Former Brandon Police Service chief Richard Bruce. (FILE PHOTO)
Murray Blight, city councillor for Victoria Ward (FILE PHOTO)
A former police chief and expert in policing is defending the city’s new police board after one councillor described it as "unnecessary" and another called it a "joke."
Former Brandon Police Service chief Richard Bruce says the new board could give a voice to aboriginals and other minorities who otherwise might not have much say in policing.
Bruce was responding to criticism that the new board adds an unnecessary level of bureaucracy.
"Well, if you don’t like it, the easy thing in today’s world to say is, ‘Oh, it’s just more useless bureaucracy,’" Bruce said. "Well, if you actually think about what it’s supposed to do and what it costs you and the opportunities that you have with the rest of the community, I don’t know how it can turn out to be a negative."
Under the province’s Police Services Act, every Manitoba municipality that runs a police service must now have a police board.
The idea is to improve transparency and accountability.
The board will have the power to appoint police chiefs and monitor his or her performance. The police service is to operate under the general direction and supervision of the board which works with the chief to set priorities.
Local police boards are to be established by Dec. 1 and city council passed a bylaw on Monday evening to officially create Brandon’s new seven-member board, but not without controversy.
The bylaw passed even though Coun. Murray Blight (Victoria) and four other councillors abstained from the vote.
Blight and Coun. Jim McCrae (Meadows) both criticized the formation of the new board.
Blight described it as a "joke," a view he repeated during an interview on Wednesday.
He described it as an overreaction to the 2005 death of Crystal Taman. She was killed when her car as rammed by an off-duty Winnipeg police officer.
The officer ultimately received a light, two-year conditional discharge which led to an inquiry and, in turn, recommendations that led to the establishment of police boards.
Blight said there were already mechanisms in place to deal with dysfunctional police forces — they could ultimately be dissolved and replaced by RCMP. It wasn’t necessary to create police boards.
"What a joke, I mean it’s just another layer of fat," Blight said in an interview on Wednesday.
He said Brandon’s former system, in which the police chief reports to the city manager, was fine. Other heads of other city departments reported to the city manager, too.
Blight, a former BPS officer of 32 years, said a similar previous Brandon police "commission" dissolved years ago because it didn’t work.
He said he also took exception to the fact that, as a former police officer, he’s ineligible to sit on the new board.
"I’m a decorated police officer ... wouldn’t you want somebody on a committee that has some understanding?" said Blight, who also wondered what running the board would cost the city.
There’s no estimate yet, but it’s possible that the city could pay board members an indemnity.
McCrae, meanwhile, described the new board as unnecessary and said the police system has run more smoothly since the former local commission was disbanded some time ago. He said a number of councillors agreed that the new provincially-mandated board wasn’t needed.
"A lot of us were thinking, well, our police service isn’t broken so why are we being required to fix it?," said McCrae, who said he voted in favour of the police board bylaw because provincial legislation required it.
He said elected city officials are being forced to hand control of the police force over to an appointed board.
Critics within the force have also predicted that the board will slow decision-making, and questioned the qualifications of any members who lack a policing background.
Despite his misgivings, McCrae, a former Manitoba attorney general, said he’s interested in sitting on the new board with the goal to make it as effective as possible.
The city’s board will have seven members — the mayor, the city manager, a city councillor, three citizens in general and a provincial appointee.
Councillors will pick a colleague to sit on the board and the three members of the public. They haven’t been selected yet, but any selections are set to be approved by council on Dec. 3.
In general, terms will last up to four years and non-council members can’t serve more than eight consecutive years.
The provincial appointee, who was announced on Wednesday, is Jaime Chinchilla, a cultural diversity facilitator at Westman Immigrant Services.
While McCrae and Blight say that the new board isn’t needed, Bruce — who said he has not applied to be a member of the new board — disagrees.
He suggested the police service needs to be held more accountable — a system where the chief reports to the city manager isn’t enough.
"Who is the police service accountable to? If it’s accountable to the community, then how does that happen through the city manager? Short answer — it doesn’t," Bruce said.
Besides being a former Brandon police chief, Bruce has taught justice studies at a number of universities and has a masters degree in police management and applied criminology from Cambridge University.
He said appointments to the board offer a chance to give a voice to aboriginals and other minorities. That, in turn, may inspire confidence in the police service in those minority groups.
He said the province’s appointment of Chinchilla seems to be an example of that philosophy.
The police board also allocates funds provided to the force by the city, and Bruce said it may serve to hold the force to a higher level of financial scrutiny.
In addition, Bruce noted that the police board doesn’t have the power to meddle in the day-to-day operations of the force.
He said the concept works well for a number of police forces in Ontario and there’s no record of any board interfering in day-to-day police affairs.
Bruce also questioned giving the city manager, a council employee, a vote on the police board like a citizen.
He said that’s bound to lead to a conflict of interest at times.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 22, 2012