Defunding the Police? Part III

The Systemic Barriers to Systemic Changes

Last time in The Voice Magazine, I wrote about how I submitted a criminal complaint to the Ottawa Police Services Board (the Board) focusing on organized crime and an illegal online gambling ring, and how I subsequently identified shortcomings with how the Board had ‘handled’ my initial criminal complaint.

By the end of this article, readers should be able to understand why it can be more significant to focus on the structures around policing rather than police budgets, and how it only takes the actions of a few people who are in positions of consequence to damage the integrity of our institutions, unintentionally or not.

Connecting with elected officials, the Law Society of Ontario, and oversight bodies

After receiving the Board’s response to my previous email, where they had avoided addressing whether they ever actually dealt with the complaint I raised, and had returned to their same talking points, I had no choice but to start escalating my complaint and connecting with representatives from all three levels of government, as well as oversight bodies.  The Board was trying to justify their ‘handling’ of my criminal complaint under the guise that I had informed them that I had filed a criminal complaint with the RCMP and that they had no involvement in, nor responsibility for, the investigation of alleged violations of the criminal law.  Also they noted that the Board was precluded by the Police Services Act from directing the Chief in respect of “specific operational decisions or with respect to the day-to-day operation of the police force.” But all of those explanations were meaningless because they did not apply in this situation; I had not filed a complaint with the RCMP, merely noted that their lack of action on this situation made it no surprise that people would avoid the Board and go directly to the RCMP.  Neither had I requested or suggested that they direct the Chief in that manner, but merely that my complaint and concerns be forwarded to the police so that an investigation could be started while avoiding the “connections” that those involved in the ring said they had.

Had the Board handled my criminal complaint as their protocols required them to, I would have heard from the appropriate policing agency, and we would have gone from there.  Instead, the Board was presenting the situation as if I had demanded that they be the judge, jury, and executioner, but that was not the case.

So, in July of 2021, I followed up with the Premier of Ontario’s office, select Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), with at least one member from each of the three main parties, and the rest of City Council.  I was surprised that the Liberal MLA responded and connected me with another Liberal MLA who had a legal background and with whom I would further discuss the matters.

Around the start of 2022 is also when I heard back from the Law Society of Ontario (LSO), connecting with a general law clerk, before being escalated to their counsel from their Professional Regulation Division.  I had approached them because of how the Board had said its lawyer had advised them  against acting on  these  matters.  However, so far as I was concerned, this was not a typical legal dispute; this was an oversight body that was entrusted by the province for all municipal policing matters,  and it was being provided faulty legal opinions, by an LSO licensee, and there was the potential to seriously harm both the institution of policing as well as the public good.

Unfortunately, the LSO stated that they were unable to accept my complaint, as it was considered to be a complaint on behalf of another party, and, since the Board’s legal counsel was not my lawyer, they were limited in their scope.  The LSO also stated that they did not have the legal authority to intervene in this situation, and that they could only do so if the issues were ever raised in court, and if the presiding judge made negative comments on the conduct of any licensee.  Basically, there was a grey area that ensured that lawyers could do whatever was necessary to “protect their client’s interests”. Their reasons seemed to form what is defined as a “structural barrier” or a “systemic challenge”, and it was quite concerning.  It is difficult to challenge a systemic difficulty when the system to challenge it is also where the difficulty is.

With the arrival of 2022 and a few more policing scandals occurring in Ottawa, I requested to address the Board so that I could speak on the police governance model and policies related to how police services boards process and handle complaints and how that process has the potential to impact community-police relations.  This time around, the executive director to the Board refused to forward my delegation request because she believed that my matter was not within their jurisdiction.

I took the time to correct the executive director by explaining that she had a narrow interpretation of my talk, and that it would segue into the issue of ethics and guidelines in policing, which also applied to police services board members.  Thus, having navigated the “jurisdictional blocks”, my delegation was approved, but the Board’s meeting for February 2022 would get postponed after the circus known as the “Freedom Convoy” came to town.

The Board Collapses

The Freedom Convoy started to cause so much chaos throughout Ottawa’s core that it had made both national and international news.  There was infighting amongst all three levels of government, but the anger came down on the Board.  What further complicated the situation was that media outlets in Ottawa had reported that one of the Board’s provincial appointees had attended the convoy without informing the Board.  Additionally, another member of the Board had been leaking confidential information about in-camera meetings to a local magazine that published a story about it.  Although the Board had been trending downwards for quite sometime, it really cratered with this cohort.

