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Ontario Police Boards Need To Change

12/02/2016 06:43 EST | Updated 12/02/2016 06:43 EST
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Crime scene in the forest with yellow police line do not cross tape

In Ontario, municipal police services are governed by Police Services Boards (PSBs). These Boards retain a great deal of control over local matters related to policing. They generally consist of three or five members for smaller jurisdictions, and seven members for large municipalities.

Members are appointed by both municipal council, and provincially by the Lieutenant Governor, by Order in Council. Despite the "legitimacy" of these Boards, they are nothing but formal rubber stamp approval puppets for police services.

It is time to abolish the current structure of PSBs and implement stronger forms of governance that serve the public interest and are accountable to the community, while ensuring the necessary checks and balances for the operation of police services.

The Police Services Act sets out the functions and roles that PSBs have control and authority over. Among the responsibilities, PSBs appoint members of the municipal police force, establish policies for the effective management of the police force, recruit and appoint the chief of police, and approve the police budget.

Judges, justices of the peace, police officers, and criminal defence attorneys cannot be members of a board. PSBs are only required to hold four meetings per year (although most boards have one meeting per month), and these meetings are open to the public.

PSBs are accountable to the community they serve, and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC). The OCPC is an independent oversight agency that ensures police services are provided in a fair and adequate manner throughout the province. This commission has the authority to both investigate members of PSBs, and adjudicate disputes between municipal councils and PSBs over budget matters. However, the OCPC rarely invokes its mandate on PSBs.

"Nearly half of Ontario's 49 municipal police agencies serve communities with less than 30,000 people, and more than a quarter serve less than 15,000."

The most important concern with the current structure of PSBs is the fact that members are appointed rather than elected. How can municipal and provincially appointed members be accountable to the community if the community never had a say in the appointment? Appointed members do not necessarily have the interests of the public in mind compared to an elected representative.

In jurisdictions where there are five member boards, two council members serve on the Board, one member is appointed by council, and two members are provincially appointed. For seven member boards, three council members serve, one member is appointed by council, and three members are provincially appointed.

In all cases, municipal council members serve on the Board, and this includes the mayor in almost every case. This can be a conflict of interest, especially in smaller jurisdictions where council members and the chief of police are close colleagues.

Members of PSBs are paid for their service. Finding this information is difficult and this is problematic because taxpayers foot these bills. In smaller jurisdictions, members can receive approximately $5,000 per year, plus expenses to attend conferences and seminars throughout the province. In larger jurisdictions, members can receive between $10,000 and $15,000, plus expenses and benefits.

One problem with PSBs is that not much is known about PSBs. We know very little about remuneration for members, when meetings are held and the agendas for these meetings, and the contact information for members. Further, if contact information is provided, there is no guarantee members will respond to public concerns.

PSBs in larger communities, such as Toronto and Ottawa, receive much more public scrutiny than boards in smaller communities because policing related issues are always hot topic matters. However, nearly half of Ontario's 49 municipal police agencies serve communities with less than 30,000 people, and more than a quarter serve less than 15,000. This is one of the reasons why the current structure of PSBs needs to change.

Small town politics (AKA corruption) run wild in these communities and accountability is nowhere to be seen. Municipal representatives (i.e., the mayor) are often friends with the police chief and are pro police choice without having a critical stance on important issues. Boards have no teeth or identity -- they are merely "yes" men and women who get paid to rubber stamp police budgets and operations. Additionally, "yes" men and women exist in larger jurisdictions as well, especially in Toronto. The only difference is that they receive higher pay and the antics are a little more visible to the public.

"Reforming the structure of PSBs is a necessary move that ensures elected members serve community interests and hold local police agencies accountable in a meaningful way."

The first, and most important step to reforming PSBs and amending the Police Services Act, is to abolish member appointment and require all members or candidates to be democratically elected by community members. This ensures a proper civilian board that represents the community and is clearly accountable and responsible to the interests of the public.

Second, municipal council members, including the mayor, should be automatically ineligible to serve as members on a board. This effectively eliminates any conflict that may exist between members and the police chief, specifically in smaller jurisdictions. Also, having a board strictly made up of non-council members ensures that there are no conflicts of interest when budget discussions are debated between council and the PSB.

Third, elected board members should be required to go through training on police related matters. It should not be expected that elected members have any previous knowledge in policing. Requiring mandatory training on police matters ensures that all members acquire a similar and standard level of knowledge related to policing which will provide them with the foundation to effectively serve on a PSB.

Finally, there needs to be a limit on how long members can serve on PSBs. Currently, there are no limitations as members can serve on a board if they continue to receive appointments. Elected members should only be allowed to serve on a board for two appointments totalling three years for each appointment (maximum six years).

This ensures that there are always new members being elected every few years and it prevents any strong relations from forming between members and the chief of police that may potentially cloud decision making.

These are small but very important steps that must be taken to reform the current structure of PSBs. Reforming the structure of PSBs is a necessary move that ensures elected members serve community interests and hold local police agencies accountable in a meaningful way. If nothing changes, police agencies will continue to have free reign over the current puppet show.

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