Police union hopeful on avoiding layoffs

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Winnipeg’s police union is still hopeful layoffs within the force won’t be necessary, despite a city hall decision not to hike the police budget by more than 6.3 per cent – or $16.7 million.

In their budget estimate, the police service and the police board asked the city to approve a $20-million budget increase just to maintain status-quo operations, later proposing a leaner $18.95-million increase. Without that money, the police service said it may have to cut jobs. It’s proposing layoffs of 40 cadets and 20 new police recruits, as well as cancellation of a 20-officer fall recruit class.

Winnipeg Police Association president Maurice Sabourin said Wednesday he doesn’t believe the job cuts are likely.

“I don’t think so. I think the city will find money somewhere else,” he said, suggesting it might be time to reconsider the police service’s agreement with the city’s fleet management agency. He said WPS could spend less money on police vehicles if it didn’t have to go through fleet management.

‘ … They may save that $2.5 million on the front end, but I’m telling you on the back end, they’re going to be paying overtime out the yin-yang’– Winnipeg Police Association president Maurice Sabourin 

The police board’s request for more money to be shuffled into the police budget – which board chairman Coun. Scott Gillingham openly disagreed with – was shot down unanimously by the executive policy committee. The city’s budget still has to go before council on March 22 for final approval.

“It seems like they’re standing firm but we’re still hoping that they’re going to re-evaluate this and realize that a decrease in members is really going to impact the service and safety to the citizens,” Sabourin said.

Outgoing police chief Devon Clunis has said without that extra $2.5 million, the police service will be forced into a reactive, rather than proactive, role.

Morale among the officers enrolled in the Winnipeg Police Service’s latest recruit class is still good, Sabourin said, even though the police service said 20 of the 37 recruits may have to be cut. They started the spring class only about a month ago, Sabourin said, and they know a final decision hasn’t yet been made.

But if the budget isn’t increased, Sabourin predicts a dip in police morale and a spike in overtime costs.

If job cuts happen, equal numbers of cadets and police officers must be laid off, according to a clause in the police service’s collective agreement with the police association that was put in place to safeguard against replacing police with lower-paid and less-rigorously trained cadets.

“By eliminating the cadets, you’re going to see a bigger demand for police officers, you’re going to see a spike in overtime. Overtime is budgeted right now, for a certain amount, and they may save that $2.5 million on the front end, but I’m telling you on the back end, they’re going to be paying overtime out the yin-yang.”

Overtime costs are already on the rise, according to a police service financial report from May 2015 – the most recent publicly released before the police board. It showed overtime costs rose by more than 20 per cent last year and the police service was on track to be $500,000 over budget for regular overtime by the end of 2015.

Winnipeg’s police budget, which would sit at $280 million after this proposed 6.3 per cent increase, has ballooned by 80 per cent over the past decade, largely due to salary and benefit increases as set out in the collective agreement. They account for 85 per cent of the police budget. The overall cost of policing – taking into account WPS expenses and revenue – has increased by nearly 50 per cent over the past decade and calls for service have spiked by 25 per cent.

Sabourin said police salaries are “market-driven,” and compared during negotiations to those in Edmonton and Calgary.

“For the city to make the argument that policing is unsustainable as a result of salaries and benefits is a bit of a misnomer,” he said, emphasizing that rising costs have more to do with heavier police workloads and a wider range of responsibilities that often see police dealing with the fallout of social issues in the city.

“It’s the courts that have imposed so many decisions upon us that handcuff us to a certain extent, to provide absolutely every little bit of disclosure possible, having to spend the extra time in court, sitting in hospitals with mental-health patients,” among other demands, Sabourin said.

But more police officers doesn’t necessarily mean less crime, said Michael Weinrath, a criminal-justice professor at the University of Winnipeg. He said the police service hasn’t been able to produce enough data to link lower crime rates specifically to its enforcement efforts. He doesn’t believe a smaller-than-requested budget increase will affect crime rates in the city.

“Police unions are smart. They mobilize, and it’s not unusual for them to raise the spectre of public safety being put at risk with these significant cutbacks. The objective reality, if you go back over the last 10 years, is that the police have gotten steady increases (and) they’ve gotten some substantial increases in staffing,” Weinrath said.

About 10 years ago, the police force gained 200 officers, and currently has a complement of about 1,900 officers and civilian staff.

“They were getting increases and being given more police even while the crime rate was going down. They’ve benefited, or did benefit, from a real preoccupation by the public and politicians with crime and the perception of crime. And so while it’s true that in Winnipeg we do have a higher violent crime rate than most other places in the country, the police have gotten substantial (budget) increases and staffing increases to manage that crime,” Weinrath added.

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

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