At Nelson City Council’s Dec. 14 meeting, West Kootenay People for Racial Justice (WKPRJ) said that in the near future it will formally ask council to reconfigure policing in Nelson.
The goal would be to have mental health issues dealt with not by police, as is often the case now, but by trained human service workers.
Presenting for the group, Shelina Musaji, Erica Scott and Randy Janzen said local organizations that support people in crisis are underfunded, underpaid and over-extended, sometimes with over twice the recommended caseloads.
“So we have the police doing work they are not well trained for and that they don’t really want to be doing that is occupying a lot of their time,” Musaji said, adding that changes would involve the city re-thinking the police budget and other budgets.
Mayor John Dooley responded by decrying the term “defunding the police” even though the WKPRJ did not use that term in its presentation.
“It is becoming difficult for me personally as chair of the police board,” Dooley said, “to feel as though we are the target of this particular initiative.”
He said he wants to see the group put pressure on other provincial organizations about this issue.
“We have very good people policing our community, who do good work every single day and I can tell you it is getting tiring for those folks to be listening to the same pressure being put on them and that they are the only solution to curing this problem around mental health and addiction …”
Musaji responded that her group has been talking to other organizations including Interior Health and the school districts, but that the reason for the law enforcement focus is that there is more at stake when a person has an interaction with the police.
“For the most part in education and health people do not die as a result of racism, they are disadvantaged,” she said. “However, if there is an encounter with a police officer because you are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour), you may die.”
Musaji said her group will not avoid talking about this simply because it makes some people uncomfortable.
“Frankly, these people in these situations feel uncomfortable all the time — people who are on the streets, who are homeless, who have mental health crises, they are uncomfortable all the time, they are the people we should be most concerned about, so I would like to advocate for them.”
Dooley and Councillor Rik Logtenberg pointed out that the city has limited control over its police budget, even though the police are employed by the Nelson Police Board, an appointed group of local people, and even though the police budget is part of the city budget.
“The most that a council can do in B.C. is make recommendations,” Logtenberg said. “We have no authority over the police, and even the budget levels themselves are subject to approval by the province. We can say one thing and have have it overruled.”
In addition to Dooley, the members of the Nelson Police Board are Amed Naqvi, Liz Edwards, Sue Adam, Jane Byers, and Lena Horswill.
Musaji told the Nelson Star that racism and mental health intersect.
“The systemic social and economic impacts of racism adversely affect the mental health of individuals resulting in higher levels of mental health concerns in racialized people, while racism in the mental health system reduces access and availability of appropriate mental health services for racialized groups,” she said.
Musaji told council that nationally, 68 per cent of fatal encounters with law enforcement are with people with mental health issues.
“We want to remind you that there is a lot of bias in policing. We know that BIPOC people are disproportionately targeted in street check data, and there are higher rates of incarceration and over representation in provincial and federal prisons.”
Scott said there is evidence from other jurisdictions that supports the redirection of funds from policing to social work, including Calgary, Vancouver, White Rock and Oregon.
“You as Nelson City Council have the power and the mandate to bring about this change in our community,” she said. “You can choose to augment funding to these organizations and can advocate for increase in provincial funding or federal funding.”
She also called for actions related to the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
“There has to be specifically funded aboriginal specific programs and services. We do not feel that [we have that] here in Nelson.”
Musaji asked that council commit to studying the issue of redefining the role of the police, and then making changes.
Council voted to bring the matter back to a regular business meeting for a decision on how to respond.