Penticton politicians have no interest in defunding the police department — the city’s largest expenditure.
If anything, local decision makers would like to see more money allocated to Penticton’s RCMP detachment, which has the highest case load per officer in the province.
Movements to defund police departments have gained traction and become a hot-button issue across North America since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020.
The City of Penticton spends approximately $10 million on police funding annually. The city’s second largest expense in 2019 was the fire department at $5 million.
Still, the city’s police department is woefully under-resourced, according to Penticton RCMP superintendent Brian Hunter. Penticton RCMP officers regularly handle over 100 files each, more than twice the provincial average.
The detachment needs forty-two more police officers in Penticton just to meet the provincial caseload average and at least 20 more officers to meet the minimal number required in the community, Hunter stated to Penticton City Council in an April 21 presentation.
Mayor of Penticton, John Vassilaki cited Hunter’s presentation as one of the many reasons he believes defunding the police would not benefit the city.
Currently, Penticton is in need of additional police resources and city council has made this one of their main priorities, said Vassilaki, adding they are focused on giving the local RCMP what they need to properly serve the community.
“How can we talk about defunding police when we’re not even at the minimal amount of members we require,” said Vassilaki.
“We have to think about how we can keep our community safe and without the role of the police it’s pretty difficult for us to do that.”
One of the main points made by proponents of defunding police departments is that municipalities should put excess police funding towards social services such as mental health and addictions resources.
Penticton’s mayor says the city has already heavily invested in social services without subtracting from the policing budget.
Although Vassilaki doesn’t agree that funding for social services should be taken from police departments, he does agree that there is still a need to improve social development strategies.
The City of Penticton has recently taken steps to invest in social services, such as hiring Adam Goodwin, the city’s first social development manager, in November when the city created its most recent budget.
Goodwin’s role with the city is to organize key groups within the city and ensure advocacy, accountability, and coordination amongst community groups that support those most in need.
One of council’s main priorities under Vassilaki’s leadership is, and will always be, community safety, said the mayor.
“Defunding police is not in the books, it’s not in my head and neither is it one of council’s priorities. We have so many other more important things to worry about … Going after the police isn’t going to help anyone, as a matter of fact it will make things a lot worse than they are.
“We need more police in the City of Penticton to [reduce] their case loads, to make sure they can do a proper job and that we’re all safe.”
Council has begun working on the city’s budget for 2021. One of the main challenges will be maintaining the same level of social support services currently in place due to the loss of revenue from COVID-19, said Vassilaki.
Another hot-topic issue recently has been mandatory body cameras for police officers.
Although the decision would not be up to the City of Penticton, Vassilaki voiced his support for holding police officers accountable for their actions through filming their interactions.
In fact, Vassilaki said he was surprised the federal government hasn’t already enforced body cameras.
The mayor believes that police, in general, do need to be held to a higher standard of accountability but he hasn’t heard of any police misconduct within the City of Penticton.
“Police have to be more accountable to the public, after all the public is what’s paying their salaries and it’s a hefty one in the City of Penticton … Transparency is probably the best thing that can happen, not only for the police, but also for guys like myself and other politicians. Without transparency we’re nothing.”
Overall, the mayor is of the opinion that given limited resources, the Penticton RCMP are doing everything within their power to serve the community in a safe, fair and responsible manner.
“I [have] lived in Penticton for 64 years and I’ve seen a lot of changes in the city,” said Vassilaki. “I’ve never seen the RCMP working as hard or doing as good of a job as they are doing now … As things improve in economic development, I can assure the public we will do the best we can to improve the detachment here.”
Local MLA Dan Ashton, believes that the defunding the South Okanagan RCMP would be counter-productive. Ashton echoed Vassilaki’s sentiments that additional funding for social services is needed but that the money should not come from the RCMP’s budget.
Ashton suggested that RCMP officers are sometimes forced to handle issues they may not necessarily be fully trained to handle.
“RCMP officers are not social workers, they do their best to help enforce the laws.”
In Ashton’s experience, the “vast, vast, vast majority” of RCMP officers do their job properly and he believes taking funding away would hurt their ability to effectively enforce the law.
The Western News reached out to the superintendent of the South Okanagan RCMP, Brian Hunter for this story but he was unable to comment at this time.