Opinion

Doug Ford has shelved his own conservative values in stalling police oversight reforms

As any true conservative knows, issues of public safety and accountability are far more important than cowing to the wishes of a group of well-compensated, unionized, public sector employees.

What happened to transparency, accountability, eliminating inefficiencies and ensuring public safety?

As any true conservative knows, issues of public safety and accountability are far more important than cowing to the wishes of a group of well-compensated, unionized, public sector employees. (Geoff Robins/Canadian Press)

Premier Doug Ford's new Progressive Conservative government has wasted little time in reshaping Ontario legislation to reflect the party's platform. And while many of his measures are in line with the values he espoused during the campaign, one of his latest moves — postponing the new police oversight reforms — flies in the face of true conservative values.

Conservative parties in Canada are a consortium of people with different beliefs: red Tories, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, centrists and so forth. But there are a few tenets upon which almost all agree, and they include the need for transparency and accountability of public institutions, as well as the ensuring of public safety. The PC Party is the only one of the three major parties in Ontario to enshrine respect for the rule of law and accountability in government into its constitution.

By most accounts, Bill 175, the Safer Ontario Act, was going to do just that. The bill, which passed in the legislature in March but had not yet come into force, was the first big overhaul of the Police Services Act in 27 years. (Full disclosure: at the time, I was working for an opposition MPP who supported the bill). Among other things, it would have expanded the scope of police oversight bodies and allowed for suspensions without pay for officers charged with serious offences. As a purported conservative, Ford should have supported this.

Instead, he has put on the brakes. Ford says he isn't opposed to police oversight, but insists that Bill 175 "undermines confidence in the police." This decision came in response to outcry from police unions that said certain provisions — namely, the potential for fines if an officer refuses to cooperate with police oversight bodies, as well as the outsourcing of certain duties — go too far and must be reworked. 

Whether they go so far as to justify completely stalling the legislation is questionable. The PCs have a sizeable majority government and could make minor amendments without postponing the entire legislation if they wanted to. It seems, instead, the PCs are trying to scrap a law they never supported under the guise of respecting the police. And with a pro-police-union-NDP in official opposition and Liberal near-annihilation, they face little pressure from political opponents to reverse this decision. 

​Broadening the scope of the SIU

The Special Investigations Unit (SIU), created in 1990, is an independent body tasked with investigating incidents involving death, serious injury or alleged sexual assault involving police and civilians. Ontario is only one of six provinces to have such an agency. Other provinces use civilian watchdogs from another province or entrust other police services to investigate alleged police misconduct.

With Bill 175, Ontario had an opportunity to enhance police transparency and accountability. The SIU would have publicly reported all of its investigations and released the names of any officers charged. It would also have created an Ontario Policing Discipline Tribunal to adjudicate on police discipline, ensuring this is no longer done internally. And as mentioned earlier, the bill would catch Ontario up with other provinces in allowing for suspensions without pay for officers charged with serious offences.

A vigorous and transparent oversight process is central to fostering public trust in the police, writes Angela Wright. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

The PC government says its plan is to "restore accountability and trust." But this pledge must include more than just trust in government. It must also encompass accountability and trust for all public services, including the police. The new Ontario Special Investigations Act and accompanying Police Services Act and Policing Oversight Act were designed to do just that.

Another key tenet of the PC platform was finding efficiencies in government spending. Well, the police are expensive. The Toronto Police Service is the largest budget line item in the City of Toronto. And of the $1.1 billion it receives annually, $1 billion (or 88 per cent) accounts for salaries and benefits.

In Ottawa, 1,302 of the approximately 1,900 employees of the Ottawa Police Service are featured on the Sunshine List of earners who make over $100,000. In other words, it costs taxpayers a lot to pay these officers. The provincial government should be ensuring that cities can find alternatives to police officers — more affordable alternatives — for duties such as directing traffic, which was a reform allowed by the now-stalled Bill 175.

Ensuring public safety is another important conservative value, grounded in the notion that victims of crime, particularly victims of violent crime, are afforded justice. Maintaining good relations between police and communities is an essential part of that.

Fostering community trust

A vigorous and transparent oversight process is central to fostering public trust in the police. Yet delaying the new policing oversight provisions will only further antagonize communities and make trust-building and crime-solving more difficult.

This is particularly important given the rather damning report showing Toronto police are lacking in cultural competency, leading them to misunderstand conflict with racial minorities. And where there is lack of trust and understanding, there is also likely to be lack of cooperation in police investigations. It shouldn't be seen as a coincidence that the majority of unsolved murders in the city of Toronto are African Canadians — the very group that has been the most vocal about being over-policed, poorly policed and underserved.

Bill 175 came about after extensive public consultations, considerable work from staff and was passed after hours of debate from Queen's Park legislators. It should be implemented as planned. Opting for the longer, more expensive route by conducting more consultations runs contrary to this government's pledge to eliminate inefficiencies. 

And as any true conservative knows, issues of public safety and accountability are far more important than cowing to the wishes of a group of well-compensated, unionized, public sector employees.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angela Wright is a writer and public affairs professional. She holds a Master’s in history from the University of Iowa. Follow her on Twitter:

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