Why the Winnipeg Police Board does not provide substantive oversight of the police

By | June 14, 2020

After three weeks of intense focus on the excessive use of force by police across North America, two main strategies have emerged to reassert civilian control over policing.

One is financial. Some activists propose abolishing existing police services and replacing them with community-based public safety organizations. The more mainstream version of this idea is defunding, which involves redirecting some of the cash allocated for police to social services, community development or other professional emergency responders, such as mental health crisis teams.

A second, related strategy is increased oversight of police. Municipal, county, state, provincial and federal police services all have different means of directing police.

Some employ police commissions or boards. Some have police answer directly to politicians or senior public servants. Most political jurisdictions control police budgets. Some have the ability to set the broad direction for policing. A few have direct say in day-to-day police operations, at least to some extent.

This week, the City of Winnipeg took baby steps toward more oversight of its police service, which in theory is already subject to this oversight. Perhaps amoeba steps would be more accurate.

A brainchild of Greg Selinger’s NDP government, the Winnipeg Police Board was created in the aftermath of two high-profile incidents in 2005: the killing of Crystal Taman by an off-duty Winnipeg police officer and the shooting death of Mathew Dumas.

The Winnipeg Police Board was supposed to make police more accountable to the public. But after seven years — the board held its first meeting on June 21, 2013 — it’s unclear what the board has accomplished.

What’s the mandate?

A big part of the problem was the mandate handed to the board, which was not granted the power to co-ordinate or even question police operations. As well, it was not given the power to investigate allegations of police wrongdoing, a task left to the Independent Investigations Unit.

All the Winnipeg Police Board was supposed to do was hire and fire police chiefs, scrutinize the police budget and, in theory, set police policies.

That was just on paper. In reality, city council makes the final decision on police budgets, leaving the police board with a rubber stamp.

And on the policy front, the police board doesn’t influence actual policing.

Former Winnipeg Police board chair David Asper was succeeded by Charleswood-Tuxedo Coun. Kevin Klein, who resigned last week. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

One of the board’s initial chairs, St. James Coun. Scott Gillingham, oversaw the creation of police policies governing the use of force, evidence control and vehicle pursuits.

Those board policies were scrapped in favour of existing police policies after lawyer David Asper became the board’s chair. The Manitoba Police Commission — which governs municipal police boards — had informed Asper the provincial Police Services Act did not grant Winnipeg’s board the power to enact those policies.

Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservative government is now reviewing this act. For now, the purpose of the Winnipeg Police Board remains unclear.

It does not, as the public may believe, oversee the police service.

Disconnect from public perception

That’s no different than it was nearly two years ago, when Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood Coun. Kevin Klein took over from Asper as board chair.

“I believe there is a real disconnect between what the public thinks the board is responsible for and what the board is actually responsible for, what the board is allowed to do and what the public thinks it should do,” Klein said in 2018.

Klein resigned from the police board on Thursday, citing political interference from Mayor Brian Bowman and other city officials.

“The mayor appoints five of the seven members,” Klein Tweeted on Friday. “Ask yourself, does he defer to the board, or dictate to the board?”

True enough, Winnipeg mayors have treated police board appointments as an extension of their political influence to some extent. Sam Katz populated the first board with friendly appointees that included former city councillor Thomas Steen, who rarely uttered any statements about policy issues — police or otherwise — while he was in office.

Bowman shot back this week by stating Klein found his role as police board chair challenging. The mayor also claimed Klein failed to direct the board to make any formal submissions to the province about changes to the Police Services Act.

Change in chair, expectations

On Friday, when Bowman announced his intention to replace Klein with St. Norbert-Seine River Coun. Markus Chambers, the mayor said he will ask incoming chair to make the board’s desires known to the province.

Bowman said he wants the board “to prepare a written submission to Justice Minister Cliff Cullen that considers changes to the police services act that will provide for increased board effectiveness, including improved civilian governance and police accountability,” Bowman said.

In other words, Bowman wants the board to have more teeth. The mayor declined to say as much on Friday, when he claimed he will defer to the board when it comes to specific changes.

Chambers, however, was not as shy as the mayor.

St. Norbert-Seine River Coun. Markus Chambers has been tapped to be the new police-board chair. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

“We have to make sure the voice of the community is heard as we go forward, in light of what we’ve been seeing in the United States over the last three weeks or so,” he said, making direct reference to police violence.

The blame for the Winnipeg Police Board’s mushy mandate does not lie with Cullen, Pallister, Bowman, Klein, Asper, Gillingham, Katz or Selinger. The original intention behind the board was clear.

What it became — or rather, what it never became — is something else entirely.

This week, Bowman appeared to struggle when he was asked to name one concrete thing the board has accomplished.

“One of the things that I have appreciated is some of the dialogue that they’ve been having in the respective communities,” the mayor said. “There was an effort over the last year to increase some of that public discussion and that public input. I think there’s a lot more that can be done.”

Public engagement, of course, creates the expectation of action. Right now, the police board does not have that power.

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