Nova Scotia

Halifax police board seeks to define its powers, increase funding

The Halifax Board of Police Commissioners says it needs more financial support and a clearer understanding of its power in order to make the changes to policing that the public wants to see.

Expert says police boards across the country in same boat

The Halifax Regional Police budget for the 2021/22 fiscal year was nearly $89 million. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC)

The Halifax Board of Police Commissioners says it needs more financial support and a clearer understanding of its powers in order to make the changes to policing that have been pushed for by members of public. 

The group is responsible for civilian oversight of Halifax Regional Police and acts as the link between the community and the police services. According to the board policy manual, it is responsible for the "direction, organization and policy required to maintain an adequate, effective and efficient police department."

But historically, the police board has struggled to define its mandate. A governance review commissioned in 2016 found the board "is not performing this function in a meaningful way."

In a meeting of the board on Monday, Commissioner Harry Critchley expressed concerns that the board still lacks clarity regarding its mandate and how to act on it.

"There's not a lot of shared understanding around the powers of the board," Critchley said.

The board has been tasked with responding to the Wortley report on street checks, the recent defunding the police report, the police actions during the housing protest of Aug. 18, 2021, and other major challenges to the policing status quo.

About 20 people spoke at a recent Halifax regional council meeting, urging members to reject a police budget increase and instead put the money into community-based services for people dealing with a mental health crisis, experiencing homelessness or who have been sexually assaulted.

Board requires better funding

Critchley said the commission needs to re-examine the distinction between policy and operational matters, as the legislation says the board is responsible for shaping policy, but is not to get involved with day-to-day police operations.

Critchley also argued that in order to be effective, the board requires more resources and funded staff.

Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella's interim financial report shows that for the 2021/22 fiscal year, the volunteer board had an approved operating budget of under $14,000 — a tiny fraction of the total policing budget of nearly $89 million. 

At the same meeting, Kinsella also announced a projected surplus of $1.2 million. 

"It is time for this board, I believe, to be properly resourced," said Coun. Becky Kent, a member of the commission.

She pointed out that in recent years, policing and security terrain has shifted significantly. 

"Never has there been a time, certainly in my history, where I've had the opportunity to effect change and be part of something [like this] that we really have to take seriously," Kent said.

RCMP are also contracted to police a significant portion of the Halifax region, including the large rural area that makes up the bulk of the municipality. The board's role is restricted to being an advisory one when it comes to the Mounties.

Natalie Borden was the chair of the Halifax board of police commissioners from 2019 to 2021. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

Natalie Borden, former chair of the Halifax board, backed the argument for better resources and funding. She said the public is often unaware how significant a time commitment commissioners are asked to make. 

"In the post-Black Lives Matter movement, after the murder of George Floyd, that work that needs to be done is certainly increased in volume," she said. "And it is increased in complexity because you're dealing with competing priorities among the public."

Borden said juggling those priorities will not be easy, as there is a need to ensure the police have adequate resources to carry out policing functions, while simultaneously determining how to significantly change the approach to policing.

"And none of that is going to happen very quickly," Borden said, "so that's always the challenge."

National problems

Commissioner Yemi Akindoju pointed out these issues are not new.

"In terms of powers, duties and jurisdiction of the board, we're not the only ones struggling with that," he said. "All the police boards are struggling with that, and they've been struggling with that for history."

Alok Mukherjee wrestled with the same issues for almost two decades, as chair of the Toronto Police Services Board from 2005 to 2015 and as co-author of Excessive Force: Toronto's Fight to Reform City Policing. He confirmed that police boards across the country are in the same boat.

The issue of where policy ends and operations begin, for instance, he said is "a typically Canadian issue in policing and every board runs up against it." 

Alok Mukherjee was the chair of the Toronto Police Services Board chair from 2005 to 2015 and is the co-author of Excessive Force: Toronto's Fight to Reform City Policing. He thinks police boards have historically 'sold themselves short.' (CBC)

Mukherjee argues that boards actually have more power than they traditionally exercise and that police have used the lack of clarity in the law to try to keep it that way.

"Over time what has happened is that police services claim almost everything as being 'operational' and boards are not always able to overcome that resistance from police services," he said.

Underfunding police boards, he argues, amounts to an undermining of democratic policing in Canada.

"While the police services receive millions of dollars, the boards receive very little resources," Mukherjee said. "So the board's ability to have adequate staff, and to obtain good quality guidance or advice is very limited."

The problem, he said, is that underfunded boards become dependent on police to tell them what is possible, what options and tools are available, and therefore are unable to provide community-oriented policy direction or perform effective civilian oversight.

In his opinion, large police boards, like Halifax, Ottawa or Calgary, need at least one full-time staff member and a full-time chair. The chair must work with the city manager and mayor "as equals" and advocate for adequate resources in order to fulfil the board's legal responsibility to ensure adequate and effective policing.

Boards have more power than they exercise

Mukherjee also argued that even without clarification of the legislation and adequate resources, boards still have more power than they traditionally exercise. He points to their role in determining budgets.

"The board has a right to say where allocations of funds will go," he said. "The board has a right to say how much funds are sufficient for the delivery of adequate and effective policing."

Mukherjee also argued that the board has the right to determine which policing roles are civilianized. That's a question directly related to the proposed increases in the Halifax policing budget for this coming year. 

The Halifax budget proposed $3 million in additional services, including the hiring of 25 new sworn officers. Councillors took issue with the fact that the defunding the police report recommended replacing many of those proposed roles with civilian positions. 

The budget ended up being rejected by Halifax council and sent back to the police board for revisions with instructions that additional services not surpass $1.4 million.

During Monday's meeting, the current chair of the Halifax police board, Lindell Smith, urged commissioners to speak up at the next council meeting to advocate for more appropriate funding and resources for the board.

The board will meet next week to discuss the budget changes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rose Murphy is a reporter for CBC Nova Scotia. You can contact her at rose.murphy@cbc.ca.

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