Horwath says police are ‘necessary’ amid Hamilton budget debates


Published February 23, 2023 at 12:35 pm

hamilton police car
Photo: Anthony Urciuoli file photo

It’s been two weeks since the city council chair suspended a Hamilton budget meeting amid cheers and jeers from the packed gallery. Protestors were on hand, demanding that a proposed $12 million increase to the 2023 Hamilton Police Service’s budget be voted down.

At the crux of the “defund the police” movement — which gained notoriety after officers murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota — is a call for governments to spend less on law enforcement and more on social services that address affordable housing and the mental health crisis as a whole.

Hamilton Mayor Andrea Horwath, who has spent decades championing grassroots activism as the leader of Ontario’s New Democratic Party, offered rare nuance to the fiery debate.

“I think we’re all concerned that we need to have more investments upstream; more investments in mental health, addictions, transitional housing, supportive housing — many of those pieces,” Horwath told inthehammer.com. “In fact, interestingly enough, the Ontario big city mayors’ caucus recently sent a letter to the (Ontario) minister of health because municipalities don’t have the financial capacity to pay for health programs.”

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Encampments became more prominent in Hamilton amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with shelter space limited.

Horwath noted that the city is investing as much as possible in community resources, with plans to invest more in future budgets.

“We’re also funding the programs and services that help people to transition out of the situations they are in when it comes to the most vulnerable,” she said.

“We’re being informed in our work, particularly around homelessness and encampments, by having dialogue and meetings with the frontline service providers, agencies, and organizations that serve the most vulnerable populations,” Horwath continued. “But until we have the services in place to do things differently — and the funding in place to do things differently — we have to be really careful about where we withdraw services.”

Tackling the mental health crisis is difficult due to its complexity. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, and effective mental health treatment requires a significant time and financial commitment by the individual. In the same way that municipalities are ill-equipped to fund and manage their own intricate health-care systems, expecting a city to offer and deploy enough mental-health resources to offset crime and the need for police is impractical.

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“Defund the police” was painted on the road outside Hamilton City Hall by protestors in 2001.

While there is plenty of room for improvement, the City of Hamilton has made efforts to increase the availability of affordable housing and shelter space. However, a crisis this large requires treatment of the root cause, and Horwath, who is a member of the city’s police service’s board, doesn’t believe reducing police funding is part of the solution.

In Dec. 2022, Hamilton police Chief Frank Bergen was questioned by city councillors about the nearly $196 million budget request for more than three hours. He said the budget was maintenance-based and that there is nothing “discretionary.”

“For every one per cent operating cost you ask me to deplete my budget, that’s 19 sworn full-time employees,” Bergen told council.

He added that the service uses its budget to engage community agencies. Hamilton Police gave $1.6 million from last year’s budget to Interval House, Wesley Urban Ministries, John Howard Society, and others.

The budget, which remains under discussion by council, works out to about $332 per resident for the year, according to Bergen.

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Protestors and Hamilton Police Service officers clash at the Central police station in 2021 over encampment removals.

Horwath, though, recognizes that law enforcement is viewed as a threat rather than a service by many.

“Absolutely, we have the folks who came to speak very strongly about policing in the context of the most vulnerable people in our community. They have serious concerns,” she said.

“We also have a lot of gun violence now happening in Hamilton. We’ve had a couple of huge drug busts, and they’re continuing. We have a huge problem with traffic accidents. So the responsible thing to do is to balance all of these needs and make sure we are funding the police.”

Some have suggested omitting the police from crisis calls altogether.

Currently, when receiving a call related to a mental health emergency, Hamilton Police deploy its crisis response unit, consisting of officers and an accompanying nurse or social worker. Paramedics also attend some calls. However, eliminating the police and expecting nurses and social workers, already vulnerable to violence and their own mental health challenges, to pick up the slack is an enormous ask. Especially considering that the province’s entire health-care workforce is stretched extremely thin as it is.

Municipalities are essentially only able to provide band-aids to a mental health crisis that requires extensive surgery and rehab.

“That’s the piece of the puzzle that hasn’t been solved yet, and we need other orders of government to step up and help us solve it,” she concluded.

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