Winnipeg needs a strong police board
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/01/2015 (2991 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Confusion and conflict about police budgets are not unique to Winnipeg. Similarly, the notion that having a police board that oversees and directs police somehow interferes with responsible government has been an issue that rears its ugly head every once in a while. This is usually when the reality of police oversight hits home to municipal councillors or members of the public who do not fully appreciate that the very existence of the board is intended to enhance responsible government.
The recent controversy over the police budget and the respective roles of councillors and the police board in Winnipeg (Cops under the gun, Jan. 9) shows this is not a clearly defined area. It takes time, an understanding of the law and some considerable communication to make it work.
It takes effort to respect all sides in the process, often leading to conflict. There have been several cases across Canada in the past decade of showdowns between municipalities and boards. In addition, the issue of the economics of policing has become a national issue and legitimate concern to municipal governments. Police resistance to changes in the business model of policing has only served to exacerbate this. It takes a strong board to take on this job. The board cannot simply be a cheerleading screen for the police service. It should be pressing the budgeting issues. It should take on the questions of municipal leaders on the board and give them serious answers. It would appear in the dust-up that occurred last week between city hall and the Winnipeg police, that the chairman of the city’s finance committee asked legitimate questions. It is the board that should provide the answers, with the help of the police service since it has the administrative apparatus to do so. So was the deputy chief right when he said he answered to the board alone. Yes. But did the board ask these questions and did it get the answers?
It is common practice across Canada for police boards to set the budgets. In most instances, the municipality cannot alter that budget in any way. In Ontario, this is taken even further in that, should a municipality refuse to approve a police budget, the board can appeal to the provincial government, which can impose a police budget on the municipality. The situation in Manitoba is somewhat different in that the act leaves approval of the budget with the council, not the board. More importantly, the Manitoba Police Service Act says the board is responsible to provide “an estimate of the costs required to operate the police service in the next fiscal year” and “any additional information that the council considers necessary to enable it to assess the financial requirements of the police service.” That sounds like responsible government. Where a council or board runs into trouble is when this interferes with operational decisions, such as individual investigations. That’s not what happened last Monday.
Police boards exist to enhance responsible government. They exist to focus governance and oversight over a part of the public sector that has at its disposal the most lethal use of force legally possible. Further, as we see so often, issues of accountability for police require informed and consistent oversight, not headline-seeking sensation. Further, boards were created to actually provide a buffer from political interference of the undesirable kind. Unfortunately, what has evolved in many instances is the view that any political direction is interference.
This is certainly the case with the economics of policing, a code word for a growing movement around the world to take a serious look at how police do their job and find ways to reduce costs. Look no further than the United Kingdom for how this has played out in terms of reductions in policing levels of up to 20 per cent of the budget and how this has forced police services to operate in very different ways.
The bottom line is that the board has to step up and work with council to arrive at answers to key resource questions. That means the board has to show leadership on the resourcing issues by directing the chief to bring about change. Don’t make this about the chief or deputy. That plays to the dangerous game of popularity associated with a highly respected person and office. However, all parties have to respect lines of authority and communication as part of responsible government. Any form of run-around or grandstanding results in burning bridges, a sure way to kill genuine efforts at change. Once again, the board has to play its role. That’s the law. That’s responsible government. Just set the ground rules to make it effective.
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.