1. When it comes to regulating police use of force, are council’s hands really tied?
We’re leading this morning not with a straight news story, but an important commentary from Harry Critchley of the East Coast Prison Justice Society, and the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia.
Critchley recaps some key background on police oversight in Nova Scotia, going back to the Donald Marshall Jr case. Ever since the new Police Act came into force in 1989, the civilian Board of Police Commissioners has not been allowed to exercise jurisdiction regarding “the actual day-to-day direction of the police department,” Critchley explains. I’ve seen people expressing surprise over this in the whole not-a-tank-but-a-rescue-vehicle debate, but it’s actually a good thing. You don’t want councillors directing cops on who they should be investigating and arresting, and on what cases to drop.
But — and here’s the key to Critchley’s piece — councillors have interpreted this to mean they essentially can’t tell the police what to do at all. And yesterday, city lawyer John Traves argued that interpretation is not correct.
This development is really important because, in effect, it means for the last 20 or more years the Board has been abdicating its duties under the Police Act. It also means that, going forward, advocates and other members of the public can push the board, and city council more generally, to require that police funds be tied to other important policy reforms.
As Martha Paynter has argued, this could allow for much needed changes to the HRP’s use of force policies, so as to prohibit (or at least largely restrict) the use of force against people who are pregnant, or to require that officers take all reasonable steps to avoid arresting mothers in front of their children.
It could also serve as an avenue for amending the HRP’s policies regarding the use of tasers, so as to bring them into conformity with the Nova Scotia Guidelines on Conducted Energy Weapons, and, more specifically, to bar their use in responding to mental health crises — as in the incident in March where a 28-year-old man in Dartmouth who was engaged in self-harm ultimately died after an officer tasered him “in an attempt to stop him” after he became “uncooperative.”
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified the city lawyer as Marty Ward instead of John Traves.
2. Test… test… test…
After feeling under the weather for a few days, I called 811, and got sent for COVID-19 testing. On the one hand, I felt sort of silly about the whole thing. I hardly go anywhere, I’m not feeling that sick, etc. On the other had, what if I had it?
I wrote about the experience of being tested, the infrastructure that’s quickly sprung up around getting people to tests, and I spoke with someone else who was tested around the same time as me, and had a similar experience.
From the story:
“Tilt your head back,” the nurse says.
Her name is Belinda. She is warm, friendly, and reassuring — and she is about to stick a swab that looks like an enormous flexible Q-tip far up my nose.
“If you need to cough,” Belinda says, “turn your head towards the wall.” I’m wearing a mask, and so is she, along with a face shield, and protective equipment covering her body. She’s not taking any chances.
3. Halifax says “no tanks” to armoured vehicle for police
Zane Woodford reports on yesterday’s decision by regional council to cancel the purchase of an armoured vehicle for the Halifax Regional Police.
Council had originally set aside half a million dollars for the purchase. Most of that money will now be used to fight anti-Black racism. (Let’s hope there is a good, inclusive process for deciding where that money will go.)
Several councillors said they changed their minds after receiving hundreds of emails over the past week calling on them to defund the police and cancel the armoured vehicle purchase in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and protests of police brutality across North America.
“When we’re talking about police brutality and racism and systemic racism and discrimination, that is something that I’ve faced for my entire life,” [councillor Lindell] Smith told his colleagues.
“We’re now seeing an influx of people from all walks of life saying, ‘We see the pain.’ I know many folks are feeling tired and feeling anxious and feeling worried. I get it. Yeah, it sucks. That is the story of what many people of colour face on a daily basis.”
Smith asked Halifax Regional Police Chief Dan Kinsella if he wanted to say anything during council’s debate.
Kinsella told councillors the vehicle is a “tool” to help the police in “life-threatening, bullets flying situations.” He said “many, many major cities in Canada have them.”
Councillor Steve Streatch specifically credited Examiner writer El Jones with his change of heart on the issue.
In a slightly less cheering note for democracy, the Examiner’s request for a copy of the municipality’s purchase order for the vehicle was turned down, and we were told to issue a freedom of information request if we wanted to see it.
