OTTAWA — Daljit Nirman’s message was clear: Before the Ottawa police could better meet a diverse community’s needs, they must take meaningful steps to ensure their own ranks are free of bias and discrimination.
The June motion from Nirman, a member of the Ottawa Police Services Board, came just weeks after demonstrators filled downtown streets demanding action on police violence against Black and Indigenous people.
Among other things, the motion called for a redesign of the long-standing structures and systems within the police service to ensure they are more equitable and inclusive.
The wording announces to the city that the police service is not perfect, but is striving to become a better organization, Nirman told a board meeting.
“We now need to work on building and strengthening our trust among the membership and communities we are serving,” Nirman, a lawyer who joined the board in February of last year, said at the meeting.
“There is so much pain and distress to overcome.”
The motion passed easily and received firm support from Peter Sloly, Ottawa’s first Black police chief, who also attended.
“You have my full commitment, not just to the letter, but more importantly to the spirit of what you’ve put before us,” Sloly said to Nirman.
The police chief and the board that helps guide his force were on the same page.
It was a timely example of the role police services boards, or commissions as they are sometimes known, can play in making law enforcement more responsive to the needs of racialized members of their communities.
The boards exist in most provinces and some First Nations communities. They are generally composed of members of municipal council and local citizens appointed by either the province, the municipality or a combination of the two.
Duties vary somewhat depending on the province, but most boards are responsible for determining the police service budget and personnel levels, hiring and evaluating the chief, reviewing service performance, labour relations and policy development.
Those who have spent decades working with police boards believe in the bodies but say they often fall short of fulfilling their potential. The reasons are many: lack of a clear mission, inadequate funding, poor or non-existent training, not enough diversity and a sometimes too cosy relationship with the police chief.
But they also see signs that many police boards are modernizing their practices to play a more dynamic role in making forces more attuned to their communities.
“Boards are a good thing. The construct’s a great idea,” said Fred Kaustinen, a governance and risk consultant who is chief administrative officer of Ontario’s Halton Police Board.
“Can they be improved? Absolutely.”
A glaring breakdown took place in Thunder Bay, Ont., where the police board was singled out for not recognizing a clear pattern of violence and systemic racism against Indigenous people.
“Moreover, the board’s failure to act on these issues in the face of overwhelming documentary and media exposure is indicative of wilful blindness,” said a 2018 investigation report by Sen. Murray Sinclair.
Many boards are either severely hampered by a lack of resources and political backing, or they simply accept the status quo and play what Andrew Graham calls the chummy “golf club game” of going along with what the police chief wants.
There are notable exceptions across the country, said Graham, an adjunct professor in the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
But boards and commissions are composed of part-time members who usually have other responsibilities, leaving them little time to deal with the complex problems of modern policing.
“Then they take a look at how big these issues are, and they just shake their head and say, ‘What can we do?’ because they don’t have the resources,” said Graham, who helped Sinclair with the Thunder Bay report.
“Most municipalities, I think, if they had their way would say, get rid of the boards. They’re just driving up the budget, they’re in the way, we should be running the police board directly.”
The mayor and a number of councillors often sit on boards, which can be constructive but runs the risk of politicians overshadowing board efforts.
A police board cannot tell a force to do anything on a specific investigation, but it is well within its right to provide general direction to the chief, Graham said.
“Their job is to ensure that the community gets the police service it should be getting.”
Still, some chiefs don’t accept the notion of governance or their accountability to the board and try to thwart direction by immediately going to the defence of, “That’s operational. You can’t interfere in operations,” he said.
“The boards need to separate themselves more clearly from the police service.”
That might mean simple things like a board having a digital home apart from the police website, holding meetings somewhere other than the police station and issuing its own news releases.
At the same time, a board must have a good rapport with the police chief to be effective, said Micki Ruth, chair of the Edmonton Police Commission.
“And that does not mean that they agree all the time — absolutely not. But it does mean that it is a respectful relationship and they can have a discussion,” said Ruth, a former police constable with a degree in criminology.
“If they’ve got a police chief that is resistant, then they should be demanding change.”
Ruth began serving on the Halifax Regional Municipality’s Board of Police Commissioners in 2011 and recalls that she, along with a couple of others, became frustrated at not being heard.
She and her colleagues made one thing plain: “We are not here for the sandwiches.”
Kaustinen says a board generally needs four things to be successful:
— A clear mandate or role that’s meaningful to the community and understood by all players, including city council and the police chief;
— Substantive training on how to govern police, given that most members lack a public safety background, and on how to work as a team;
— Access to information and independent, insightful advice;
— A way to measure the performance of the board and its members.
In Edmonton, Ruth considers her commission fortunate to have full-time staff.
“Most places don’t — they don’t have anybody,” said Ruth, who is also president of the Canadian Association of Police Governance.
“In Halifax, for instance, we got to borrow one person for one meeting a month to take the minutes — that was it. And so if wanted to do something separate, which we did, we had to take that on, totally unpaid, totally on our own.
“So that can be asking an awful lot of people, and it is very, very time consuming.”
The association of police governance works to educate board members but it does not receive government funding, relying on dues from boards and commissions, she said. But some boards do not join because of the cost involved, meaning they do not have access to these association resources.
When Kaustinen began working to transform Durham Region’s police board many years ago, it was relying on the police chief’s secretary to help out.
He put a stop to the practice of the board buying gold Rolex watches for retiring officers and used the money to hire a governance expert.
Kaustinen is now doing the same thing at the Halton board, taking the equivalent of one full-time salary to hire several part-time experts to work on a diversity-and-inclusion survey, bylaws and public relations.
“You don’t need full-time people doing nothing, getting bored,” he said. “You need access to this independent expertise and advice, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot.”
The composition of police boards is also evolving.
Graham was pleased to see that one in the Toronto region he viewed as an “old white-guy, golfer board” a couple of decades ago had recently become more reflective of the community.
“The boards are changing dramatically in terms of their representation,” he said.
“I think there’s a genuine effort to reflect better the societies. I go to the national meetings and I’m seeing an array of faces I wouldn’t have seen 20 years ago.”