The city’s police board is unable to get through an entire agenda — at least in public. The board got hung up again on Monday with a procedural debate about how it wants to define defunding the police.

The Halifax board of police commissioners met Monday for its second virtual meeting of the month. Most of the agenda was deferred from the last meeting, including motions on body-worn cameras, making police policies public and defunding the police.

‘Black Lives Matter’ is projected onto Halifax City Hall during a film screening in Grand Parade in June. — Image by Stacey Gomez

At that last meeting, on July 9, the board rejected a controversial staff-written motion:

That the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners adopt a definition of defunding the police that supports a role for policing in HRM that includes:

  • Police performing policing functions
  • Appropriate resources to perform non-police functions
  • Investment in resources that have been proven to support community risks and promote crime prevention.

Instead, the board agreed to defer debate on a new, similar motion from Commissioner Carole McDougall:

That the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners appointed a community advisory committee to provide a definition of defunding the police that supports a role for policing in HRM that includes:

  • Police performing policing functions
  • Appropriate resources to perform non-police functions
  • Investment in resources that have been proven to support community risks and promote crime prevention.

That motion was to be debated at the next meeting to allow time for a full debate. But on Monday, board chair Natalie Borden and city lawyer Marty Ward insisted that the board had actually passed the motion at the last meeting, and they wanted to move the meeting in camera to discuss who would be on the committee.

Borden and Ward told commissioners who said otherwise — nearly every one of them — that they were confused.

Here’s the exact exchange from the last meeting, July 9, following Coun. Tony Mancini raising concerns about the process (video here):

Borden: “So, then the question then Marty is, Carole’s made the motion, the motion is seconded, we’re now calling the question on approval of that motion which means it will be carried forward for discussion to the next meeting? Correct?”

Ward: “Correct.”

Mancini: “OK. Thank you, Marty. Thank you, Madame Chair.”

Borden: “I’ll poll the commissioners individually. So Carole, yea or nay?”

McDougall: “Yea.”

Borden: “Carlos?”

Commissioner Carlos Beals: “Yea.”

Borden: “Lisa?”

Deputy Mayor Lisa Blackburn: “So just to confirm, the motion is to strike a citizen committee or community committee that would adopt a definition of defunding the police and what we’re voting on right now is whether or not to send that motion to the next meeting for more fulsome discussion?”

Borden: “Yeah, if you vote ‘yea,’ you want to have further discussion on that at the next meeting.”

Blackburn: “OK then I will vote ‘yea’ to further discuss it at the next meeting.”

Borden: “Tony Mancini?”

Mancini: “I agree with the deputy mayor, ‘yea’ so we can discuss it next time.”

Borden: “Thank you. Lindell?”

Coun. Lindell Smith: “‘Yea’ for discussion.”

Borden: “Tony Thomas?”

Commissioner Tony Thomas: “That’s a ‘yea’ from me as well.”

Borden: “Great, and that’s a ‘yea’ from me as well, so the motion is passed. So Carole’s motion is now deferred for discussion and debate at the next meeting.”

The draft minutes, however, reflect Borden and Ward’s version, saying the motion itself was put and passed.

McDougall — who along with Smith, Mancini, Blackburn, and Beals, believed they had only deferred the motion last time, not passed it — agreed to move on as if they had passed it, for fear of delaying the process.

The board eventually moved to defer the last few items on its agenda and move in camera to discuss appointing the committee and the process leading to it.

The reason for going in camera, according to Ward, is that committee appointments are usually made in camera as personnel matters.

These are the rules around public meetings under the Police Act, section 51:

Meetings of the board are open to the public, but all matters relating to discipline, personnel conduct, contract negotiations and security of police operations may be conducted in private and, where the matter relates to a complaint against or the discipline of the chief officer, the chair may request that the chief not attend and the chief shall not attend.

Whether it’s a personnel matter or not, Borden’s intention for the committee is no secret.

In a news release on Monday, the Nova Scotia Policing Policy Working Group said Borden asked El Jones, a member of its steering committee and a columnist for the Halifax Examiner, to chair the committee. The release said:

In response, we proposed that we convene a committee to tender research and consultation on defunding the police in Halifax. We envision this process as being much broader than simply crafting a definition, as any definition that is not adequately supported by research and consultation will be of limited utility.

