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Opening up the police department:

Now there's no need to feel like a criminal to go to a police commission meeting

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Police in our society hold immense power. Police have the power to arrest people and lock people up for an entire weekend without explaining the arrest to a higher authority. Police can charge people with a crime, pulling those charged into a complex legal web that, even if found not guilty, is time-consuming and takes a financial and emotional toll. On one extreme end of the spectrum of their powers, police officers are authorized to use weapons, and can kill people. On the lesser end of that spectrum, police can annoy and pester people they don't like, racially profile and intimidate, pretty much without consequences to the officers.

We entrust the police this power because we get something back in return: an expectation of safe streets, punishment for criminals, a civil society. So it's essential that police operations are as open as is reasonable in a democratic society. The police work for us, not the other way around.

And from the police perspective, public trust is heightened when the public doesn't view the police department as a secretive, unaccountable agency. It's good for police themselves to be as open as possible.

That's why The Coast has long worked for opening up public access to the police department. We've pushed for years to make the police blotter public. In recent years, the department has increased its communications staff and its presence on social media, which may have the (possibly intended) effect of making crime reporting dumber, but in balance is probably a good thing. And last year, the department made an important first step in opening up record keeping of police calls, by creating a crime-mapping website.

In December, The Coast scored a big victory for public access when we pushed the police department for details about a summary ticket (in this case a ticket issued to councillor Linda Mosher). At first, the department declined to turn over the information, but we asked for a legal reason for withholding the information. After a few days, the department acknowledged that there was no legal prohibition for making the information public, and so has changed its policy: for now on, summary ticket information will be made available for the asking.

We were going to follow up that victory by pushing this month for opening up the meetings of the police commission, the governing body for the police department, which is made up of three city councillors and four people appointed by the province.

Police commission chair Micki Ruth
  • Police commission chair Micki Ruth
Police commission meetings are nominally public—you could always attend, if so inclined. But the process of actually getting there was a gigantic hassle. The meetings were held in a conference room on the second floor of the department headquarters. In order for a member of the public, or even a reporter, to attend, you'd have to first wait in line in the building lobby, behind all the people paying parking tickets and the like, and then tell the clerk you wanted to attend the meeting. Eventually somebody—usually an uniformed, and armed, police officer—would show up to escort you directly to the conference room. It was time consuming (I've learned to arrive as much as 20 minutes early to make it in time to catch the beginning of the meeting), and intimidating. This was a perfect example of a meeting being "open" on paper, but it was such a hassle to attend that hardly anyone ever did.

Our plan was to write a public letter to the commission, asking that the meetings be moved to a room in City Hall, where public access is a breeze: you just walk right in. But a funny thing happened while we were contemplating writing the letter: police commission chair Micki Ruth made the change herself, without being asked. This month's meeting of the police commission was the first to be held in Halifax Hall, the room on the first floor of City Hall. And all future meetings will be held there as well, Ruth tells us.

So credit where credit is due: Ruth has helped open the police department. Sure, it's a small thing that most people won't notice, but it's part of a welcome change in attitude from the entire department.

Still, we're waiting for that police blotter to be made public. Deputy chief Bill Moore, who's in charge of the project, told us in December that the "beta" version of the public blotter would be made live in January. We called him this morning to see how that's coming, but he hasn't immediately returned our phone calls.

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