On January 31st, at a special public engagement session of the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners held to receive public input on the police budget, commissioner Yemi Akindoju declared the moment “historic.” Indeed it was: as members of the Board acknowledged, this appeared to be the first time the public had been included at this stage of the budget process.
The vast majority of the 24 speakers spoke strongly against a proposed $2 million increase to the Halifax Regional Police budget for 2022/2023. Yet, after three hours of public presentations and a further four hours of discussion, the Board voted – at almost 11pm on a Monday night – to accept the increase. The result is that the Board recommended the HRP’s requested budget to Council with no changes, just like they have done consistently for years.
So what went wrong? And why does it matter?
The engagement session was prompted by recommendations in the recent report Defunding the Police: Defining the Way Forward for HRM, prepared by the Subcommittee to Define Defunding the Police. The Board commissioned this report, and appointed Dr. El Jones to lead the Subcommittee, in 2020, in the wake of global protests following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
As authors, Subcommittee members, and community supporters of the report, we endorse its framework for defunding that involves four “pillars” accompanied by 36 recommendations. One of those pillars addresses the responsibilities of the Board in the context of its historic failure to provide meaningful oversight of the HRP. As discussed in the report, a self-study commissioned by the Board in 2016 revealed that “the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners has failed to meet its legislated governance requirements under the 2006 Police Act for the past 10 years.” The Board’s policy-making powers, we conclude, have been historically misunderstood and misused.
This Board’s lack of understanding of its role was on full display last Monday night. At least one commissioner declared that they “serve the police,” and that it was therefore their responsibility to grant HRP Chief Dan Kinsella’s request for more officers. Kinsella in his turn could provide no reliable data on officer attrition, data that has been specifically requested since December by Commissioner Harry Critchley (a co-writer of the report). After more than an hour “in camera” where Chief Kinsella made a private case to the Board for more funding, away from public scrutiny, the Board returned to approve everything he asked for.
Commissioner Lisa Blackburn described the police situation as a “drowning man,” declaring that “when a man is drowning you throw him a rope.”
But relative to the rest of society, the police are not drowning. In fact, one might suggest that a better analogy would be someone standing on a dock, claiming they are drowning, being thrown rope after rope while other people thrash around in the water with no help. When a person is drowning, you fund the lifeguards, not the police.
Metaphors aside, the Board does not serve the police. Their responsibility under the Police Act is explicitly to the public – the same public they invited to speak and then ignored.
Last Monday night’s special meeting was supposed to be an opportunity to gather rich, community-driven data that reflected multiple perspectives and demographics. The Board fumbled that opportunity.
For the record, the Subcommittee provided members of the Board and HRM staff with a draft of the defunding report on October 19th, 2021. The contents of the report did not change between October 2021 and January 2022, when the report was ultimately released to the public. And yet, despite having access to the contents of the report – which were rooted in the Subcommittee’s public engagement process – the Board failed to act on the report for nearly three months, and failed to develop a meaningful public engagement process for itself.
When the Board agreed to host the special meeting on January 31st, it also scheduled the budget vote for the same evening – not giving Commissioners time in between to truly digest the public’s feedback, or consider its impact on the HRP budget request. This was done under the guise of an arbitrary time constraint – Council’s budget schedule – that could have been compressed or amended to accommodate a subsequent meeting for the Board to vote on this budget after a consideration of the public presentations.
Regardless of where members of the public actually stand on the issue of defunding, it is evident that treating engagement as nothing more than a box to tick makes the process itself meaningless. It makes you wonder: was this an engagement session, or a disengagement tactic?
The flawed nature of the public engagement session transcends the actual outcome of the budget vote. The meeting began with statements from Police Chief Kinsella, setting the tone for the remainder of the session: it would be an adversarial debate, not a community forum. To further amplify the hostility towards community participation, HRM Chief Administrative Officer Jacques Dubé added commentary undermining public presenters by suggesting that they misunderstood the process at hand. His assertion that the Commissioners ought to disregard public commentary about the highly relevant context of August 18th as well as the Defunding the Police report in considering their vote is a proverbial thumb on the scale that delegitimizes every single presenter. The spirit of engagement is supposed to be cooperation, not confrontation. The attendance of both Dube and Kinsella in a special public engagement session, however, was overtly antagonistic.
Given the Board’s disingenuous and unreasonable budgetary process, it is hard to imagine that future attempts at public engagement (including the implementation of the Defunding the Police report) would spur members of the public to get involved without significant changes. A lack of engagement runs the risk of the status quo or worse: an expansion of unchecked police power without question or challenge. The Board should change its budgetary process for the next budget year and beyond. Suggested changes could include:
- Asking the Halifax Regional Police to provide a budget to the Board and to the public that follows a template with agreed-upon metrics and indicators that cannot be obscured by misleading graphs or indicators;
- Providing the budget to the public in written and presented format at least two weeks in advance of a scheduled public consultation;
- Scheduling any future public meeting related to the budget at least one month in advance of any motion to vote on HRP’s submitted budget;
- Not permitting the CAO and/or the Chief to speak at a public consultation meeting, especially not to undermine public input or sentiments;
- Avoiding, wherever possible, going in camera to discuss budgetary requests, particularly if they have been raised as part of the budgetary process. Any budgetary item that is being requested by HRP must be justified as part of the public record, and the public record only; and
- Requiring the Chief to address, in writing, questions from members of the public and Commissioners at least 7 days before the Board’s vote on whether to recommend the HRP budget to Council.
