What’s in a name? A lot, actually, when it comes to the problem of the trust chasm plaguing community/police relations.
That’s the lesson I learned watching the May 21 Police Services Board dust-up over whether there should be a “steering” committee or an “advisory” committe to liaise with police over controversial sexual assault investigations.
The story starts three years ago, when city auditor general Jeffrey Griffiths found, six years after a damning report of negligent police attitudes toward sexual assault probes, that almost no action had been taken. He made a slew of new recommendations, chief among them the formation of a civilian steering committee to work with police on implementing reforms.
But on May 21, Police Services Board chair Alok Mukherjee announced in a report the dissolution of the two-year-old committee. “It is important that the service now be allowed to move forward with full implementation of the recommendations,” he wrote, suggesting that the committee stood in the way of needed changes.
That was a surprise to Beverly Bain and Jane Doe, who sat on the committee along with board members and police brass. Doe, whose sexual assault sparked the original audit, told the board that committee work “began on a high note, with a mutual desire to effect change in sexual assault training and practice.”
The committee had four main areas of work: police training, community warnings, the use of technology and a complaints system for First Nations women and women of colour who experience sexual assault.But the shine soon came off. It was a year before anyone in charge of training attended, and the committee was never granted an opportunity to assess changes or make progress toward bringing in experts from the women’s community. “Sexist and racist language permeated the training,” Doe said, “as well as an adherence to rape mythology, especially the notion of women’s false allegations.”
She, Bain and other activists say the only way to guarantee that the process continues is to keep the committee in place. They are infuriated by the inference that the current committee is blocking the implementation of Griffiths’s recommendations. “We’ve been waiting to implement these changes since 1999. The board is saying, ‘If only we could get rid of the steering committee,’” said John Sewell of the Police Accountability Coalition. “The chief can try as he wants to make change from the top. That’s almost impossible.”
Board vice-?chair Pam McConnell thinks so too – but she favours the demise of the steering committee and the establishment of an “advisory” committee composed of various front-line service providers working in the women’s community. The difference with the steering body? This one would establish relations between officers and local groups at the service-delivery, as opposed to policy, level.
“If they’d done that with the committee from the start,” she says, “it would have looked more like the women’s community.”
All well and good. But it turns out that the chief service-providing groups, the YWCA, Metrac and the Rape Crisis Centre, don’t want this new committee and sent reps to argue against the change.
Doe and other activists worry the committee revamp is just a stonewalling venture and complain that the steering body had a full agenda when it was unceremoniously disbanded. As well, they point out, the advisory body as foreseen won’t have the influence over training and policy that the steering committee, which met with the chief and deputy chief, had.
“The [front-line] groups were pissed,” says Bain. “You keep restarting and restarting, and you disappear what has already been done.”
But McConnell has spent years building a working relationship with the police services, an organization renowned for its hostility to any outside input, and she’s done that, in part, to make space for orgs like those represented by the sexual assault steering committee.
“I almost lost the votes to move forward [i.e., maintain any kind of civilian-inclusive body at all],” says McConnell of the argument at the board. “My job is to move this through a political system. That’s my skill. And yesterday I almost lost the war – not the battle, the war.”
One suspects she’s reasonably worried that perceived civilian stridency will spook the brass. But if you’re trying to change deep-seated customs, can you back off as soon as someone gets uncomfortable?
McConnell believes emphasizing ground-?up work, partnering front-line officers with community service providers in an advisory role, will create faster change.
“[The force] is paramilitary, right? But they’re not stupid. If you sit down and have a conversation, they want better policing. They’ll say, ‘That sounds good. Hey, chief, is this okay? Okay.’”
This is the only way, she says, to bring change to the ground level, one officer, one division at a time. It makes some sense, but can this approach counterbalance the influence of fraternal and insular police culture? When I ask if the new committee will have sway over policy or procedure, McConnell smiles and admonishes me to read the Police Services Act again. Those are the purview of the board and the chief respectively.
So, let’s be clear. The trust just isn’t there for this quick swapping of one committee for another.
“This board is threatened, like most institutional boards,’’ says Bain. “We’re going to follow this thing through.”