All three levels of government were looking to save face, but none more-so than the Board.  They determined it was best for Chief Peter Sloly to resign.  However, as soon as this news dropped and that the Board had attempted to hire a new police chief in a matter of days, bypassing the typical hiring process, all hell broke loose.  The Premier of Ontario had all three of his provincial appointees resign while the Ottawa’s City Council held an emergency meeting to remove two of the three municipal board members.  Very quickly, the entire Board had been replaced.  But it was the resignation of the long-serving civilian appointee, a stalwart member, who would then be recruited to sit on the Thunder Bay Police Services Board (TBPSB) and his subsequent remarks that made airwaves.

In an interview with the Toronto Star, the civilian appointee, who had served on the Board for 10 years, was quoted as saying that the police governance model was set up for failure.  In a subsequent interview with the CBC, he said that police services boards needed to be better trained, provided with more resources, and protected from political interference.  He also confirmed the existence of structural barriers and power imbalances in police governance and oversight, a result of having police services board members who lacked a policing background.

The Freedom Convoy had damaged the state of policing in Ottawa to the point that it had become a matter of national security, but I saw it that way well before the convoy.  As I had done with each of my escalations, I had notified the Board that I would be connecting with the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) and sharing the full details of my criminal complaint with them, something I had only intended to share with the appropriate policing agency.  The fact that all of this had been going on for so long and without ever coming to the attention of any policing agency was deeply disturbing, and could easily be seen as another threat to national security.  As with other complaints made though, each level responded to me, and all claimed essentially that it was outside of their mandate.

With the arrival of an entirely new cohort of Board members, I was required to resubmit my request to address the Board at their March 2022 meeting. However, this Board decided to revert back to in-person meetings at Ottawa City Hall and all delegations were required to be in-person.  What was weird about this requirement is that Board members were permitted to participate virtually, but delegations had to be done in-person.  Although the changes did not affect me, I saw it as an act that was designed to stimy public engagement and participation at Board meetings.  At the Board meeting on March 28, 2022, at City Hall, I spoke about the failings of the OPSB to a packed house of concerned residents, Ottawa bureaucrats, and members of the media.

To say that this new cohort of Board members was not happy with my presentation would have been an understatement.  In any case, I had followed up with all three levels of government as well as oversight bodies, and I thought that I was finished with addressing the Board, the structure around policing that was described by the civilian appointee as being “set up for failure”.  But a few more police scandals occurred in Ottawa, so I felt I had to register to address the new Board in its entirety.

Around the Spring of 2022, I submitted a request to address the Board at their meeting in May, but this time my request was denied.  The Chair informed me that my previous presentation was outside the rules of procedure, that they had provided me with “some latitude” regarding my comments about how it was unavoidable for complaints to make their way to the NSICOP when police services boards failed to live up to their mandate, that I needed to be more specific, and that it had to fall within the Board’s authority.  However, I viewed this interaction as an opportunity to address their concerns and to review my past topics with this new cohort: general community matters, body cameras in policing, cyber security, and the complaints handling process.  I also used the analogy “If the shoe fits…” because I could not do anything about how OPSB members felt during my presentation, if they associated my general statements with our interactions, or with their personal lives.  Once again, my delegation was approved.  What I had planned to say had not changed, I just made it clear to them that I knew what the rules and the jurisdictional boundaries really were, and that I would not be easily put off by a “mistake” on their part.

At the Board meeting on May 28, 2022, at City Hall, I criticized the state of policing in Ottawa by addressing systemic inequities in policing and reminding the Board that it was unavoidable for complaints to make their way to the NSICOP when individuals in positions of consequence decided to play policing.

The Story Behind Power and Influence

When it comes to addressing the systemic barriers within our society and the structures around them, the by-product of our actions may often be resistance from those empowered by the status quo.  Thankfully, the playbook on how to navigate bureaucracies and their “defence mechanisms” is available for everyone to read, but it still requires a comprehensive understanding of the various factors at play.

There is, however, something that could have helped me be more effective in my interactions with these structures.  It has to do with my recent participation in another professional development program offered by the Harvard Business School that focused on social innovation and change initiatives and the story behind power and influence.  The significance of this learning experience had to do with the fact that it provided participants with framework that was centered around being more effective when pursuing the betterment of society.  However, I will share those key learning takeaways and more in next week’s edition of The Voice.

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