Defunding the police is still a problem for Board of Police Commissioners

The Board talks body cams and street check accountability at this week's meeting, while punting the defund discussion yet again.

click to enlarge CAORA MCKENNA
Caora McKenna
Earlier this month, Halifax's Board of Police Commissioners held a chaotic and tech-troubled virtual meeting—slated to discuss defunding the police, it was mired by a bad definition and hot tempers and only got through one item on the agenda.

At the last meeting, a motion from staff outlined a suggested definition for what defunding the police would mean in HRM. The commissioners stated they weren't comfortable with the definition and the motion wasn't seconded by anyone, essentially dying then and there. Hoping to continue the discussion and not let the subject of defunding the police die over a wording disagreement, board vice-chair Carole McDougall put a motion on the floor that kept the original language, but added the necessity for community input. It passed. 

The commissioners (and this reporter) were left with the impression that the proceedings meant the item would come to yesterday's meeting for discussion.

"I thought we were going to discuss at this meeting whether or not we were going to appoint a committee or not," said commissioner Lindell Smith. Commissioner Tony Mancini also said he thought if they approved the motion, it would be brought forward for discussion at the Monday meeting.

"I, too, was under the understanding that this would come forward to this meeting for discussion," added McDougall.

Commissioner Lisa Blackburn echoed them all, saying "It was my intention to come here today to discuss the merits, dismerits of striking a committee."

But the board's legal counsel Marty Ward and chair Natalie Borden were of a different understanding. They understood the passing of the motion meant the community input element should put in motion, with Borden contacting El Jones last week to find out if she'd be interested in chairing a committee.

Jones is a member of the Nova Scotia Policing Policy Working Group—a consortium of folks who work towards shifting and changing police and criminal justice policy, with the end goal of abolition. For months the group has been petitioning the board to present on the subject of defunding the police and other matters, with no response.

After being asked to chair the committee, Jones and the group responded with a number of conditions that would need to be met, saying the work needs to be broader than simply crafting a definition.

The letter, which the group sent to the board, said participation from Jones on a community advisory committee was contingent on accepting this process for its work: compiling all current research and public debates; engaging in a public consultation process with all kinds of stakeholders for both police defunding and redistribution of funds; reworking the HRM budget process to allow for more transparency and public participation; and the opportunity to present the findings in a public format to the board and regional council.

But that's getting ahead of what the commissioners thought they would be discussing yesterday—which was the merits and logistics of striking a community committee. And because the chair and the legal counsel were on a different page than the rest of the commissioners (thinking they'd be discussing the appointment of a chair, AKA a personnel matter), the whole discussion was on the agenda to happen in-camera, meaning not for the public.

A masterclass in jargon and process and we're still here, not a lick closer to seeing what defunding the police could look like in Halifax. Looking for a silver lining to this bureaucratic cloud, it's promising Borden went to Jones to chair the committee, as it was Jones's presentation back in January 2020 about defunding the police that was likely the first time anyone on the board had given the then-fringe idea any thought. 

For more confusion, the chair had requested that the correspondence from the Policing Policy Working Group be added to the agenda as its own item, outside of the general notice about correspondence that happens at the beginning of each meeting. Maybe this was instead of an offer to present, something that happened regularly in pre-COVID meetings. Borden quickly discussed some of the correspondence from the group, but not in detail, and none of the commissioners had any specific questions, so it didn't last long.

The meeting was scheduled to end at 3:30pm, and with a few things still left on the agenda (namely the in-camera discussion of the not-yet-but-maybe-already defund committee), Borden asked to bump some items to get to the defund the police item. In-camera they went, coming back shortly after 4pm to say "we're deferring this item until next meeting."

In summary: That went nowhere, but a few other things moved forward.

Halifax Regional Police's chief Dan Kinsella and RCMP chief superintendent Janis Gray gave verbal updates on where their forces are in regards to the Wortley Report recommendations.

Mancini made a motion asking to increase accountability for progress on the recommendations beyond Gray and Kinsella's verbal updates. That motion passed, as apparently it already exists or is underway but just hasn't been released to the public.