As a community, we participated in the Subcommittee’s process, and in the subsequent budgetary process, as a show of good faith. We volunteered our time, we volunteered our energy, and we volunteered our expertise to the Board under the premise that our work would be valued. The Board has to meet us halfway and provide the oversight and accountability that it claims to value, and that form an essential part of its mandate. Until then, Council must reject this unrepresentative and unnecessary budget increase on February 23rd.
Dr. El Jones, Department of Political and Canadian Studies, Mount Saint Vincent University (Subcommittee Chair and report co-author)
Julia Rodgers, Department of Political Science, Dalhousie University (report co-author)
Tari Ajadi, Department of Political Science, Dalhousie University (Subcommittee member and report co-author)
Jennifer Taylor, lawyer (report contributor)
Dr. Tammy Findlay, Department of Political and Canadian Studies, Mount Saint Vincent University
Coverdale Courtwork Society
Dr. Leah Genge (Subcommittee member)
Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University (Subcommittee member)
Campbell McLintock (Subcommittee member)
Dr. Jamie Livingston, Department of Criminology, Saint Mary’s University
Gus Richardson (Subcommittee member)
Dr. Ardath Whynacht, Department of Sociology, Mount Allison University
Jennifer Powley (Subcommittee Member)
Dr. Val Marie Johnson, Department of Social Justice and Community Studies, Saint Mary’s University
Asaf Rashid, Asaf Rashid Law
Dr. Jeffrey MacLeod, Department of Political and Canadian Studies, Mount Saint Vincent University
Debbie Richardson, President, Halifax Dartmouth and District Labour Council
Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia
Dr. James Sawler, Department of Economics/Public Policy Studies Coordinator, Mount Saint Vincent University
Dr. Ajay Parasram, Department of International Development Studies, Dalhousie University
Sara Tessier, Impact Manager, Formerly Incarcerated Persons, The Northpine Foundation
Masuma Khan, community organizer and artist
Kate Macdonald, Artist, Activist & Organizer
Kayla Borden, Creative Entrepreneur and Community Organizer
Jacqueline Barkley, MSW, RSW Clinical Therapist
Ben Sichel, public school teacher
Dr. KelleyAnne Malinen, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Mount Saint Vincent University
Pam Grace, member of the Halifax Dartmouth Labour District Council
Scott Stoneman, Department of Communication Studies, Mount Saint Vincent University
Dr Lynn Jones, Global Afrikan Congress-Nova Scotia Chapter, community leader, Archivist and activist.
Amanda Rekunyk CHt, Indigenous 2Spirit organizer, facilitator, & community member.
Andrea MacNevin, MacNevin Law & Mediation
Dr. Todd McCallum, Department of History, Dalhousie University
Margaret Anne McHugh
Catherine Bryan, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Dalhousie University
Carrie Low (Subcommittee member)
Dr. Jason Haslam, Department of English, Dalhousie University
Treaty Truckhouse #2 Society
Katie Whitlock, Community Organizer
Joanne Bealy, concerned citizen
Evelyn C. White, Free Black Woman
Dr. Neil Balan, Social Justice and Community Studies, Saint Mary’s University
Matt Stickland, Founding Editor of Committee Trawler
Jeff Warnica, Citizen
Sheila Wildeman, Associate Professor, Dalhousie University Schulich School of Law; Co-Chair, East Coast Prison Justice Society
Dr. Adelina Iftene, Assistant Professor Schulich School of Law, Associate Director Health Law Institute at Dalhousie University
Dr. Rachel Zellars, Social Justice and Community Studies Saint Mary’s University
Alanna MacNevin, Senior Software Engineer, Citizen
Dr. Sherry Pictou, Faculties of Law and Management, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Governance, Dalhousie University
Hanna Garson, East Coast Prison Justice Society
Dr. Eli Manning, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Dalhousie University
Stella Lord, PhD
Justice Committee of the ANSDPAD Coalition
Matthew Bonn, Program Manager, Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs
Carmel Farahbakhsh, Executive Director, The Youth Project (Subcommittee member)
Patricia Whyte, Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia (Subcommittee member)
Cooper Lee Bombardier, Social Justice & Community Studies, Women & Gender Studies, Saint Mary’s University
Angela Bowden, proud African Nova Scotian woman, poet, community organizer (Subcommittee member)
Dr. Alex Khasnabish, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Mount Saint Vincent University