Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Better late than never, Mr. Swan

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Justice Minister Andrew Swan has come to understand the problem. So has Rick Linden, chair of the Manitoba Police Commission. In fact, all reasonable people should be able to understand why Louise Simbandumwe believes it would be inappropriate and a conflict of interest to submit to a background check by the Winnipeg Police Service, the very agency she was being asked to oversee as a member of the Winnipeg Police Board.

The Winnipeg board, however, is an exception. It thinks Ms. Simbandumwe, a Rhodes scholar who does economic development work in the inner city, is missing the point.

On the contrary, her well-reasoned arguments have exposed a problem that exists across Canada.

Potential members of police boards must submit to extensive background investigations, including authorizing police to inspect their bank accounts, credit card records, political activities, interview current and former lovers and talk to whomever they want. By the end of the process, police would have fairly extensive dossiers on the people who will be scrutinizing their conduct.

Ms. Simbandumwe doesn't object to any of these intrusions, but the investigation should be done by an outside agency, probably the RCMP.

The current process is vulnerable to charges of bias, if, for example, a person who has been openly critical of police, fails a background check. The system may also discourage certain people from accepting an appointment if it means being investigated by a force they don't trust.

It's also not clear whether police can resume an investigation after a board member has been appointed, leading to a continual police presence in a board member's life.

Ms. Simbandumwe's concerns would be even more acute in communities with small police forces.

Mr. Swan was concerned enough to ask the Manitoba Police Commission for recommendations on the problem.

The commission plans to study other systems in Canada, but it is likely to find the Winnipeg model is typical.

That, however, is no excuse to continue with a system that is clearly open to allegations of prejudice, abuse and conflict of interest.

The fact is the issue does not appear to have been studied or considered in other cities because most people are simply content to go along with the process and because no one until now has stood up and challenged the flaws in the conventional wisdom.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2013 A10

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