Police board's move to in-person meetings frustrates community organizers

With the Ottawa Police Services Board returning to in-person meetings, some community organizers fear the move could stifle public participation.

First regular meeting following downtown occupation scheduled for 4 p.m. ET

The Ottawa Police Services Board will meet at 4 p.m Monday at Ottawa City Hall, the first in-person meeting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some community organizers fear that decision could limit public participation, however. (Kate Porter/CBC)

With the Ottawa Police Services Board returning to in-person meetings today, some community organizers fear the move could stifle public participation among residents who felt more comfortable sharing their views online.

"This seems to be another attempt to limit public, oral delegations, right?" said Robin Browne, co-lead of 613-819 Black Hub, a local advocacy group. "Like, the city council is using a hybrid model. Why can't they?"

The board has been meeting virtually since April 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, who was named the board's new chair after Coun. Diane Deans was ousted from the position in mid-February, said he's looking forward to the return to in-person meetings. 

"The state of emergency has since been lifted, and various provincial public health restrictions have been relaxed, so we are able to resume our regular in-person meeting procedures," he said by email. 

While other bodies have adopted hybrid models, allowing residents to weigh in both virtually and in person, El-Chantiry called them "labour-intensive and complex to administer."

The police board, he added, doesn't have the same resources as the city. 

"Our staff will continue to monitor the city's phased-in roll-out and implementation of hybrid meetings across its committees to better understand the resources needed to fully transition to a hybrid model," El-Chantiry wrote.

"At that point, we can reassess and see what we would need in order to plan for, and potentially adopt, a similar approach in the future."

Timing of transition concerning

But the timing of the transition is concerning, according to Browne, with Monday's meeting being the first since the end of the weeks-long occupation that took over a large swath of downtown Ottawa.

The board's regular meeting scheduled for late February was cancelled. 

"[This is] the first one for a lot of our residents to come and ask questions about the occupation, ask them questions of accountability," Browne said. "The big one being, like, what happened?"

Robin Browne, seen here in 2020, says the police board should employ a hybrid model for its meetings, so that people can weigh in both virtually and in person. (Jean-Francois Poudrier/CBC)

Souheil Benslimane, another community activist, said online meetings were accommodating for many, including people with disabilities and those traumatized by police actions who felt uncomfortable attending in person.

Benslimane said while they personally felt the board doesn't listen to criticisms levied at it, online participation still had its upsides.

"People in the community are frustrated [with the change] because … even though it was not democratic, at least people had the ability to go virtually during a global pandemic," Benslimane said.

Virtual meetings were also helpful for people who were hit hard financially by the pandemic and struggled to make it to city hall, Browne added.

Coun. Eli El-Chantiry, chair of the police board, speaks to reporters last month near the end of the weeks-long occupation while interim police Chief Steve Bell looks on. Monday's board meeting is the first one open to the public since the occupation. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Not the way to 'build trust'

At Monday's 4 p.m. ET meeting, the police board will hear a motion calling on the city's auditor general to lead the municipal review into how the police service handled the convoy protests.

Browne's organization also plans to voice support for recent calls by Coun. Catherine McKenney and Coun. Jeff Leiper to have a royal commission examine what happened in downtown Ottawa, given the growing far-right extremism and white supremacy. 

He said now is not the time to limit public participation. 

"[If] they really wanted to build trust, they would definitely go to a hybrid-meeting [model] and allow as many people as possible to come in and speak."

With files from Joanne Chianello

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