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Capital region ripe for amalgamated police service, Victoria and Esquimalt mayors say

Local officials say Greater Victoria is ready for a regional police force and it’s time for the province to make it happen

By Shannon Waters
August 20, 2022
Policing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Capital region ripe for amalgamated police service, Victoria and Esquimalt mayors say

Local officials say Greater Victoria is ready for a regional police force and it’s time for the province to make it happen

By Shannon Waters
Aug 20, 2022
Photo: Ryan Hook / Capital Daily
Photo: Ryan Hook / Capital Daily
Policing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Capital region ripe for amalgamated police service, Victoria and Esquimalt mayors say

Local officials say Greater Victoria is ready for a regional police force and it’s time for the province to make it happen

By Shannon Waters
August 20, 2022
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Capital region ripe for amalgamated police service, Victoria and Esquimalt mayors say
Photo: Ryan Hook / Capital Daily

It’s not easy to get elected officials from different municipalities to agree on policy but in Victoria and Esquimalt there’s a notable consensus on the future of policing: a regional force is the way to go.

Esquimalt council’s unanimous August 15 vote not to renew the shared policing agreement between the township and Victoria is just the latest effort to exit the amalgamated police service that was foisted on the municipalities by the province in 2002.

Last spring, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth received a joint letter from Victoria and Esquimalt Councils asking to be released from the agreement.

“[We were] requesting for regionalization to move forward for policing and if that didn't occur, to please allow us to separate from this situation and to rescind the order in council,” Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins told Capital Daily.

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The minister agreed to consider the request in the joint letter—which remains in camera pending a vote by Victoria council to release it publicly—as long as there is “a detailed plan” for a new policing model and transition process.

“We all agreed that this was not working,” Desjardins said of the joint letter. “By providing this notice that we are not going to renew the framework agreement, it sets in motion the section within the framework agreement that says all parties will come together to work through a transition process and develop a transition model.”

The best way to reach “a well laid out transition strategy” would involve both municipalities working together with the Victoria police to ensure “a smooth transition,” Desjardins said.

Desjardins and Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps have co-chaired the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board together for the past eight years and have “worked really hard to make this work for both communities,” Helps said.

Setting up separate police departments does not make sense to Helps, and considering a regional policing service covering several municipalities is the better way to go.

“Further fragmentation is the exact opposite of the common sense that is required to bring this issue to a close after literally 20 years,” Helps said. “Common sense would dictate that we are a region—we do not need seven or 10 different policing arrangements; we need one and that's for cost effectiveness, that's for public safety, and it's for good governance.”

Victoria Police Chief Del Manak agrees. While he was “disappointed” in Esquimalt’s decision, Manak said in a statement Tuesday that he is “hopeful” the province will view the vote “through the lens” of recommendations from the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act and consider taking “a regional approach to a fragmented policing structure.”

Helps echoed that sentiment. 

“This is a golden opportunity for the province to step in and show leadership.”

But so far, there’s little evidence the province is keen to take a proactive approach to the Victoria-Esquimalt policing question, a stance Helps attributed to a reluctance “to be seen to override municipalities.” However, when facing a “necessary” choice to amalgamate police services in Victoria and Esquimalt in 2002, the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General found the “courage” to make the move, the mayor noted.

“There was no voluntary coming together—the province said, ‘You two are now amalgamated,’” she said. “That is exactly what the province needs to do across the region. They need to say to all 13 municipalities, ‘Here is a path going forward; here are the steps to get there to create one regional police department.’ Without provincial leadership, it will never happen.”

Victoria mayoral candidates are on board exploring a regional policing option

While Helps won't be the one in the Victoria mayor’s chair when the question of merging services reaches its conclusion, both of the candidates currently running to replace her—councillors Stephen Andrew and Marianne Alto—are also supportive of exploring a regionalized police force.

“It would be much more efficient for the region and for the City of Victoria,” Andrew told Capital Daily. “The feeling around the table has been regionalization is something we would want.”

He believes a regional police force could improve resource distribution, offer officers better career advancement opportunities and provide more options for varied policing initiatives beyond patrols.

Andrew compared the current police service amalgamation to “a marriage that is not working.”

“And if you have a marriage that is not working, eventually one will say, ‘I want out,’” he said. “The question is, is the government going to allow that?”

While he suspects the province will set the bar for ending the current policing arrangement high, Andrew was “buoyed” by the recommendations the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act released in the spring—including a suggestion the province look at delivering police services “on a regional basis where there are opportunities to address fragmentation, ensure equitable access to policing and public safety, and improve efficiency and effectiveness.”

“It's my hope that the government accepts those principles and moves forward—and it can't happen fast enough, in my opinion,” Andrew said.

“There are issues within the capital region that are regional in nature, and that are not being dealt with in a regional fashion.”

Alto sees the current situation in Victoria and Esquimalt as a prime opportunity to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of regional policing.

“You've got this perfect local example, willing partners and the opportunity … So seize that opportunity, province, and let us work on that together,” she said.

While Victoria will have to prepare for the possibility that Esquimalt decides to go it alone on policing, Alto would like to see the city “pushing hard for, at least conceptually, as a pilot, some type of a regional force.”

Andrew pointed out that determining how to fund a regional force could be a thorny process. “We cannot have the same structure that we have with Esquimalt, which is paying about 13% of the budget but has a 100% veto on how we move forward and it’s just not working.”

Alto suggested the Capital Regional District’s funding model—which divides service costs based on population—could serve as a model for covering the costs of a regional police service.

Like Helps, Alto sees a prominent role for the province to play in helping interested municipalities hash out the details of what a regional police force could look like.

“With so many complicated issues, if one of the parties is facilitating, it's just never going to seem fair,” she said. “There has to be another party that's willing to facilitate this, and the province makes sense. They also then have the ability to have input in, if not direction about, the financing, and how it works.”

How many municipalities should be involved in a regional police service is an open question Alto believes could be answered by “some rich conversation and perhaps some incentives.”

The province holds the trump card

Victoria council will likely be discussing its own approach to the possible end to the shared policing agreement when it returns from its summer break and Esquimalt is already seeking a consultant to look at the best options for replacing the current service model and transitioning its policing services.

Meanwhile, the province plans to wait for the municipalities to sort out their priorities.

“Before taking any action, we await the report from the Township of Esquimalt,” the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said in a statement. The ministry is “currently assessing” Esquimalt’s request for $150,000 to support the development of the proposal demanded by the province in order to permit the desired change.

As Desjardins pointed out, there is “no guarantee” the province will release Esquimalt from the joint policing situation. Once the proposal is submitted, the ministry could reject it and refuse to rescind the order in council that amalgamated police services in the two municipalities.

It has happened before. In 2011, Esquimalt proposed having the RCMP provide police services to the township but was rebuffed by the province.

Rejecting the latest request, which has the unanimous support of Esquimalt’s council and interest from both mayoral candidates in Victoria, could cause considerable consternation—especially when the 2002 amalgamation was originally billed as a first step toward some kind of regional police service.

“I'm really surprised that the province hasn't gone and done this because they've been told about it I don't know how many times,” said Andrew.

“It's the province’s opportunity to do something bold, and it completely works with their own plans around reform,” Alto said. “So why wouldn't they do it?”

Article Author's Profile Picture
Shannon Waters
Municipal affairs reporter

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