Saint John public safety committee aims to repair fractured relationship

Click to play video: 'New committee to oversee police, fire departments in Saint John'
New committee to oversee police, fire departments in Saint John
WATCH: Saint John Common Council has created a public safety committee to provide oversight for the police and fire departments. Budget cuts in recent years has led to strained relationships, but as Nathalie Sturgeon tells us, there’s a sense this new committee will foster co-operation. – Aug 5, 2021

In New Brunswick, the Saint John Common Council has created a public safety committee after it faced widespread criticism over the lack of transparency and oversight with both the police force and fire department.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Saint John Police Force faced public scrutiny about the lack of insight into different policies, like the use-of-force policy and the armored vehicle policy.

It became clear the Saint John Board of Police Commissioners — who handles the police force — had trouble of its own.

Read more: Saint John Mayor announces exit from Board of Police Commissioners

Former Saint John mayor Don Darling resigned from the board, citing concerns over an inability to fully express his concerns with the city’s police force while adhering to board governance rules.

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The fire department faced extensive cuts to the budget. It said previously said those cuts impact the fire department’s ability to respond to emergencies.

In May, Darling fired back, accusing the association of seeking political gain.

Darling said previously firefighters have no one to blame but themselves for cuts to resources because of annual wage increases that outpace municipal growth.

Read more: Saint John mayor slams city firefighters over claim of lack of resources

He declined an interview with Global News on Thursday, saying he needed more time to review the committee.

Ward 3 Coun. David Hickey, who is the chair of the new committee, said the relationship is strained.

“This committee will stands as, I hope, the beginning of an opportunity to renew our relationship with police and fire,” he said. “It’s no shock to anyone in this community that we have a fractured relationship with our police department and our fire department.”

Contract negotiations between the city and the police union have also been a sour affair and the two have yet to reach an agreement.

The makeup of the committee

Council looked at models of public safety committees in other municipalities, and many of them were successful, said Hickey.

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“We felt it was really important to add a committee like this. In particular to support and to act as that oversight body on fire, police, and EMO in particular,” he said.

The police force has an annual budget of $25,093,262 in 2021. Fire services have a budget of $22,124,187, for a combined $54,563,096.

Read more: New Brunswick mayors say there are no more excuses to avoid municipal reform

Hickey said it will take a critical look at the budget as well as working with the two services to come up with solutions on the issues surrounding public safety.

Hickey will work with fellow councillors Gary Sullivan, Barry Ogden and Greg Stewart as well as with mayor Donna Reardon.

Police force and union are supportive

The Saint John Police Force described the committee as a positive step forward.

“The current relationship of the SJPF reporting to the Saint John Board of Police Commissioners, which in turn provides information to City Council and staff, does not change with the set up of this new committee,” said police spokesperson Jim Hennessy.

“As it has been explained to the Saint John Police Force, the goal of the committee is an effort to examine ways the city can collaborate by being proactive in a strategic way on public safety issues.”

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The police force’s union agrees.

Saint John Police Association president Duane Squires said anything that helps increase transparency about the police and the work they do is a positive.

“I think we should be sharing a lot more of that information,” he said in an interview Thursday. “What work the police do and how much it costs.”

Global News reached out to the firefighters’ union for comment, but did not receive a response.

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