Ending Police Abuses Starts With Reforming Dysfunctional Police Boards

A recent investigation of the Thunder Bay Police Services Board (TBPSB) highlights the myriad issues inherent to municipal police governance in Canada. Senator Murray Sinclair, who led the investigation, found that the TBPSB failed in its role to ensure the adequacy and effectiveness of police services in Thunder Bay. Senator Sinclair also found that the TBPSB lacked leadership and proper governance of the police service which has significantly affected the Indigenous community.

Senator Sinclair made several recommendations for the TBPSB. Most significantly, he recommended that the board be disbanded for one year. During this time, an independent administrator will assume responsibility and governance of the Thunder Bay Police Service.

Senator Sinclair’s findings are important, not only because they shed light on systemic racism in Thunder Bay’s government institutions, but also because they highlight the broader concerns surrounding municipal police governance across other jurisdictions.

Throughout Canada, most municipal police services are governed by police services boards (PSB). These municipal police governance organizations theoretically have a great deal of control and authority over police agencies. However, in practice, most PSBs are nothing more than a symbolic institution with members who provide “rubber stamp” approval for requests made by police services.

The structure and makeup of PSBs slightly differ between provinces. Members who serve on boards are generally a mix of elected municipal representatives (e.g. mayors) and civilian appointees.

Senator Sinclair’s findings highlight several problems with PSBs across Canada, including a lack of transparency and leadership with respect to the TBPSB. Many PSBs do not make information available to the public, preventing community members from staying informed on policing issues. Further, some police boards are unclear in their purpose. This is the case in Winnipeg where the board has continued to grapple with questions about its purpose. Board members lack authority and there has been a significant disconnect between the oversight body and the public. Elsewhere, the chair of the Hamilton Police Board was suspended for three weeks for violating the code of conduct in which he publicly expressed his personal views by criticizing the elimination of street checks by police (A.K.A. carding). Additionally, another Hamilton board member faces allegations of racism.

Moreover, Ontario PSBs are mandated to have police services publish their annual report each year. However, a review of several police services reveals that many do not abide by this mandate. For example, the last time the Kingston Police Service made an annual report public was in 2010. This is indicative of a lack of leadership and governance by PSBs.

Another major issue with PSBs is that they generally only meet once a month. In many jurisdictions, this is not enough time to address the number of issues related to policing and community concerns.

Although serving on a board is not the primary occupation for most members, the limited public meetings and consultation illustrates passive leadership and irresponsible governance. Perhaps this is why the TBPSB failed in its responsibilities to the public and neglected to identify the abuses committed on its Indigenous community members.

How can we fix these problems and prevent another Thunder Bay from occurring?

Senator Sinclair’s recommendations provide a good start to fixing issues related to PSBs. Although his recommendations are specifically directed towards Thunder Bay, many of the same issues are found throughout several other PSBs in Canada.

In addition to Senator Sinclair’s recommendations, provincial support is important in ensuring effective PSBs. With more resources and assistance, PSBs may be able to dedicate more time to engaging with the community, addressing concerns, meeting more than once a month, and governing the police service properly.

Further, PSB members should be representative of the communities they serve. This ensures that boards reflect the diversity of local communities. It can also strengthen the independence of the PSB by replacing the current climate of “rubber stamping” with critical and informed discussion.

Board members should also be required to complete cultural diversity and anti-racism training. It is expected that board members will not be experts in policing related matters; however, having the necessary training on sensitive issues can help prevent police abuses against vulnerable populations.

Lastly, we should reconsider those eligible to serve on PSBs. Should mayors and other councillors be eligible to sit on a police board? What about former mayors and councillors? These are important questions that need to be adequately addressed. Perhaps only civilian appointees without municipal political experience should serve on PSBs. This may remove the potential conflict of interest between council members and police chiefs who may be friends and/or close colleagues.

Senator Sinclair’s investigation and subsequent findings concerning the dysfunction of the TBPSB should raise concerns over municipal police governance in Canada. The public needs to care about these issues because PSB decisions ultimately affect everyone. Without effective municipal police governance, misconduct and abuses against Indigenous and other minority communities may continue to go undetected.

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