In his report on street checks, Scot Wortley laid out a total of 53 recommendations. Twenty four of these related to regulating street checks, which the province's ban on the practice made moot. The remaining 29 addressed changes in the case of a ban, data collection on police stops and improving police-community relations.

Most of Kinsella's verbal update addressed the seven "what to do if there's a ban" set of recommendations, which are mostly data-focused. Progress, both pre- and post-COVID, has been slow.

Recommendation 1.4 calls for the police to inform citizens of their right to order, retrieve and review their own street check record, as well as written documentation about how their personal information was used by the police and whether it was shared with third parties. Wortley said in the report that this process will help civilians understand the types of information the police have collected on them in the past, and give them a chance to dispute the accuracy of that information. "This gesture will also increase the transparency of the police service and could thus serve as a step towards improving community trust," said Wortley.

To date, only one person has filed a freedom of information or access to information request for their street check information. People in Halifax only have until December 2020 to get that information from HRP, or April 2021 from the RCMP, before it's purged from the databases. (If you'd like help filing your free request, email

Lindell Smith asked if there's a possibility to extend the deadline, considering low engagement and COVID complications. Whether or not that's possible will come back to the next meeting.

The board also discussed its role in relation to capital spending within the police department. In HRM budget world, capital spending means municipal money that goes towards buying or building things—buildings, roads, gear, vehicles—as opposed to services. 

In light of confusion around the board's role in the ARV purchase and recent refunding, Smith wanted to know where and when the board could express that it didn't agree with a capital budget item. (This is an especially pertinent question considering someday the board will actually get around to discussing defunding the police, which means discussing its budget.)

HRM CAO Jacques Dubé said "the capital budget is certainly council's to direct and adopt," meaning the purchase of a vehicle (which sits in HRM's "fleet" category) would be in council's purview to buy or not buy. Whether or not the police board could influence this decision was unclear during budget 2019/20, when the ARV was on the table and initially approved.

Borden said that the board would either use chief Kinsella, who would hear their concerns at a meeting, or the chair's presentation to council to address any capital items that the board would be questioning.

A potential future example of this would be body cameras, for which a motion asking for a report to look into a pilot project was passed yesterday. (The report would look at the feasibility of a body cam pilot project for HRP and the RCMP separately.)

Mancini noted that time had passed since this item last came up. He said the previous chief was in opposition to cams because of the high overall cost—which Mancini speculates may have gone down—and problems with storage, which thanks to "the cloud" perhaps have gotten easier.

(If you're in the mood for your assumptions about the cloud to be shattered, read or listen to this book.) 

Mancini said there are a lot of folks who are advocating for defunding the police, and the last thing they want is adding money to the police department. However, spending on body cams would be about not only the safety of citizens but officers, too.

McDougall asked Kinsella to weigh in. He said: "I believe that body-worn cameras can help with transparency and can help build public trust."

But councillor Smith cautioned that people have still been killed by officers who were wearing cameras, saying it's the policies around cameras and how the footage is used and shared (citing cases where it's been withheld for months at a time) are just as important as how much it costs.

"This is not a single solution to a very complex problem," Blackburn added. She says that in order for the cameras to work as they are intended, they need to be adopted with other systemic reforms, quoting Michael White, co-author of Cops, Cameras, and Crisis The Potential and the Perils of Police Body-Worn Cameras: "The key is to have realistic expectations around what body-worn cameras can accomplish. What they can't accomplish is fix decades of tension between police and the community."

In one of its letters to the board, the Nova Scotia Policing Policy Working Group opposed body cams, saying there is very little evidence to support their use.

The motion to look into body cameras in HRM passed, but it'll be a while before the report returns.

The next meeting is on August 17. That's when the agenda items that got pushed Monday will be up for discussion, and hopefully there will be some semblance of direction on what defunding the police could look like in HRM.

About The Author

Caora McKenna

Caora is the City Editor at The Coast, where she writes about everything from city hall to police and housing issues. She’s been with The Coast since 2017, when she began as the publication’s Copy Editor.

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