I got curious about other Canadian cities with these armoured vehicles, after seeing photos of a few of them online, and I came across this 2014 Ottawa Citizen story by David Pugliese, which holds up surprisingly well. Pugliese looks at the reasons police forces were buying these vehicles (or receiving them from the military) and speaks to critics with concerns:
Michael Spratt, an Ottawa criminal lawyer, said the money spent on purchasing and maintaining these vehicles would be better used for crime prevention.
“These sorts of toys do put the public in danger. They do escalate conflicts. They do create sort of an image problem for the police where they aren’t our protectors but they are our oppressors,” he said. “I’d rather have a mental health crisis worker or a social worker on the street every day than a BearCat in the garage.”
Later, Pugliese writes:
University of Ottawa criminologist Michael Kempa remains skeptical of the need for the military hardware and says the public ought to scrutinize these purchases.
“Nobody has presented the evidence that would suggest this is an essential part of local policing,” Kempa said. “How far are we going to go and for what purpose?”
Meanwhile, he quotes an RCMP assistant commissioner named Byron Boucher, who justifies the use of the vehicles in part by noting that ““We’ve had 41 officers killed since 1961 and 83 per cent of them have been killed by rifle or shotgun.”
Police in Canada have killed nearly 500 people in the last 20 years.
As protests spread across America in response to the murder of George Floyd, it matters what police brought with them. It matters that police arrived at protests armed to the teeth, packing riot gear, armoured vehicles, flashbang grenades and an assortment of other overpowered weapons.
The militarization of police forces is one of those things that happened gradually, in such a way that we didn’t notice until it was too late. Even when it was brought to people’s attention, the need to “support the police” seemed to override any rational thinking.
Nobody batted an eye last year when the Niagara Regional Police bought a tank (which they prefer to call an “armoured rescue vehicle”), even though the need for such a thing was entirely unclear. Nobody seems to mind when the NRP respond to situations with ghillie-suited officers wielding high-powered sniper rifles.
When police show up dressed like they are looking for a fight, it should come as no surprise that they find one. When they purchase a tank, it should come as no surprise that they will find a reason to use it.
4. Convention centre: $5 million down the hole, and that’s before even accounting for the pandemic
It’s not a great time to be in the convention business. And that means big losses on the way for Events East, the Crown corporation that runs the Halifax Convention Centre, Zane Woodford reports.
Right now, the city (which owns 50 percent of the operation) is looking at a loss of $2,804,000 from the convention centre for this fiscal year. And that’s before any COVID-19-related losses.
Woodford writes that the future doesn’t look too great either:
Heywood Sanders, professor of public administration at the University of Texas in San Antonio and author of Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities, said in an interview that it’s unlikely there’ll be any big events anywhere this year.
“They seem to be falling into two broad categories: the ones that have cancelled outright and the ones that are desperately hoping to hold in-person events but will have to deal with the reality later,” Sanders said…
Sanders said he expects the longer term effect of COVID-19 on convention centres to be at least as bad as the 2008 financial crisis and recession.
He’s compiled numbers from the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, for example, dating back to 1998, including the number of events and the hotel room nights produced: “They’ve never gotten back to where they were in 2007, and they were last year still below where they were in 1998.”…
“I would expect, in the first year or two after [the current pandemic] there to be a significant drop. We’ve seen that across the board in North American centres, and I would expect it to be even greater than it was after 2008, given the circumstances. And it will likely not fully recover for a decade or more.”
If only someone could have foreseen, etc.
Anyway, Woodford digs into the numbers to see how much this might all cost us, but as he says, the forecast is “bleak.”
5. RCMP communications failures
One of the disorienting stories to emerge among all the confusion of April 18 and 19 was the story about gunfire in Onslow. An eyewitness reported seeing a car pull up, officers opening fire and then leaving. After the gunman who committed the 22 murders had been killed, RCMP announced they had referred three events to the Serious Incident Response Team, but wouldn’t say what they were. Two were obvious, but the third? Then the Onslow Belmont Fire Department, in a since-deleted Facebook post, described the RCMP opening fire on their building, which had been designated as an evacuation centre.
