"An opaque process."
That’s the description employed by Coun. Matt Allard in outlining his concerns about the manner in which his city-council colleague, Vivian Santos, was effectively shut out of serving on the Winnipeg Police Board. Ms. Santos, who represents the Point Douglas ward, was appointed to the board unanimously by council on June 26, but resigned her post earlier this week after learning from the Winnipeg Police Service that she had not passed the required security clearance check.
No explanation was given for the background-check rejection — not to the board, nor to the mayor or city council, nor to Ms. Santos herself, the direct subject of the WPS examination — presumably, simply because the police service is not required to do so. Instead, a police spokesman on Thursday invited the councillor to explore other avenues for finding out why the police service deemed her unfit to serve on the police board.
"While the information gathered in the security clearance is not provided to the applicant, they may make an application for details under FIPPA (Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act)," said Const. Rob Carver.
An opaque process, indeed.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Allard (St. Boniface) and some other councillors have raised concerns and asked blunt questions about the security-clearance process and the secrecy that envelops it. Also not surprisingly, Ms. Santos has declared she is reconsidering her resignation and looking at legal options to clear her name.
Their concerns are well founded. The conflicts and contradictions built into the process should be troubling to all Winnipeggers. And transparency from the WPS is the only solution that will allay the concerns and disable the conflicts.
The Winnipeg Police Board was created in 2012 with the express purpose of providing much-needed civilian oversight of the WPS. The board’s website states its mandate, in part, is "to improve transparency and accountability in the delivery of policing services."
As such, the independence of the board from the WPS is essential; to have the police service play a direct role in determining who is allowed to serve on the board charged with independent civilian oversight is a contradiction of the highest order. And to have such determinations so fully shrouded in secrecy that not even the subjects of the checks are allowed to know the rationale for the decisions is just plain outrageous.
Think of it this way: all prospective members of the police board must undergo background checks — a sensible measure, given the sensitive nature of the board’s work. But in theory, the WPS could effectively veto the appointment of any and all board candidates it didn’t want taking part in the civilian-oversight process, for any reason (or no reason) and with no obligation to explain its rejections.
Another law-enforcement agency, such as the RCMP, should be tasked with such background investigations in order to eliminate the glaring conflict of interest inherent in the current arrangement.
As was the case in 2018 when the WPS used a narrow interpretation of the Police Services Act to resist turning over cadets’ notes related to the death of an individual in custody, the police service’s position might technically be correct. In terms of the WPS fulfilling its broader mandate to serve the public, however, the approach is deeply and unsettlingly flawed.
Transparency, in this case, means informing the subject of a background-check rejection exactly why the decision was made. That much is owed to Ms. Santos; whether she chooses to make the information public after she receives it should be her choice alone.