Community members held a rally on Oct. 7 to mark the one-year anniversary of Anthony Aust’s death during a 2020 police raid. Residents attending the rally gathered outside of Ottawa police headquarters and laid out flowers, candles and banners. (Submitted by Vanessa Dorimain).

Community groups advocating to defund Ottawa’s police force are at odds with city council over which level of government is responsible for greenlighting police budget cuts, ahead of a key vote on the city’s $346.5 million police budget.

The Ottawa Police Services Board will vote Monday to determine whether the proposed 2022 police budget, which is requesting an increase of $14 million from last year, will be recommended for city council approval next month.

But according to Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, who is one of three city councillors appointed to the board, defunding a municipal police force is not as straightforward as some residents may believe.

For Ottawa residents calling for a freeze to the force’s funding, the vote will indicate how prepared the board’s seven members are to meet their demands and reallocate police funding to community supports and services.

“People have to remember municipalities are the creatures of statutes and legislation,” King said. “Any power a police board has is determined by the province. It’s not realistic for us to go to the public and say, ‘we’ll defund.’”

He points to language in Ontario’s Police Services Act that requires municipalities to ensure local law enforcement is adequately resourced. According to King, demands for defunding should “go to Queen’s Park” because the act significantly limits the board’s ability to freeze the budget in response to community demands.

If the provincial act says cities must provide adequate policing services, “we can’t just arbitrarily cut dollars from the police budget,” King said, adding demands to defund the force or freeze its budget should be made to the province.

Some community members say councillors are using the Police Services Act as an excuse to shift responsibility toward the province.

Samantha McAleese, a member of Coalition Against More Surveillance, said police board members are still responsible to the community they represent, regardless of constraints presented by provincial legislation.

“They use the Police Services Act as a reason not to freeze or decrease the budget,” she said. “But my question for the board is, what are they doing to push back [against] the Police Services Act to do what their community is asking them to do?”

Mandi Pekan, project director at the Street Resilience Project, said she believes the board needs to understand that community demands go beyond simply defunding the force’s budget.

“There seems to be urgency from the OPSB [Ottawa Police Services Board] of where this money should go, but I think they’re missing the point,” Pekan said. “The last delegations in general have been pushing back on OPS [Ottawa Police Services] in terms of the harms of policing rather than where the money needs to be allocated.”

Pekan emphasized any reallocation of funds, if done, needs to be done properly.

“A budget freeze isn’t about going to specific organizations on the city hierarchy list to replicate the same thing, but to reinvest [into the] areas of community infrastructure that continue to be underfunded,” Pekan said.

Should the board vote to adopt the 2022 police budget, it will go before city council on Dec. 8 for final approval.

This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of Coalition Against More Surveillance. Incorrect information previously appeared in this post.