A Calgary councillor and former police commission member is raising the alarm after changes to the province’s Police Act were passed into law.
Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott said the changes open the door for partisan political influence, removes the public’s voice from the police oversight body and allows the justice minister to “interfere” if there’s a disagreement between police and the municipality.
“Any time appointees of that level come from the government, there is a fear that you’re getting people with a specific line on a specific ideology being placed on to commissions across the province,” Walcott said Tuesday.
“That, plus the Sovereignty Act–there’s a lot of compounding concerns about these moves all at once.”
The Police Act has been changed to allow the justice minister to appoint members to municipal police commissions. The minister now has the power to appoint up to half of the commission as long as the commission stays under 15 members.
Currently, both police commissions in Calgary and Edmonton have two members from city council on its 12-member commission. Those councillors represent fiduciary responsibilities of the city councils.
“That means that we’re the only ones impacted with that 50 per cent (appointments),” Walcott said.
“Nowhere have I ever heard anyone say we need more political representation on commissions,” Walcott, who stepped down from the Calgary Police Commission in late October, said.
“Arguably, I’ve actually only heard the opposite from police chiefs across this province, that we need less.”
Walcott also called out the changes to the handling of a disagreement between a police service and its commission or council.
“One of the parties to the disagreement may refer the matter to the minister, or the minister may determine that it is desirable to become involved in the matter,” the Police Act now reads.
Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, also a former member of the police commission, said she’s heard concerns around the council horseshoe of how the civilian oversight body will look following the Act’s changes.
“We don’t know what that looks like, so we’re still waiting to see,” the mayor said Tuesday.
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“I’m also very interested to understand what the selection process looks like. What criteria will be used if the province is going to appoint people and would we do a joint appointment methodology? So lots of questions.”
A spokesperson for Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Services Mike Ellis said the changes to commission makeup in the Police Act amendments are similar to those in place in Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and are less than the B.C. powers which allow for up to 75 per cent provincial appointees.
“Giving the minister the authority to appoint members to municipal police commissions will actually increase the diversity of voices involved in civilian governance beyond being municipal appointees,” Dylan Topal said in a statement to Global News.
Recognizing the province does contribute grants to the Calgary police budget, Walcott said it would “make sense” to have one or two provincial representatives.
“Maybe the solution is the conversation around, ‘Should there actually be political representatives on our commissions and rather just have them be representative of civilians entirely?’”
The provincial oversight standards for municipal police commissions recognize the “delicate balance” between law enforcement’s authority and independence, and accountability to the public and civilian oversight.
“Oversight and governing bodies need to strike this balance between police independence to conduct investigations and maintain order without undue political or other influence, with the need for accountability to the public,” the Alberta Policing Oversight Standards for Municipal Police Commissions document reads.
Bill 6, the Police Amendment Act, was introduced in the Legislature on Dec. 8, and received third reading and royal assent on Dec. 15. That bill passed into law in less time than the controversial Bill 1, the Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act.
“The speed at which we’re moving through these bills, it’s pretty shocking considering that many people are kind of prepping to settle down (for the holidays), but the significance of them is so high,” Walcott said.