The Winnipeg Police Board is dealing with its first controversy after a potential appointee raised concerns it is a conflict of interest for the Winnipeg Police Service to do background checks on citizens who will oversee the police force.
Louise Simbandumwe does economic development work in the inner city and said she was honoured when the province asked her to be a member of the police board last fall. The board will have the authority to hire police chiefs and act as a liaison between the community and police, but they will not oversee day-to-day investigations.
Simbandumwe said it struck her as a "pretty profound conflict of interest" when the Winnipeg Police Service contacted her to conduct a security check. While she had no problem undergoing a thorough screening, she suggested an outside body such as the RCMP should do it, not the police force she is being appointed to oversee.
Simbandumwe said she outlined her concern that this could undermine the credibility and independence of the newly created board for city and provincial officials.
On Thursday, the city's protection and community services chairman Coun. Scott Fielding announced he will chair the new police board and other members will include lawyer Paul Edwards, Glen Karr, Mary Jane Loustel, Leslie Spillett and Elmwood Coun. Thomas Steen. Fielding said a provincial appointee resigned for "personal reasons."
Simbandumwe said she did not resign or decline the appointment and never heard back from civic officials about having an outside body conduct the background check instead of city police.
"I think, in general, having the police service undertake those security checks does undermine the independence of the board," Simbandumwe said. "I think it is a conflict of interest."
Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan said she raises a valid point, and he has asked the head of the Manitoba Police Commission to weigh in. [Read Swan's letter to Manitoba Police Commission chairman Rick Linden.] He said the city effectively took the position the province should move on with another appointment, as Simbandumwe did not consent to a background check by Winnipeg police.
Board members will deal with potentially sensitive information, and the city requires all appointees to undergo a comprehensive security clearance and background check.
Swan said the province will wait to hear what Linden says before making a decision. If the province doesn't move ahead with Simbandumwe, Swan said it will appoint another representative to the police board.
"It's a valid question. I don't know what the answer is," he said.
Fielding said all other board appointees underwent the "class 3 security clearance," a 40-hour process involving interviews and extensive checks. He said he supports the police assertion that every board member needs to be held to the same standard, particularly as they will deal with sensitive information.
"From our point of view, there needs to be consistency," he said.
Council had to pass a bylaw to create the board before Dec. 1 to meet the terms of the province's Police Services Act, created in the wake of an inquiry into police conduct in the officer-involved motor-vehicle collision that resulted in the death of Crystal Taman.
Fielding said he would like to see the board's first meeting held as soon as possible, as one of its first priorities will be to search for an executive director.
Simbandumwe is originally from Burundi and said she wanted to be part of the police board, as she thinks there needs to be proactive measures to build trust between the newcomer community and city police.
She said many new immigrants come to Winnipeg from places where human-rights violations have been perpetrated by government or security forces, and there needs to be more "bridge-building."
Simbandumwe said she's disappointed by how things turned out.
"I don't think it's a healthy way to move forward," she said. "It's something, over time, that could undermine the credibility of the police board."