KNOX – Beyond politics, the grim reality of police cuts

IT WOULD BE TEMPTING to dismiss the latest glumness out of the Victoria Police Department as political posturing. Tempting, but incorrect.

Don’t get me wrong. VicPD hasn’t exactly been quiet about the flaming bag of dog crap that Victoria city council dumped in its lap this spring.

After the activist faction on council — not a group that, ideologically, tilts naturally to The Man — balked at filling the $690,000 hole left in the police budget by B.C.’s new employer health tax, VicPD made sure the public knew what the fallout would be.

When the department announced it could no longer afford to police special events like Canada Day, and when it reduced the front-desk hours at the cop shop, it could be seen as shovelling the manure back onto council’s side of the fence.

Such manoeuvring happens sometimes when politicians restrict spending. The party whose budget got squeezed makes a show of pointing to the popular programs they had to slash — music in schools, say, or mental-health services in hospitals — as the inevitable consequence of penny-pinching. “Government wouldn’t give us money for dog food,” they lament, “so we had to shoot the puppy.”

So when Police Chief Del Manak announced this week that VicPD has disbanded its crime-reduction unit, redeploying its nine members to bolster the ranks of patrol officers he described as “breaking” under the never-ending stress, there were probably a few knowing smirks among those who figured the chief was playing to the public’s emotions.

Except the kind of stories Manak told — 911 calls going unanswered, overwhelmed officers cracking under the unrelenting pressure of “horrific, horrific scenes” — have been circulating for months, and not just among those looking to leverage them for change. Seasoned street cops have been talking about levels of burnout never seen before.

“There are only a certain number of overdoses and fatals and domestics that you can go to, and keep going to, before it starts to show,” says Andy Dunstan.

He knows, having retired in 2018 after 32 years of policing, first in Britain, then Calgary, Oak Bay and, for the final 14 years, Victoria.

“There are no breaks,” he says. “There’s no rest.” No reinforcements to ride to the rescue. No down time to recover. No hope of transferring to a relatively quiet, drama-free post after flaming out, either, not in Victoria.

“Everything is front line, in your face, all the time.”

“I definitely think it’s getting worse,” he says.

Social issues and the opioid crisis are outpacing resources, but people balk at paying for more of the latter — right up until they call 911. “Nobody wants 100 more ambulances until you need one.” That’s just the way of the world.

Full disclosure: Dunstan has been a friend of a dozen years. He was one of the team trainers on the Tour de Rock, cheerfully singing Dixie Chicks with an English accent, which was just wrong. I remember moaning to him about some minor work matter one day, only to learn from someone else later that Andy had just come from — at no small risk to himself — disarming a kid who had been holding a knife to another kid’s throat. Most of us don’t deal with that kind of stuff at the office.

Few cops expect their reality to change, he says. “You’ve just got to be proud about what you do and not so proud about asking for help.”

Note that Mayor Lisa Helps, the police board co-chair, wanted to fund VicPD’s $690,000 employer health tax. Those on council who outvoted her can argue, accurately, that even without that hit, the overall police budget still rose 3.2 per cent (although the increase was gobbled up by rising costs) and that Victoria shoulders a disproportionate amount of the region’s police spending.

Still, given all the new projects on which council spent so freely in other areas this year, it’s crazy that squeezing the police budget left us with a police department that can’t afford something as basic as a crime-reduction unit (one that targets prolific offenders) and is forced to use up people until, as Manak puts it, they “break.”

By the way, Thursday was PTSD Awareness Day.

Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloopsian who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.

About Mel Rothenburger (7464 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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