests at overdose scenes – something critics say deters drug users from calling for help.

“I think there’s a common goal to save people’s lives, as it’s a health issue, not a criminal issue,” he said. “There needs to be more working together to come up with solutions [rather] than debating police attendance to these calls.”

With files from Nicole Crescenzi.

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