Concerns about 'creeping politicization' as police audit Vancouver social services
The release of a Vancouver Police Department report casting doubt on the value and efficiency of a broad range of social services has prompted concerns about the increasing encroachment of law enforcement agencies into politics.
Over recent months, the public has seen Vancouver police meet with federal Conservative leader Pierre Polievre and make an unprecedented mayoral endorsement ahead of the city's municipal election.
Criminologist Rob Gordon said the department's new report, Vancouver's Social Safety Net: Rebuilding the Broken, appears to be another break with the traditionally accepted role of police.
"Police and politics do not mix," said Gordon, himself a former police officer. "They are oil and water, they should be treated that way. You just cannot allow there to be any slippage."
While Gordon argued there could be room for more oversight in the delivery of social services, he questioned the wisdom of having law enforcement lead that charge.
"Why wouldn't others do it instead, so there is at least an air of complete independence?" he asked.
Vancouver police have released reports on social issues before, and called for better co-ordination between service providers, but their latest marks a departure in that it's based on a third-party financial audit the department quietly commissioned last year.
The audit, performed by Alberta-based HelpSeeker Technologies, estimated $5.1 billion is spent annually to run various agencies, charities, non-profits and other organizations helping Vancouver residents.
The VPD's report points to the persistent issues of drug overdose deaths and homelessness as indications that public funding could be better spent – though nearly half of the audit's $5.1 billion figure comes from direct government transfers, such as pension payments and tax benefits, and from the city's own police and fire department budgets.
Police still highlighted that eyebrow-raising figure repeatedly in their report, comparing it to the "annual operating budget of the National Hockey League" and noting it would fund "the construction costs of three brand-new Dallas Cowboys stadiums," in two examples seemingly designed to imply bloated spending.
Police Chief Adam Palmer made that implication explicit during a news conference presenting the findings Wednesday.
"Our researchers found a lack of transparency, a lack of co-ordination between agencies, and a lack of accountability from various levels of government to make sure the money is spent on the people who need it the most," Palmer said.
"Despite more talk than ever and more money in the system, it is bleaker than ever for a growing number of people in places like the Downtown Eastside."
Palmer also suggested the provincial government should be taking charge, and specifically noted that former attorney general David Eby, the NDP MLA for Vancouver's Point Grey riding, is set to become the next premier later this month.
Still, the police chief insisted the department had no political motivation in commissioning or releasing the report.
"We're not political entities. I don't report to any politicians," Palmer said.
"To me, it doesn't matter who the government of the day is. I'll just call it how it is and be quite frank about it, and that's what I'm doing."
Gordon wasn’t the only one who suspected a political motivation behind the report. Coun. Pete Fry slammed the findings on Twitter, and suggested the intent was to “galvanize austerity and cuts to service under the guise of DTES accountability.”
“But what it really begs is accountability from the VPD,” Fry wrote.
Beyond Vancouver, Gordon said he's observed a worrying trend of a "creeping politicization of policing" across Canada, including in the RCMP – and that doesn't include the growing number of former officers being elected to political office.
One of the dangers in police becoming actively involved in politics is the erosion of the public's perception of their impartiality, Gordon said, which he described as a crucial aspect of police work that has been carefully cultivated going back to 19th century London.
"The police are the public and the public are the police, and you don't get them entangled into a political mud bath because there is no way of getting out clean. Everyone's going to get splattered," he said.
THE MISSING 'ESSENTIAL INPUTS'
Chief Palmer waved off criticism of the audit's methodology, telling reporters it was still a work in progress and only released publicly this week because it had already been leaked to the media.
But the department's intention was to release it eventually, Palmer said.
The report was quickly picked apart online, and HelpSeeker acknowledged a number of other gaps and issues with its audit, including that it captured organizations such as the Legal Services Society that have headquarters in Vancouver but operate across the province.
Company co-founder Alina Turner also noted HelpSeeker did not collect any data on the efficacy of the charities and services included in the audit, or on the experiences of the people who use them.
"We agree those are essential inputs. This report is the first of an ideally two-phase project," Turner said at the same news conference.
"It's up to you as a community to decide whether you're getting the outcomes you want for the efforts and investments that are being made, not me."
HelpSeeker is a tech company that promises to address complex social issues using data and software. One aspect of that work includes the creation of key performance indicators (KPIs) for charities and non-profits to track their performance.
CTV News asked HelpSeeker whether the company has used KPIs in the past to measure its own effectiveness, and was told the company uses them internally - for things such as client satisfaction, number of services mapped, and "increase in understanding of the social infrastructure visibility" - but would not want to take credit for any potential improvements made in the delivery of social services.
"To link our work directly to a correlation isn't always an easy thing to do," said Jesse Donaldson, executive vice-president of growth. "But I do think we have a positive impact in the communities we work in."
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