By itself, a proposal by Coun. Markus Chambers won't be enough to restore trust in the relationship between Winnipeggers and their police, which a survey last week confirmed as the worst in Canada. But he is moving in the right direction and should continue to push forward.
Mr. Chambers, who is chairman of the Winnipeg Police Board, wants city council to lobby the province to end the practice of the Winnipeg Police Service conducting background security checks for civilian members nominated for the board.
The problem he's trying to fix is immediately apparent. Police are supposed to be accountable to the police board yet police can kibosh the nomination of board members. The danger is that, in theory, police could refuse to give security clearance to critics of police.
The issue arose in July when Coun. Vivian Santos was denied the necessary WPS clearance to join the board. Police aren't required to say why they denied her clearance. It was later revealed by media that Ms. Santos wasn't given clearance because she was linked to an acquaintance who was accused, but not convicted, of trafficking cocaine. Ms. Santos has since said she didn't know about her friend's alleged drug links and she has since cut ties with the individual.
It's important to have some form of security clearance for police board members to keep characters of criminal intention away from the private police information to which the board occasionally has access. But perceived conflicts of interest could be avoided by having the security checks done by a force without a badge in the game, such as provincial justice officials or police forces from other jurisdictions.
Bringing integrity to the security clearance of police-board nominees would be a small step on the long journey towards building trust between Winnipeggers and their police. Statistics Canada issued on Nov. 25 its 2019 general social survey that said, of residents of all large Canadian cities, Winnipeggers are most likely to distrust their police force. Only 31 per cent of Winnipeggers held "a great deal of confidence" in police, compared with an average of 40 per cent in Canada's 28 major urban centres.
The survey's findings were unsurprising, given the past year was scarred by local protests against police brutality. Thousands of people attended rallies by Justice 4 Black Lives Matter, more than 63,000 signed a petition to defund and abolish the Winnipeg Police Service, and a group of teachers and parents is trying to end a program that has 19 police officers working in city schools.
The protesters insist repeatedly that complaints of police misconduct are not adequately investigated and prosecuted.
When the Winnipeg Police Board was created in 2013 as a result of repeated controversies about officers acting outside the law with impunity, its mandate was to oversee the police budget, hire police chiefs, and set police policies.
But when an early manifestation of the board tried to change police policies about matters including use of force, it was told the provincial Police Services Act didn't allow the board to change those policies.
If Mr. Chambers succeeds in changing the background security checks on board members, a change which has also been recommended by a review of the Police Services Act, perhaps the next goal could be to co-ordinate an effort to change the provincial act and give the police board real power to question and change police operations.
The police slogan "to serve and protect" is disturbingly misused if it describes a police board that serves and protects the police. A board that has, and uses, the power to demand accountability from police would go a long way towards restoring trust with the public.