Original Published on Oct 03, 2022 at 06:12
Newfoundland Labrador an outlier on police oversight say Black and Indigenous advocates
By Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
“Listen, when you’re a Black man in Halifax, you’re gonna get stopped by the police. I’ve been stopped all over. I’ve been stopped in Black communities and in White communities. In poor areas, in nice areas. In the city and out in the country. When I’m walking, when I’m driving. It don’t matter. If you’re Black, you’re automatically suspicious and you’re gonna get stopped, you’re gonna get questioned.”
That testimonial by a black, 30-something Halifax resident is typical of what came out of a two-year investigation into a police practice known as street checks.
The 2019 report, written by Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley, marked the beginning of the end of street checks. The practice was banned, and two years later, Nova Scotia’s new Conservative government went a step further and fixed a loophole that allowed it to continue under the radar.
The new directive removed the term “suspicious activity” and replaced it with “reasonable suspicion” in cases where a crime is about to occur or has occurred. Reasonable suspicion is the legal standard to be used by police to detain individuals suspected of unlawful activity.
Racial profiling has been a long-standing concern in the Halifax region, which has historically had a large Black community, as well as Indigenous and other racialized groups.
Lindell Smith says one of the main reasons it stopped was that the Halifax Regional Police is overseen by a civilian body known as the Board of Police Commissioners.
“Even though, at the end of the day, the provincial government was the one who mandated that street checks couldn’t happen, if there wasn’t the oversight board — the police commission — we wouldn’t have been able to ask the human rights commission to do an independent review on the legality of it,” said Smith, a Halifax councillor and chair of the board.
“If our board didn’t exist and didn’t push the issue, then we would never have got to the point where we held them accountable to those issues.”
Three of the board’s commissioners are city councillors, three are members of the community and one is appointed by the provincial government. The current provincial appointee is Mi’kmaw.
The board meets every month and works closely with the chief of police, who provides an update at each meeting.
Smith admits the board is essentially an arm’s-length agency of the municipal council and has limited powers. It’s the council, for example, that hires and fires the chief on the advice of commissioners.
“When you start to get down to the nitty gritty, you realize that there’s nuances on what oversight boards can and cannot do,” he said, adding that two former members recently wrote a report outlining how the commissioners should exercise more authority.
“From what I’ve seen, other cities, especially in Ontario, their boards actually have more power, and that’s just the way they were set up initially.”
In Newfoundland and Labrador, the urban Indigenous coalition First Voice has taken the lead in calling for civilian oversight of this province’s police force, the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.
The First Voice Working Group on Police Oversight will unveil its final report on various proposals Tuesday, Oct. 4, which is the National Day of Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The oversight board is key among them.
Civilian oversight of the police is one of the key calls for justice contained in sections 5.7 and 9.2 of 2019’s final report into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S).
“(The report) calls out several areas where the treatment of Indigenous women and girls and individuals is disproportionate to the greater population, and it impacts Indigenous women in particular,” said Stacey Howse, executive director of First Light (formerly the native friendship centre). “As you know, we’re 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing.”
Howse is also a member of the Provincial Indigenous Women’s Steering Committee, which added its voice to the call for civilian oversight earlier this week.
“As Indigenous women … it is extremely important to us that those calls are taken seriously and implemented here in this province,” she said.
The RNC is one of the few police forces in the country that doesn’t have some form of civilian oversight.
That’s why it became a priority for First Voice, says manager of research and advocacy programs Justin Campbell.
“The reason why we think it’s a priority in Newfoundland and Labrador is simply that we don’t have a comprehensive system of police oversight as exists in basically every other province in the country,” Campbell said this week.
“We don’t even have the basic framework to start building on what’s really called for in the national inquiry’s final report.”
When First Voice released its draft report in July, working group chair Catharine Fagan said a central deficiency in the provincial system is that the RNC chief acts as both the commanding officer of the force and the CEO of the RNC as a corporate entity.
“This has led to an awkward relationship with government and really poor accountability to the public,” she said.
Fagan said distrust of police by the Indigenous community is a long-established problem.
“The lack of confidence is real and it’s deep, particularly in Black-Indigenous communities,” she said.
Campbell admits police oversight boards are not always perfect.
“In some jurisdictions, they’re seen as a silver bullet,” he said. “We’ve looked at those experiences and said, OK, what went wrong in these other jurisdictions and how could we fix that issue in applying a similar kind of model to our own proposed police oversight board?”
That would mean a few departures from the Halifax model, he said.
“We see that board as having the power to hire, retain and fire the police chief as necessary.”
It would also have to be truly representative of the communities served by the police, and that means Indigenous membership would be only one element.
“There are other racialized communities in St. John’s as well. There’s Labrador vs. the island. There’s east coast vs. west coast. There’s men and women and sexual minorities.”
Unlike many jurisdictions, however, Campbell says the First Voice proposal would ban both politicians and former police officers from being members of a civilian oversight commission. In their place, lawyers, retired judges or academics would provide the expert membership needed.
Campbell says selling the idea to the government shouldn’t be hard, given the fact a wide swath of legal experts and ordinary citizens supports the concept. A poll commissioned by First Voice last month found that 88 per cent of residents mostly or fully support the idea.
“To me, if I was in government looking at not just the excellent work that’s been done by the research team here … and seeing the widespread support we have right across identities, across geographies, across partisan politics, you name it — I mean, there’s such overwhelming support for it — if I was in government, I would say, OK, that’s an easy call for me.”