Jennifer Henderson reports that the RCMP has said it will pay for damage to the fire hall. And she speaks with former Colchester-Cumberland MP Bill Casey on what he calls a failure to communicate by the RCMP, and his concerns that communications will be further eroded when the force consolidates the current 911 call centres into just one, run out of the RCMP building in Burnside.
Bill Casey wonders if there is “a double standard” at play. “If you or I drove up to a fire hall and shot into it, there wouldn’t be a call for an inquiry, there would be an arrest,” said Casey. “In this situation, where the shooter was driving all over northern Nova Scotia, communications failed. No alert was provided the public. With those two officers in Onslow who were shooting up the fire hall, there should have been some way to find out if the bad guy was there or not. If they had had good communication, a lot of this situation could have been avoided. Not all of it, but a lot of it.”…
The new RCMP HQ in Burnside came out on top partly because it was assigned a “zero” for rent to reflect the value of unused space at the shiny RCMP HQ that opened in 2013, while the other bidders were assigned a cost of $1.641 million each. Subsequent digging and another Access to Information request by Casey eventually revealed the fact that the police force does pay rent on the building — to Public Works Canada. It is among the highest in the city, at almost $10.5 million a year.
CBC has a story by Elizabeth McMillan and Karissa Donkin this morning, drawing on Truro police logs to outline more RCMP communications failures. They write:
The confusion and chaos of the manhunt is reflected in records obtained by CBC News through access to information, including call logs from Truro Police Service dispatch.
As night turned to day on that Sunday, officers in Truro — the town the gunman would pass through hours later — appeared to know little about the terror the 51-year-old… had caused in Portapique, N.S., about 40 km away.
The municipal police force was alerted to a shooting not by the RCMP but by the local hospital, which went into lockdown after treating at least one gunshot victim who came in from the county…
Last week, during the RCMP’s first press conference in more than a month, the province’s top Mounties stressed that they did communicate with other policing agencies throughout the mass shooting incident.
6. COVID-19 update
It feels kind of strange to have this so far down in the Morning File instead of leading with it.
Mary Campbell of the Cape Breton Spectator covered yesterday’s COVID-19 briefing, which began with condolences to the family of one more person who has died of the illness.
[Dr. Robert Strang] noted that the epidemiology is looking positive, but cautioned against reading too much into a few days of low to no new cases, explaining that they’ve had two consecutive weekends during which they’ve discovered cases from an unknown exposure, meaning there is some sign of community transmission. Strang said Public Health will be watching the epidemiology very closely over the next two weeks, which will be critical in determining next steps in the province’s reopening, which could happen at end June/early July.
Strang addressed the issue of missing data, explaining that when the pandemic hit, Public Health had been finalizing implementation of its Panorama information system, and had not yet integrated the microbiology lab. He said they have now successfully integrated the lab and as of tomorrow will be reporting reconciled information. (What he termed the “gold standard” of accurate information. This will come, I know, as a relief to everyone whose “active cases” calculations have been producing negative numbers.)
Campbell’s coverage is, as always, very thorough. Read the whole piece here.
As with the Examiner, the Cape Breton Spectator is subscriber supported. Click here to purchase a subscription to the Spectator, or click on the photo below to get a discounted joint subscription to both the Spectator and the Examiner.
In case you are feeling complacent about our low case numbers, here is a story from BC about 30 people attending a family gathering, with half of them testing positive for COVID-19 soon after.
7. Getting ready to play ball… maybe
At CBC, Paul Palmeter has a story on a possible return to baseball in Nova Scotia. Baseball Nova Scotia has filed its return to play plan with the province, and phase one, which covers training, has been approved. The association is still waiting for word on phase two, which would involve actual games.
If Baseball Nova Scotia isn’t approved for the second phase, [Halifax Minor Baseball president Bob] Carter said parents and kids will be canvassed to see if they’re OK with just doing practices.
With fewer players allowed to participate, that could pose some financial challenges.
“It may not be economically able to happen,” Carter said. “We don’t want to lose money during the season … we can’t afford to end the season in a deficit.”
He said he’s heard from a lot of parents who would be willing to help with coaching. He said he thinks people will be anxious enough to get on the field to make baseball possible this summer.