This is far from being an abstract concern, especially in light of the last-minute addition to the agenda for the Board’s meeting on July 9, 2020: a motion to adopt a definition of “defunding the police” that would have included “police performing policing functions.” This illogical and circular definition was concerning to those of us calling for a critical examination of where the public money devoted to police might be better spent to keep our communities safe and well. Given that it was billed as a “staff motion,” it also remains unclear who drafted the definition, raising significant accountability concerns.

The working group’s full proposal to the board includes a report on defunding, a public engagement process, a redevelopment of the Halifax Regional Police budget process and a presentation of the group’s findings.

Borden made reference to correspondence from the working group, but didn’t discuss it in open session during Monday’s meeting.

It’s unclear what came out of the in camera portion of the meeting. There were no motions approved in public session following the private one. The usual practice is to come back into public view to ratify any in camera motions and vote to adjourn. That didn’t happen (at least not by 5 p.m., hours after the meeting was scheduled to end).

Board approves report on body-worn cameras

The board agreed on Monday to take a second look at body-worn cameras for Halifax police.

Coun. Tony Mancini brought the motion, requesting “a report detailing the feasibility of a body worn video pilot program for Halifax Regional Police and Halifax District RCMP patrol officers that addresses costs, benefits and technological requirements.”

The board received such a report from former Halifax Regional Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais in 2017. That report wrote off the idea as too expensive.

Blais estimated the cost at $1.4 million annually for a five-year pilot outfitting 50 officers with cameras. That estimate includes the cameras themselves, along with data storage costs and the associated labour.

Those costs have fallen significantly in the three years since, according to Mancini and current HRP Chief Dan Kinsella — who said he believes body-worn cameras can increase transparency and public trust in police.

But cost isn’t the only issue with body-worn cameras.

As noted by the Nova Scotia Policing Policy Working Group in a letter to the board, “Although the introduction of police-worn body cameras has been presented by many as a means to ensure greater police accountability and to combat systemic racism in the provision of policing services, there is very little evidence to support their use.”

Coun. Lindell Smith asked that the report include any policies proposed to govern the use of the cameras.

Halifax-district RCMP Chief Superintendent Janis Gray asked permission to write a report separate from Halifax Regional Police, given the national force’s differing policies and budgeting. Mancini agreed to amend the motion to reflect that change.

Other motions aimed at police reform were deferred again on Monday.

Coun. Lisa Blackburn agreed to defer her motion on making police policies, including those on use of force, publicly posted on the city’s website.

Coun. Lindell Smith agreed to defer his motion on attaining an independent legal opinion on whether the board needs its own lawyer. The board — which is supposed to be independent — is currently represented by the city’s lawyers.

“If HRP and HRM are providing the legal opinion for the board, this could be perceived as a conflict when seeking legal advice,” reads the reasoning for Smith’s motion.

“In order for the Board to ensure independence when providing oversight of the operation of policing in Halifax the board must also feel confident that the advice that is being received is unbiased as possible.”

Ward, the city lawyer, told Smith he first needs a staff report from the city’s lawyers on whether the city’s lawyers can provide proper legal advice to the board before he can ask for an independent opinion. The report is in the works, Ward said.

The board’s next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 17.

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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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  1. More to the point, if STAFF are going to be the ones putting forward new business motions, why not ditch the Boards and councillors and just have elected Staff instead, on the American model ?

  2. Zane i can only repeat my irate question : how in the darn can the STAFF put forward a Board motion : it seems not just the Board but all the reporters present didn’t pass Robert’s Rules 101….

  3. Who thinks permanently laying off 40 HRP officers is a good idea ? (other than the 4 members of a group)

      1. Defunding means taking money from HRP and RCMP. Not all the funding for HRP and RCMP comes from the HRM budget. Read the HRM budgets.

    1. Would love to see 40 officers laid off. Maybe said funds can be reallocated to youth workers, social programming etc. In other words defunding the police.