Of the 28 municipalities in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, 22 are served by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police under a federal-provincial-municipal contract. Six cities have local police departments governed by citizen boards. We’re talking about Abbotsford, the City of Vancouver, West Vancouver, Port Moody, Delta and New Westminster.
The latest B.C. Government survey of police operations finds about 2,040 Mounties doing local policing in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley District compared with 1,940 city police. There’ve been recent concerns about the RCMP on several scores; the city police departments and their citizen boards offer an alternative model for organizing and governing police services.
The city police boards are appointed by the provincial government — suggesting, perhaps, that the Province doesn’t trust mayors and councils to find the best people. Even with this safeguard, a 2003 provincial government report on city police boards was critical. “In some observed instances, the police steered the board when the board should have been steering the police. Transparency is being eroded as more discussion moves to in-camera sessions. Many board meeting agendas and discussions focus more on operational issues than on governance…. Meetings are taken up not with discussions relating to policy or long-term planning, but with specialty unit presentations and briefings related to ongoing investigations.” This report still sits on the Government of B.C. website. There’s no follow-up document indicating whether these problems have been addressed.
Personally, I would expect city police boards to consult with citizens, set general priorities, list the priorities in a strategic plan, and measure and report on the results. The Abbotsford Police Board comes close to articulating this sequence, stating that police operational plans should “reflect the APB strategic plan and the ‘top 10’ annual community survey problems.” The survey is presumably in preparation; I see no evidence that it exists at present. The Board’s goals for 2012 are to suppress gang crime, improve traffic safety, reduce property crime and robberies, stop domestic violence, increase fiscal efficiency, and “enhance comunity engagement.” Community engagement at this point consists of running the survey and communicatng the Board’s annual report and website.
The Vancouver Police Board has posted a 2010 annual report that is not an annual report, plus the Board’s first-ever strategic plan, for 2012-2016. The plan sets three strategic objectives; one is “to strengthen connections with the community and community partners” through the “use of social media and community meetings.” In February 2012, the Board adopted a social media policy intended not to invite citizen input, but to protect “the image of the police force and the reputation of its employees.” There’s room for confusion here; perhaps this new social media policy is related to the other Vancouver Police 2012-2016 strategic plan, developed with stakeholders, which addresses the department’s goals rather than the Board’s goals.
In fairness, the Vancouver Police Board’s meeting minutes reflect open and substantive discussion of policing priorities. The Board is prodded along by Vancouvercentric regional news media and by community groups, including the far-lefty Pivot Legal Society. The society claims some credit for the creation of a new independent province-wide office that will “investigate incidents where police cause death or serious harm.”
The West Vancouver Police Board worked with its officers to produce a departmental strategic plan in a process that achieved “a new standard of community engagement.” The process is undocumented, but is said to have taken up most of 2010. Community engagement is also a goal for the West Van police moving forward. “Connecting with the community” is intended to increase “understanding of, support for and involvement in the WVPD’s programs and initiatives.”
The Port Moody plan, developed by their Board and police, promises community engagement. The Delta plan, devised by police alone, does not. New Westminster lacks a posted plan or any background on Board members, and the published records of meetings are opaque. [2019 note: a strategic plan was posted for New West in 2012, and renewed in 2019.] None of it compares with 1970s Ottawa, where the police chief and two chums met at secret times and places; I was a young news reporter, and this triggered my interest in police governance. My primary point is that with the public paying the cost of policing, the allocation of police resources should reflect public priorities established through an open and evolving process — whether the police are locally hired or supplied by the RCMP. We’ll get to the RCMP another time.
By the way, the city departments are more expensive than the RCMP detachments. The provincial survey has the average resident in RCMP jurisdictions paying less than $200 per year for policing, to a low of $143 in Maple Ridge. City departments cost the average resident at least $217 per year, up to a high of $356 in Vancouver City.
[Follow-up note, June 29, 2012: In a 425-page report on policing at the G20 Summit in Toronto, retired judge John Morden pointed out numerous problems with the handling of protests and the treatment of civilians. However, “Morden stressed that such failings could have been largely avoided had the police services board fulfilled its role as a civilian oversight body. Instead, the board asked barely any questions during the G20 planning process and “rendered itself a virtually voiceless entity,” becoming a “mere bystander in a process it was supposed to lead.” (Toronto Star, June 29, 2012.)]