Op-Ed: Winnipeg police services advisory board

The Winnipeg Police Advisory Board was founded in September of 2007.  Mandated to “provide citizen-based input and independent analysis” of police services in the community, the Board collects information and provides recommendations to the Winnipeg Police Services.  According to the Board’s 2009 Report a “Newcomer’s Discussion Group” met on September 17, 2009.

A number of stories were heard at that meeting:

“Police broke into the house of a Muslim woman at 2:00 am. She was not appropriately clothed according to her faith, but they refused to let her do so. Police told her to sit down. They pinned a 12-year-old boy to the floor. They had a warrant, but it was the wrong house. The woman was traumatized and humiliated. The police did not apologize nor show any empathy for the woman’s situation”

And another:

“Police raided a house full of grad students. Students taken outside, spread-eagled with hands on head, all handcuffed, and stacked against a wall. Police were without a warrant. Said they had a report of weapons inside. None found. No apologies made to students. Some students now afraid to walk fast in public, afraid of getting shot outside.”

There are more anecdotes in the report.

Yes, the Board only heard one side of the story at the meeting. Yes, some of the stories contain more hard facts than others.   Nonetheless, the Board saw a problem, made its recommendation, and the WPS responded:

“Very shortly after receiving the Board’s summary of the Newcomers’ discussion group, a WPS Superintendent was designated to head a three-person team tasked with increasing proactive contact with the newcomer community.”

Admittedly it’s not entirely clear what “proactive contact” entails, but at the very least these meetings foster some kind of communication at the community level.

I submit that if people are coming together to talk, and the meetings contribute even to the possibility of  communication and awareness, that’s a good thing.  If they go further and establish understanding, and maybe even some sort of reservoir of goodwill, that’s even better.  I’m not saying it’s happening, but I’m saying it’s possible.

That potential for good work notwithstanding, the Winnipeg Police Advisory Board was dissolved December 31, 2009 to make way for Manitoba’s new Police Services Act.

The new legislation is at least partly a reaction to the problems attendant on police self investigation and creates an Independant Investigations Unit with civilian oversight.  That’s good.

The Investigations Unit will be empowered to do more than simply make recommendations.  Again, good.

And the preamble clearly states that co-operation between police and community is important.  Fine.

I guess my concern here is that dissolving the PAB throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

Sure, it’s been said that the PAB was basically toothless.  But even still, it created a forum for discussion.

Voices were heard.  Stories hit the news.

The new legislation creates a formal complaint process; we don’t know much about what that process will involve.  Will the voices of these newcomers continue to be heard?