With an outside legal opinion giving it the green light, Halifax’s Board of Police Commissioners is moving ahead with an independent civilian review of the police actions of August 18, 2021.

At its virtual meeting on Monday, the board unanimously passed a motion to “prepare a draft of a mandate and terms of reference for an independent civilian review of the oversight, governance, and policy aspects of the HRP’s handling of the protests on August 18, 2021, which mandate and terms of reference will be received and reviewed by the Board at a future meeting.”

August 18 was the day Halifax Regional Police cleared unhoused people out of municipal parks, and then arrested and pepper sprayed protesters outside the former Halifax Memorial Library. Chief Dan Kinsella defended his officers’ actions in a news conference the next day, but later said there’d be an internal review of their actions, specifically looking at some officers not wearing their name tags.

After a petition called for an independent review, the board sought to launch its own. The motion first came to the board last fall, and was deferred pending an independent legal opinion on the board’s authority to conduct such a review.

The board received that report on Monday. After an in camera discussion lasting about an hour, the board voted to declassify it, but as of Monday evening, it isn’t posted online.

Coun. Lindell Smith, chair of the board, said the opinion opens the door to a limited review.

“The board doesn’t have the authority to investigate, in the whole, the incidents of August 18 but we do have the authority to investigate aspects related to governance, oversight and policy,” Smith said.

Coun. Becky Kent read from the opinion, which Commissioner Carole McDougall attributed to lawyer Dennis James.

“It’s my opinion that the Board of Police Commissioners does have the authority to create an independent civilian review committee as defined in the motion, of which the review cannot include a review of police conduct or individual officer conduct,” Kent read.

Kent, typically unwilling to question police, said the review must focus on the areas over which the board does have jurisdiction, but it should happen.

“August 18 was a disheartening scenario that played out here in the municipality,” Kent said. “As the Board of Police Commissioners, there were elements of it that we wish had not happened, and certainly the public.”

McDougall noted the legal opinion cited the independent civilian review of the police response to the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010. She suggested the board enlist the help of Ryan Teschner, the executive director of the Toronto Police Services Board.

Teschner “could help us understand better the kind of civilian policies and and oversight that we could put in place,” McDougall said, so the board “could be guided in the future” and make sure “what happened on the 18th doesn’t happen that way again.”

A timeline for the review is unclear. It could be months before the slow-moving board comes up with draft terms of reference.

Some police policies soon to be public

Halifax Regional Police will start publishing some of their policies this fall, Kinsella told the board on Monday.

Since 2019, police have been working to “refresh” their policy book, which is more than 1,700 pages long. Some of those policies date back to 1996, Kinsella said.

In 2020, Coun. Lisa Blackburn asked Kinsella to publicly post the policy book, as is done in Vancouver. The chief didn’t respond until now, telling commissioners that some policies can be posted on halifax.ca, while others are too sensitive.

The goal, Kinsella said, is to start posting policies completed in 2019 online this fall.

Sexual assault case review

Also during Monday’s meeting, the board voted to recommend Kinsella and the chief of Halifax-district RCMP work with a national organization to start reviewing sexual assault investigations.

The board heard a presentation from Sunny Marriner, Canadian lead of the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review (VACR) model. The model reviews sexual assault investigations that don’t lead to charges to determine whether officers made the right decision not to recommend charges.

It’s an issue that came to the fore nationally in 2017, when the Globe and Mail published Robyn Doolittle’s Unfounded investigation, which found that one in five cases were being declared “unfounded.” Marriner told the board on Monday that while the series raised the profile on the issue, and led to thousands of reviews, it also made people think four of five cases were leading to charges. But only about 5% of cases are reported at all, and only 0.25% of cases lead to a conviction.

With VACR, a team of local people already working with sexual assault survivors reviews each of the cases that doesn’t lead to charges. The program has been implemented or is in the process of being implemented in 30 jurisdictions across Canada, Marriner told the board. None of those municipalities has a contract with the RCMP, but Marriner didn’t see that as an issue that couldn’t be overcome.

Following Marriner’s presentation, the board debated a motion from Commissioner Harry Critchley to try to get Halifax Regional Police to use the program.

Critchley’s original motion would “direct” Kinsella and the RCMP to “enter into discussions with the Improving Institutional Accountability Project (“IIAP”) to explore options for the implementation of the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review (“VACR”) model in the Halifax Regional Municipality (“HRM”).” A second part of the motion would form a working group of the board “to oversee and assist with the development and implementation of the VACR in the HRM.”

Other commissioners were uncomfortable with the use of the word “direct” in the first part, preferring to “recommend” that the chief “explore options.” They also couldn’t support the second part of the motion, finding it premature without a decision to go ahead with the plan.

Critchley agreed to amendments to make the motion more palatable, and it passed unanimously.

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Zane Woodford is the Halifax Examiner’s municipal reporter. He covers Halifax City Hall and contributes to our ongoing PRICED OUT housing series. Twitter @zwoodford

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