EDITORIAL | 911, how bad is your emergency?

Editorials Opinions
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Earlier this month, Victoria police chief constable Del Manak said budget restraints and staff shortages will force the Victoria Police Department (Victoria PD) to prioritize how, when, or if they will respond to calls from the community. While major crimes such as assaults or robberies will receive top priority, responses to incidents at local parks, neighborhoods, or animal control complaints could face delays. 

Now, every time Victorians pick up the phone to dial 911, they are left wondering if their call for help will be deemed urgent enough to warrant a response. The city has yet to share the process for prioritizing cases will be determined, apart from the types of calls they will be screening for.

In the brief time they talk to you, can operators really be guaranteed to understand the depth and urgency of your reason for calling 911? Even if they’re able to correctly prioritize callers most of the time, it’s still an extremely dangerous situation for anyone who slips through the cracks of this new system.

The reason for this new policy is founded on an understandable growing concern — the Victoria Police Department is experiencing a lack of funding and resources that is felt by every police precinct in Canada.

Specifically, staff shortages and overtime costs have proved costly to the Victoria PD in recent years. In a freedom of information request by local spending watchdog Grumpy Taxpayer$, and reported by the Sooke News Mirror on Aug. 6, it was found that between 2014 and 2018 the Victoria PD spent an average of $1.2 million on overtime hours.

The department has 249 officers on staff, but with injuries or personal leaves, only 208 are currently active. 

A police force is integral to the safety and wellbeing of a community, and with a 13.8 per cent increase in property crime in Victoria and Esquimalt between 2013 and 2017, the Victoria PD requested a six per cent hike in their budget for 2019. 

The Victoria City Council, however, suggested modifications to the budget and left the force with nearly two million dollars less than their original funding request. 

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps was quick to applaud the move to prioritize 911 responses after the Victoria and Esquimalt city councils turned down a request from the Victoria PD to increase their budget in the wake of rising crime in the city (although information from Statistics Canada shows that Victoria is a far safer community than it was 10 years ago). 

While we were writing this editorial, police responded to a shooting near Bay Street that resulted in one person being injured. Budget cuts won’t prevent police from responding to emergencies like this. 

But what happens for the non-urgent emergencies? A kid falling down the stairs, for instance, may be considered non-urgent, even though that kid could have a broken neck. 

As kids, we are taught to call 911 only in case of emergency. We are taught that the police are there to protect us from the bad guys — and who didn’t play the game “cops and robbers”? When police don’t have the resources to respond to our calls — or have some responses put on the back burner — it goes against everything we’ve learned about safety. 

No one wants to call 911. But when they do, they should feel like the person on the end of the line is going to do something promptly about their case. Treating any emergency as anything less than a priority is a disservice. The Victoria PD should have the capacity to respond to every concern called in to 911. What will happen with Victoria PD’s new budgeting decision is that small emergencies will be treated as a low priority, even though they warranted a 911 call.

This recent decision should serve as a reminder to all of us that first aid training is an important skill to have. Emergencies happen, but they can be prevented and responded to promptly if individuals themselves have basic first aid training. Additionally, knowing how to administer naloxone could save someone’s life. These things are simple to learn, but can make a big difference if a police response cannot be immediate.