Winnipeg Police Board's purpose still unclear 5 years in, but new chair promises to tackle 'disconnect'

The last original member of the Winnipeg Police Board is stepping away from the police-oversight body, which continues to wrestle with questions about its purpose.

Last original member of board, brought in after high-profile incidents, stepping down

Mary Jane Brownscombe, seen here with Coun. Ross Eadie, is an original member of the Winnipeg Police Board. Her last meeting is Friday. (CBC News)

The last original member of the Winnipeg Police Board is stepping away from the police-oversight body, which continues to wrestle with questions about its purpose.

Mary Jane Brownscombe, the last remaining original member of the five-year-old police board, plans to step away after attending the board's final meeting of 2018 this Friday.

Brownscombe went by the surname Loustel in 2013, when she was appointed to the police board alongside Ka Ni Kanichihk founder Leslie Spillett, lawyer Paul Edwards, Best Sleep Centre owner David Keam and former city councillors Thomas Steen and Scott Fielding.

The board grew out of provincial legislation requiring civilian oversight of Manitoba police services. The former NDP government ordered up municipal police boards as well as the Independent Investigations Unit in response to high-profile incidents such as the killings of Crystal Taman and Matthew Dumas in 2005.

The board spent its initial years drafting policies for the Winnipeg Police Service, including guidelines for police evidence, pursuits and use of force. All three policies were scrapped earlier this year, after the Manitoba Police Commission —which governs municipal police boards — informed the city the Police Services Act did not grant Winnipeg's board the power to enact those policies.

Brownscombe voted against that move, stating at the time she joined the police board to help develop policy.

She declined comment other than to confirm she is leaving the board, leaving incoming chair Kevin Klein, the rookie councillor for Charleswood-Tuxedo, as the sole Indigenous member on the body.

Coun. Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo) is the new chair of the Winnipeg Police Board. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Winnipeg's Indigenous community had high hopes for the board, even though its original mandate prevented members from investigating police officers or directing the allocation of police officers.

"I don't think it reflected the community wishes at that time, but we worked within that framework," Spillett said in a telephone interview, recalling her time with the board, which ended in 2016 when her appointment was revoked.

Under former chair David Asper, the police board reduced the number of times it meets in public from nine a year to four, primarily to alleviate the burden on its volunteer members. 

The board's remaining functions include public consultations about policing and oversight of the police-service budget. Incoming chair Klein said he's aware Winnipeggers may not know what powers the board possesses.

"I believe there is a real disconnect between what the public thinks the board is responsible for and what the board is actually responsible for, what the board is allowed to do and what the public thinks it should do," Klein said Monday in an interview in his office at city hall.

"We need to inform them of what the role is of the board because that disconnect does create some animosity at times."

Klein, a former newspaper publisher, previously chaired a police-services committee in Cobourg, Ont. He took an interest in policing in the 1990s, following the murder of his mother in Oshawa, Ont. at the hands of her domestic partner. 

The board was created five years ago to ensure civilians have some voice in the way police operate, but it was not given the power to investigate police or tell them how to police. 2:02

Klein said he does not believe police board members possess the experience to dictate how police allocate resources. But he said the board can and will question how the Winnipeg Police Services spends the $292 million it received from the city this year.

"Are we getting the most effective use of our budget? Is it the most efficient way possible?" he said.

The police budget will come before the board in just under two months, as part of the city's scrutiny of the 2019 operating budget.

The police budget ultimately winds up in the hands of city council. Mynarski Coun. Ross Eadie, a former police board member, said the body is incapable of providing any real financial oversight because he believes the police service remains underfunded.

"The mayor's expectations of a budget ... for the police service is way out of whack to the demand for police services in this city right now," Eadie said at city hall.

Former police board chair Asper declined to comment on this story. His predecessor, St. James Coun. Scott Gillingham, said he remains optimistic about the board.

"Civilian governance was put into place for a reason here in the province of Manitoba," Gillingham said Monday. "I believe the board still has a very important role."

Klein expressed optimism as well.

"It's relatively new," he said of the five-year-old board. "It still has growing pains."

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.