Chief defends Winnipeg Police Service role in security checks for oversight board

By | July 24, 2020

Winnipeg’s chief of police says he stands behind his organization’s authority to conduct background security checks on potential appointees to the Winnipeg Police Board, the body that provides civilian oversight of the city’s police service.

The process for security checks has come under scrutiny, after Coun. Vivian Santos (Point Douglas), who was appointed to the board last month, failed her background check.

Santos said last week she would resign her appointment, but said the next day she was reconsidering that decision. She released a three-page statement to news media Thursday evening, saying she asked for an explanation for the failure but wasn’t given one.

“Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t comment at all on security checks,” police Chief Danny Smyth said during a news conference Friday.

“In this instance, because Coun. Santos has been very public about her comments in the last couple of weeks, what I will say is that our secure operations unit … discovered information that was concerning, and as a result of that she didn’t pass the check.”

A city bylaw and Manitoba legislation require all potential police board appointees to pass a background security check before they’re appointed. These checks can be done by an outside agency, but are typically conducted by the Winnipeg Police Service.

In her statement Thursday night, Santos said her request to review the information gathered by the WPS during the background check was also denied.

But earlier this week, Global News reported that Santos’s ties to an alleged drug trafficker and his associate were the reason she failed the background check. The story cited information from anonymous sources within the WPS.

Santos’s statement said she may also take legal action to clear her name and “challenge the perceived conflicts of interest within the makeup of the Winnipeg police board.”

Provincial legislation and a city bylaw require all potential police board appointees to pass a background security check. While these checks can be done by an outside agency, they’re usually conducted by the Winnipeg Police Service. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Smyth stressed that although the WPS plays a role in the process, it is not the authority that appoints members to the police board.

Information from WPS background security checks is passed to the appointing authority, which, in this case, is city council, he said.

“It’s up to them to determine what to do with that [information],” said Smyth.

Critics have said there’s a conflict of interest in having city police service investigate potential members of the board intended to oversee the service, and have suggested another agency, such as the RCMP, should take on those duties.

Smyth said those issues were raised years ago, when the police board was originally formed, and that consulting an outside agency is easier said than done.

“As much as it sounds like it would be easy to bring in an outside agency to do a security check, the reality is that we are the police of this jurisdiction,” he said.

“All of the things that happen in this jurisdiction — those records and that record-management system — resides here.”

Other police services “don’t share a common platform. We don’t give access to each other’s systems,” he said.

“The irony is we don’t do that for security and privacy reasons — the same kind of issue that we’re talking about here.

“As much as it seems like a simple solution to ask the RCMP to do the check, the reality is they would need to have access to the same information that we do. In essence, they’d be asking us.”

Smyth added that, hypothetically, even if an outside agency came to the same conclusion on Santos’s security check, the information would still have to be confidential.

Coun. Markus Chambers (St. Norbert-Seine River), who chairs the police board, introduced a motion during Thursday’s city council meeting that would ask the public service to review how police board security checks are done elsewhere in Canada.

The goal, he told CBC News Wednesday night, is to further educate people about the appointment process, as well as protect the WPS from future criticism regarding background checks.

The motion was referred to city council’s protection and community services committee.

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