Recent discussions about the establishment of a civilian police services board within the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) have, once again, brought the reputation of the provincial police into the public eye.
Negative news reports abound: criminal investigations and other malfeasance, including claims about internal nepotism and malicious practices; and, in one significant and ongoing court challenge to the authority of the RNC, an alleged rape of a woman by an on-duty officer. Such stories undermine the legitimacy of—and public trust in—the RNC, cementing the view that outside intervention is needed.
As a solution, NDP MHA Gerry Rogers has proposed that the provincial government institute a civilian police services board. Justice Minister Andrew Parsons has said that he is open to the idea. However, he noted that the proposal would require careful study, and should be guided by lessons learned from other jurisdictions. This position could be seen by some as foot-dragging.
The idea of a civilian police services board is not an entirely new concept. Its roots can be found in the policing approach known as community policing, which recognizes community members as active participants in shaping how the police do their work. The concept dates to the tumultuous period of the 1960s, when Black Americans, for example, organized to fight against police repression and Jim Crow laws.
Central to the philosophy of community policing are the principles of community-police partnership and problem solving, as evidenced in programs such as neighbourhood crime prevention. Contemporary examples are partnerships aimed at addressing the negative effects of racialized policing of Indigenous, Black, and Brown people.
Recently, Parsons decided to tap RCMP Assistant Commissioner Peter Clark to help in the search for the next RNC chief of police, a move intended to keep himself out of the selection process. The Commissioner’s role, according to the minister, would not be political, but would be tied to the work of a five-member Independent Appointments Commission. Nevertheless, two of these members are former politicians. In fact, ordinary citizens lacking the pedigree of being a current member would be denied a voice in the selection and recommendation process.
Parsons’s efforts towards an appointment process free from any political interference, including his own, is laudable but not reassuring. Is it possible for a Commission entrenched within the apparatus of the government to be unbiased and impartial? Wouldn’t a civilian police services board allow for greater involvement of lay citizens in policing issues that affect them—of which I would include the recent search for Chief Bill Janes’s replacement?
The current situation, in which Parsons involved the RCMP in the search for the next RNC chief of police, speaks to an issue at the heart of Rogers’s suggestion. A civilian police services board empowered with legal authority under the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Act would be responsible for hiring and monitoring the performance of the chief of police, reducing the impression of political interference and patronage that the present system may be seen to generate. Such a board would also act as a check and balance for the delivery of effective police services, to help build trust between police and the community.
Ontario’s Civilian Police Commission
Parsons is also right to be guarded about the proposed idea, given the lack of evidence-based research on the impact of police services boards. His prudence speaks to concerns about the value of such boards in providing the kind of civilian oversight and governance that would measurably contribute to police organizational performance. On the other hand, an investigation by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission—an independent oversight body to which police services boards in that province are accountable—concluded last year that the Peterborough Police Services Board was dysfunctional, and an administrator was appointed to oversee its work until July of this year.
Among other evidence uncovered during the Commission’s investigation were the animosity and bitterness of some board members towards each other, and between some council members and the Chief of Police. These were found to have impeded the board’s execution of its legislated functions. For example, the board could not complete its statutory responsibilities of preparing a business plan, setting objectives for law enforcement and public safety priorities, and evaluating the performance of the Chief and Deputy Chief of Police. The public nature of this hostility, which reportedly included a contractual dispute between the board and the Chief and Deputy Chief of Police, had the effect of undermining public confidence in the delivery of police services in the city.
In drawing its conclusions, the Commission cited an earlier failed attempt to support the board in its work by the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services. Members of the public and civic officials also expressed unease about the impact of the board’s dysfunction on the morale of police force members. As a solution, the Commission ordered the appointment of an administrator to guarantee the board’s compliance with legislated obligations. Full power and authority were conferred on the administrator to make changes to the board’s practices and processes, including suspending individuals or all members of the board. With a front-row seat on the board, the administrator was well positioned to identify areas of strengths and limitations, recommend improvements, and promote appropriate working relationships between board members, municipal council, and the Chief of Police—all in the best interests of the City of Peterborough and its residents.
