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Strong, active board vital to police oversight

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The City of Winnipeg's new police board recently experienced a dispute over its precise powers, specifically the question of its right to interfere in operational matters.

Perhaps nothing troubles effective police governance in Canada more than the continuing preoccupation with the artificial split between policy and operations. In spite of years of resistance from police executives across the country, the fact remains that what is operational, and therefore outside the purview of specific direction by a police board or commission, and what is policy, and therefore within it, is not clear-cut. The dividing line can change depending on the circumstances. Further, the board has every right, and, I would argue, a real responsibility, to inform itself on operational matters when they pertain to certain core parts of their duties.

Police oversight is alive and well in Canada. However, it varies from province to province. In many places, that oversight, usually involving the appointment of an oversight board or commission, works very effectively. In other cases, it struggles. My research over the years into this indicates a strong trend: Police oversight works when it is active and strong, ensures it provides good direction, holds the chief and police to account and works well with its municipal government.

Why bother with police oversight? Why not let council do this? The need for effective police oversight has several important origins, ones police executives had best keep in mind when they run too quickly behind the cover of operational matters. It would be un-Canadian not to start with the jurisdictional issue. All three levels of government have a hand in policing. The federal government provides the Criminal Code to define the law. The provincial government is responsible for the administration of justice, and therefore responsible for directing how policing is carried out. Many municipalities have their own police services along with their budgets. A city cannot claim that, because it pays the bill, it can direct the carrying out of the law -- "Sorry, no money, don't investigate murders," or, even more dangerous, "Don't investigate that particular murder."

This leads to the first reason for independent oversight: protection of the police from direct political interference. No external entity can direct a sworn officer in how he or she carries our their duties in an individual investigation. That would violate the Criminal Code. The second lies in the fact policing involves complex matters municipal councils seldom have the time to really oversee. The third involves the need for specialized capacity when it comes to complaints. That varies across the country as many provinces have their own separate complaints bodies.

Many boards work very well in Canada. In fact, we are a model for the world in many places. What works? An active board that sets the strategic direction for the police service is a good start. Setting performance objectives for the chief and evaluating him or her annually is vital. Boards need real information, on key elements of these accountabilities. It is not enough for a chief to say "I did it." He or she has to show it was done.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of successful police oversight is a chief who gets it and makes it work, even when the going gets tough. Actually, that is the litmus test -- when there are problems, do the shields go up or do they engage their board? Making sure the board has information, even operational information, is vital for it to be able to understand what is happening, to explain it and, yes, even to defend the police service. Good oversight works both ways.

The Morden inquiry into the street violence that erupted in Toronto during the G20 summit dealt with a quite unique situation. However, buried in that report is an extensive discussion of police-board responsibilities. Always conscious of the fact individual police actions cannot be interfered with, it made it clear boards have to know and understand what is going on. As Justice John Morden said, the board must "set out a context or framework within which police operations take place." Operations and budgets are intimately linked. One bad operation could signal a major systems breakdown.

Police governance is not easy. It takes will to make it work. The new Manitoba legislation does have some ambiguities, like all legislation of this kind across the country. However, to make it work, some good sense has to apply. As the old rubric of all good corporate governance says, boards should act with their noses in, but their fingers out, of the operations.


Andrew Graham teaches at the School of Policy Studies, Queen's University. He has researched and taught on police governance with individual services, the Canadian Police College and for the Canadian Association of Police Governance.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 29, 2014 0


Updated on Wednesday, July 30, 2014 at 10:36 AM CDT: Corrects that Andrew Graham teaches at the School of Policy Studies

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