Council postpones debate on policing committee principles

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Coun. Bob Russell, who brought forward initial motion, absent from Oct. 17 meeting

St. Albert city council got a look at the principles that would guide a new policing committee in town, but deferred debate on the matter until next month or later.

Policing services manager Aaron Giesbrecht presented an update on the committee, outlining the guiding principles that would be used to create a draft policing services bylaw.

Coun. Cam MacKay said he had spoken to Coun. Bob Russell, who was not present at the meeting, and asked that any motion on the matter be postponed until he was able to return so he could speak to it.

Giesbrecht presented 12 guiding principles for the committee this week, along with context about the role of municipal police as defined in the provincial Police Act, in the city’s policing services policy, and in the existing municipal policing agreement the city has with the RCMP.

He indicated a cost estimate to establish a committee would be about $50,000 per year – $20,000 for member training and $30,000 for a part-time administrator – indicating current staff members do not have any extra time to dedicate to the committee.

The committee would be tasked with maintaining a balance between the independence of the police and accountability to the public. This would remove the perception of political interference, according to the report. The current policing agreement states that the chief elected official, in this case Crouse, may set the priorities and goals of the municipal police service.

A new committee would oversee the municipal policing agreement, and replace council’s current role in communicating with the officer in charge with respect to setting annual priorities and communicating public concerns. The committee would appoint a public complaints director and assist in selecting the officer in charge.

Committee membership would be 11 members, including one councillor and one employee. Membership would be limited to having just one civilian member with a law-enforcement background.

“Frankly in our discussions, we struggled with having it populated with more than one officer if it’s intended to be civilian oversight,” Giesbrecht explained.

The committee would oversee just the RCMP and not Municipal Enforcement Services of the city’s 911 call centre, and it would communicate with the officer in charge on resource matters such as requests for new positions, and present to council on policing activities.

Mayor Nolan Crouse said his understanding was there were five communities in Alberta that had similar policing commissions, and said he spoke to elected officials from two of those communities – Drumheller and Fort Saskatchewan – at the recent Alberta Urban Municipalities Association meeting.

“Neither of them had a lot of good to say about the committee,” he said, adding he would want to speak with officials from all five communities with similar commissions before making any decision.

Prior to council’s brief discussion of the guiding principles, Coun. Sheena Hughes gave notice of three motions for changes she would like to see: change the size from 11 members to 9, remove the limit to have just one committee member with a law-enforcement background and include municipal enforcement services under the committee’s oversight.

Resident Al Bohachyk, a retired police officer who has long advocated the formation of a police committee in St. Albert, was scheduled to make a presentation to council but chose to wait until the matter came back after learning council would postpone the debate.

He told the Gazette that while he was happy to see the formation of a policing committee on council’s agenda, he did have some concerns with the proposed guiding principles – the same three for which Hughes gave notice of motion.

“The imperative for city council is to make this a functional committee that can actually attend to the issues and tasks that are very well defined in the Police Act,” he said. “In that respect, a couple of the suggestions in the terms of reference have the distinct possibility of the making the committee less functional than optimal.”

With respect to committee size, Bohachyk said seven would be best as anything larger becomes a little too difficult to manage, and is regardless more costly.

He also argued prohibiting more than one committee member having a law-enforcement background, was akin to prohibiting people with a medical background from a hospital oversight committee or prohibiting those with a law background from a judicial oversight committee.

Lastly, he noted a functional committee should oversee both the RCMP and municipal enforcement officers, as they often work in tandem to deliver the policing services the public expects.

Bohachyk also took issue with the cost estimate of $50,000, noting there was no need for a functioning committee that met once per month to have an administrator dedicating 20 hours per week to the committee, suggesting it would only take “a couple hours per month.”

“The optics are awful. It takes a $20,000 budget and turns it into a $50,000 budget, which has its own optics about taxpayer revolt on spending,” he said. “The possibility is this was intentional to create the optic that it’s much more problematic for the citizens of St. Albert than it needs to be.”

While council postponed discussion of the guiding principles, it’s unclear when the matter might return to council. Mayor Nolan Crouse said the agenda committee will add it to an agenda when there’s time.

“I don’t know when it will be, I don’t know if it’s next month,” he said.

Interim city manager Chris Jardine noted the matter had come before council Oct. 17 in order to bring a bylaw forward, and delaying discussion of the guiding principles would also delay a draft bylaw.

Re-establishing the policing committee was one of Russell’s priorities in his campaign leading up to the byelection June 24, 2015. He brought a motion forward that fall, but withdrew it saying he wanted to give time for newly hired detachment commander Insp. Ken Foster to get acquainted with the city.

He brought the motion back to council April 18 this year for administration to begin the work, which was approved unanimously.

Former detachment commander Insp. Kevin Murray disbanded the previous policing advisory committee in spring 2015.

In a letter to council dated March 16, 2015, Murray explained he was disbanding the committee because it had simply become ineffective – rather than the committee providing feedback to him, the meetings ended up being more about him reporting on police activities to the committee.

Russell told the Gazette in February he agreed with Murray’s assessment, and wanted to see the committee re-established with a clear mandate in order to minimize the time the detachment commander would have to devote to the meetings.

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Doug Neuman