We do not yet know how Parsons will choose to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages associated with implementing a civilian police services board in this province. Regardless, it would be crucial for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to be kept abreast of decisions made in this matter, as a point of transparency and public accountability.
Toward building a strong civilian police services board
We need to foster a sense of community ownership in the local police. To this end, given the future possibility of a civilian police services board, several points should be kept in mind.
When properly steered, these boards can be effective tools for holding police leadership to account in their service of the public interest. However, ubiquity of police services boards in Canada does not guarantee that they are impervious to flaws. Policy and legislative changes must address procedures for identifying board members, and provide clear guidelines on their roles and responsibilities. This way, board members would know what is expected of them, including being held accountable for failing in their duties.
In addition, some mechanisms should be implemented for evaluating the work of police boards to ensure their compliance with legislation. Results of this evaluation should be made public to build the community’s confidence in the board.
Three often overlooked weaknesses about civilian police services boards are outlined below, which could be instructive for actions taken by Parsons.
Police board members are susceptible to misunderstand whose interests they serve.
Generally speaking, citizen board members are appointed by a municipal council and by a province’s Lieutenant Governor in Council. They are not democratically elected. Arguably, unelected board members may be less likely to hold the community’s interests at heart, compared to democratically elected members. Having board members elected by the citizenry could increase their legitimacy and their accountability to communities whose interests they represent.
The fact that municipal council members and mayors also sit on these boards increases the likelihood of real or perceived conflicts of interest, especially when members have close professional or personal relationships with a chief of police, whose operating and capital budgets they must determine. Excluding mayors and council members from participating on boards could avoid the appearance of indiscretion and curb the type of buddy-buddy relationships that can undermine citizen-based outcomes.
Appointment and reappointment processes privilege board members and disadvantage the citizenry.
Establishing term limits of three years minimum and six years maximum would permit others with the skills and talents to contribute to the success of their local police service. In current practice, once appointed, board members are eligible for reappointments, with no standard term lengths. This is problematic, given the possibility for successive reappointments of board members who may be ineffective.
Since board members are also paid out of the public purse (estimates range anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000), when they fail in the performance of their duties, the social return on public investment is zero. Board members who sit past their expiration date can become complacent and a hindrance to progress. Rather than working to ensure the best possible police service outcomes for communities and residents, their position on the board may even become a means to financial gain.
Lack of board diversity risks perpetuating the status quo for at-risk marginalized groups.
Actively recruiting board members from historically marginalized groups is vital to a board’s success, without which the board cannot effectively do its job. By and large, board members represent a particular demographic in terms of education, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and race. While board members are not required to have detailed knowledge about a police service for appointment to the board, having a board that reflects the community it serves would ensure that all policing issues and decisions are considered through the lens of intersectionality.
For example, when discussing specific policing issues that affect certain segments of the community (i.e., racialized policing of Indigenous or Black young men), the absence of board members from affected communities might limit the scope and depth of the conversation than would otherwise be possible. Board members whose privilege shields them from negative police contacts might not be comfortable or knowledgeable in asking tough questions of the chief of police. Their silence and inaction might help to maintain the status quo, and overlook corrective actions that would bring about positive change.
As politicians begin to grapple with the idea of police services boards, the above considerations are critical to ensuring that board members are accountable to, and reflect the interests of, the communities they serve. Boards are not a panacea for every problem facing the RNC, but together with the chief of police, they can help to achieve effective management of the police service.
For situations beyond the board’s control, Minister Parsons could look to creating a civilian oversight agency to address public complaints against the police and another agency to investigate and charge members of the police involved in incidents of death, serious injury, and sexual assaults.
Sulaimon Giwa is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Memorial University of Newfoundland. In his scholarship he examines the intersections of race, ethnicity, and criminal justice, especially focusing on policing and corrections.