Who will serve on Hamilton's police board? Diverse communities rallying to fill vacancy
Advocates see an opportunity to create a board better able to handle race issues
Hamilton's visible minority groups are rallying to find candidates to fill a vacancy on the police services board in the hopes of getting a new board that's adept at handling race issues.
The Hamilton Police Services (HPS) board is looking at significant turnover and will need two new council representatives and a citizen appointed by the city. It will also need to name a new chair.
Organizations such as the Afro Canadian Caribbean Association are scrambling to put their best candidates forward for the citizen opening, said president Evelyn Myrie. Multiple people have called her to see what she knows about who's applying.
"It's an immediate conversation that's being had," she said. "I'm surprised by the number of calls we're getting."
Not looking to return to the board are chair Lloyd Ferguson, an Ancaster councillor and Terry Whitehead, a Mountain councillor. The status of suspended citizen member Walt Juchniewicz is uncertain and the city is advertising for candidates to apply.
A visible minority appointee would be significant for a board that critics say has never really understood race issues.
The bad guys now feel comfortable carrying guns again.- Lloyd Ferguson
In 2015, for example, then-chief Glenn De Caire forwarded a resident email to officers. The email praised HPS, but said it's "time for these black kids to stop blaming the police."
He was strongly criticized by members of the black community, but received the backing of board chair Ferguson. Ferguson was frequently at the centre of criticisms levied at the board for its handling of race issues. He says he's stepping away to focus more on the conservation authority, and the city's planned light-rail transit (LRT) system.
"It takes stress out of my life," he said. "Plus, I want to try something new."
On the board, "everybody's looking over your shoulder in that role, especially as the chair. Whether it's the police oversight groups, or whether it's people like the Matthew Greens of the world, or it's the bad guys. And under the Police Services Act, you're so restricted in how you can respond."
The Green issue was another sore spot. Green, an outgoing Ward 3 councillor, was Hamilton's first black city councillor. He rallied to see an end to street checks, otherwise known as "carding" which research has shown to disproportionately target visible minorities. The board, he said in 2016, is "culturally incompetent" and "unprepared and unequipped to handle (the carding) issue."
Green also filed a complaint about an officer, alleging racial discrimination. A Police Services Act hearing found the officer didn't discriminate against Green.
I love that. That might be my proudest moment.- Matthew Green on the notion of stressing the chair of the police services board
But the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) rebuked Ferguson for comments he made about the Green hearing in two radio interviews.
Ferguson also opposed revamping carding rules. The practice, he says, helps investigations.
"The bad guys now feel comfortable carrying guns again," he said Wednesday. "When an officer approaches them, the first thing an officer says is 'you can walk away if you want to.' And so they do."
Ferguson isn't the only change. The seven-member board includes three council reps and a citizen appointee.
Whitehead, who's currently suspended pending an Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) investigation, isn't putting his name forward again. Mayor Fred Eisenberger said he's talking to councillors about whether he should serve on it again too.
And Walt Juchniewicz, city citizen appointee, is under suspension awaiting an OCPC hearing. His lawyer, Pamela Machado, says Juchniewicz has no plans to resign.
In the meantime, the city has posted for another citizen representative.
Ferguson says the board will decide at its final meeting on Nov. 22 whether to discuss Whitehead and Juchniewicz's investigations publicly.
As for the council spots, Tom Jackson (Ward 6) and Chad Collins (Ward 5) have put their names forward.
Community safety is an issue across Hamilton, Collins said. People want safe streets, and "I share that interest."
Whoever the citizen appointee is, activist Kojo Damptey says he "hopes and prays" that person understands diverse communities.
"I'm hoping that more of the citizen appointees will be people that understand issues of racism and how it relates to policing, and people that have lived experience interacting with police."
Green isn't optimistic the new members will make a difference. But he's honoured Ferguson now references "the Matthew Greens of the world."
"I love that," he said. "That might be my proudest moment."
He said Ferguson and the board have been too unquestioning of the police service and have not fulfilled a role of citizen oversight.
"What we need are more Matthew Greens in the world to hold people of such privilege and power accountable."
Ferguson said he's proud of what he's achieved as chair.
HPS hired Eric Girt as chief ("the best in the province"), as well as two deputy chiefs and a top civilian administrator.
The service has also broken ground on a long-awaited investigative services building.
HPS, he said, is "in wonderful shape."