The Nelson Police Department asked Nelson City Council at its Nov. 22 meeting for a budget increase of 6.8 per cent or $275,779 for 2023.
Chief Donovan Fisher and Deputy Chief Raj Saini told council that of the 11 municipal police forces in the province, the department has one of the highest case loads per officer, the second highest call volume, and one of the lowest police-to-population ratios.
Fisher characterized this staffing level as bare-bones, stating that the department currently operates on a “response-only model of policing. Calls come in and we go and respond to the calls.”
He said an increased budget would allow the force to be more proactive in the community while at the same time reducing stress and fatigue on officers. The budget ask does not ask for more officers than the currently authorized 20.
His department is also challenged daily by “an increase in calls for mental health, addiction and unhoused individuals,” Fisher said.
An increased budget would help in the process of training new officers and in meeting increased standards and training requirements for all officers, he said, adding that about 55 per cent of his officers are eligible for retirement.
“We will continue to work hard to have people successfully return to work with support, from whatever reason it is that they are currently off,” Fisher said in an email to the Nelson Star.
The requested budget increase is intended to cover an anticipated salary increase agreement between the Nelson Police Association and the city, Fisher said. The association has been without a contract since 2019.
Absenteeism and performance problems
Fisher said that during the past year, typically 20 per cent of officers — and occasionally up to 50 per cent — have been off work for stress and mental health reasons.
Fatigue and stress have contributed to physical injuries, an increase in the use of sick leave, “a general decline in individual performance, and a proliferation of conduct problems,” he said.
Fisher did not specify any instances of conduct and performance problems, but in the past year the Nelson Star has reported on two of those.
In July, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner stated that an investigation of alleged racism by eight former and current Nelson Police Department is underway. In early November, Fisher said one of his members is under investigation for excessive force after a man posted a short video of his bruised face on a community Facebook group and alleged he was assaulted by an officer.
Councillor Jesse Pineiro asked about the relationship between conduct problems and staff shortages.
“Are the conduct issues contributing to staff shortages, or are staff shortages contributing to conduct issues?”
Fisher responded that it is “a bit of a chicken and egg thing … I think it could be argued both ways … this is some stuff that’s probably built up over a few years, and has kind of come to the forefront.”
He said the department is experiencing a “perfect storm” of different issues coming to the fore all at once — injuries, misconduct, stress, and overwork.
The policing discussion can be viewed on video at https://bit.ly/3VkT2Ws, starting at 49:18.
Crime and non-crime
Pineiro asked Fisher what percentage of police calls are for activity that is clearly criminal.
“Maybe a little more than 50 per cent of the calls that we go to are for assistance, helping the general public deal with social issues, other types of issues with maybe some minor crime involved,” Fisher said. “Things that traditionally you would classify as true crime type calls, it’s probably less than than 50 per cent, maybe 30 per cent.”
He said the non-criminal calls “result in a lot of officer time spent dealing with people, dealing with complaints, reassuring people, taking individuals to the hospital and having to stay with them until they’re assessed, and at times we need two officers there if they’re having some type of emotional breakdown.”
Councillor Rik Logtenberg asked about the possibility of a so-called Car 67 model in which a social worker or mental health worker would travel with a police officer to deal with non-crime issues.
Fisher said he has studied such programs and he believes they are a good idea, but the problem is finding funding for it. There would have to be collaboration with Interior Health, he said.
Saini said the department is working on creating a Community Safety Officer position, different from the Car 67 model. It would be a uniformed position, but not with the powers of a full-fledged police officer, who would deal with low-level, low-risk tasks including community outreach and would perhaps replace the beat officer, who often gets pulled away to other tasks on short notice.
“We’ve got some work to do before the program is up and running,” Saini said. The department would have to do training for that person jointly with Interior Health and other social agencies.
Fisher told the Nelson Star after the meeting that the cost of this position is not in the budget increase proposal and that the department intends to look for grant money to cover it.
At the council meeting, Logtenberg asked Fisher for his opinion on Premier David Eby’s recently announced initiative to monitor repeat offenders and keep them off the street.
“We certainly have those people that … need to be in jail,” Fisher said. “They need to be removed from community and then dealt with through other programs.”
Pointing out that Eby’s announcement did not come with any details or implementation plans, Fisher said, “There still needs to be the whole package deal come with it that, because some people are suffering some significant traumas and other issues that may be driving some of those behaviours.”
Councillor Keith Page asked about the department’s policy of “no call too small.”
“Are there other models?” Page asked. “And maybe you could help me understand the values underneath the no calls too small, because it sounds like some of the calls are too small.”
Saini said a community safety officer would meet this need, and he reiterated the department’s desire to “alleviate gun-carrying police officers going to the found bike or the stolen bike or the even the shoplifting calls if the perpetrators are gone. Tagging, spray painting, things like that.”
Council made no budget decisions at the Nov. 22 meeting. By provincial legislation, police departments are required to present a provisional budget in the November preceding the budget year.
Fisher pointed out that since 2012, the police budget has always been between 18 and 20 per cent of the city’s operational budget, and that he expects this 2023 proposed increase to be within the same range, adding that in some comparable communities the police share of the budget is up to 25 per cent of municipal operations.