“I feel a bit of a moral obligation to make this work,” Carter said.
Regular readers will know I have an interest in baseball. I’m a fan, one of my kids played, and I’ve also been an umpire. So I read the Baseball Nova Scotia return to play proposal with some interest.
Reading the return to play document, I am impressed — as I have been with every other similar proposal I’ve seen — with how thoroughly everyone involved has had to think through every aspect of their activities and how to mitigate risk.
But if this does go ahead, baseball will be very different this summer. At the lower levels, there will be no catchers (my partner joked that this shouldn’t make that much of a difference). No umpires behind the plate. Instead, they’ll stand at least 2 metres from the pitcher. I’ve called games from the mound, and you can do it, but it’s definitely not the same. No stealing bases. No plays at the plate. No spitting or chewing sunflower seeds. And if you’ve got a kid who is forgetful, they’re out of luck if they want to borrow someone else’s gear.
The rules are designed to cut risk in the three highest-risk areas, which Baseball Nova Scotia considers:
- Umpire/Catcher proximity
- Dugouts/Team Huddles
- Tag Plays/Rundowns
So, kids will be spread out rather than in the dugouts, no shared snacks or high-fives, and spectators are limited to one per player. For practices, they have to stay in their cars. Games will also run a maximum of an hour and 45 minutes, to allow teams to leave the fields while minimizing contact with others arriving.
I’m not sure how you enforce rules like no spitting. If Baseball Nova Scotia’s plan is approved, then the umpires’ division will work with the organization to figure out how to engage with this new normal. Does spitting become an automatic ejection, like use of tobacco products is? Who knows?
Over the weekend, people in the English town of Bristol tore down the statue of Edward Colston and dumped it in the river.
Colston was a monster. He was a slave trader responsible for transporting 84,000 slaves to America, and one of his practices was to order any ill or frail Africans thrown overboard, so that he could collect on the insurance money, rather than have them potentially fetch a lower price at sale.
Bristol has a concert hall named for Colston, and there is a petition going to rename it for a local character known as Big Jeff.
The removal of the statue has brought the usual calls about the destruction of history, local politicians being appalled at the mobs, etc.
Of course, all this led me to think of the Cornwallis statue. If council had not ordered its safe, orderly removal, who thinks it would still be standing today? My bet is it would have been dragged into the harbour at some point in the last week.
Like the Cornwallis statue, that of Colston was erected long after his lifetime, in Colston’s case 170 years after he lived, in an effort by local elites to reform him primarily as a philanthropist. So much of the history we are supposedly celebrating with these statues is invented, and it always strikes me how much more we learn about the figures they memorialize in the conversations we have about their removal.
I don’t have time to get into the details, but mayoral candidate Matt Whitman has tweeted several times over the last week about one of the pressing issues of the day… the width of the new protected bike lane on Hollis. Specifically, Whitman’s concern seems to be the width of the lane compared to the width of a bicycle, versus the width of an 18-wheeler compared to that of Hollis Street as a whole.
It seems like an odd measure. What’s the width of a person compared to the sidewalk? Do we widen the roads because people are driving more SUVs? I don’t get it. Maybe the problem is 18-wheelers shouldn’t be on Hollis?
Also, think what you will of bike lanes, for or against, it seems like an odd thing for a mayoral candidate to continue to be wrapped up about given other events.
In the harbour
7:00: Skogafoss, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Argentia, Newfoundland
11:45: Skogafoss sails for Portland
15:30: Atlantic Sail, ro-ro container, arrives at Fairview Cove from New York
16:00: Grande Baltimora, car carrier, sails from Autoport for sea
22:00: Atlantic Sail sails for Liverpool, England
I got my hair cut yesterday. The stylist, who normally works out of her apartment, came to our house, and set up her gear (including a full-length mirror) on our deck. We chatted through our masks, she asked us what we thought would be a fair premium to pay above her regular fee for her coming to our house, and we quickly agreed on an amount. I had to rush upstairs for a meeting as soon as she was done, and then she packed her gear and headed off. We said we’d try to line up some other locals for next time, to make the trip more worthwhile. It all seemed kind of strange and kind of normal at the same time, like so much of what we are doing these days.