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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Police board member's resignation highlights political challenges of policing reform

Councillors and current and former police board members want the province to step up on recommended reforms

By Shannon Waters
December 4, 2022
Policing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Police board member's resignation highlights political challenges of policing reform

Councillors and current and former police board members want the province to step up on recommended reforms

Photo: VicPD / Twitter
Photo: VicPD / Twitter
Policing
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Police board member's resignation highlights political challenges of policing reform

Councillors and current and former police board members want the province to step up on recommended reforms

By Shannon Waters
December 4, 2022
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Police board member's resignation highlights political challenges of policing reform

BC could soon make big changes to policing—but they won’t come soon enough for Paul Schachter, a former provincial appointee to the Victoria-Esquimalt Police Board.

In spring 2021, Schachter joined the board with plans to be an advocate for social justice and anti-racism, and to build trust between the police department and communities that, he felt, are underserved and overpoliced.

Later that year, the province reappointed him to serve through the end of 2023. Instead, on Nov. 16, Schachter gave the board and the province two weeks’ notice of his intent to resign. In his resignation speech, Schachter said he does not believe the board has either the information or the authority to properly oversee the Victoria Police Department (VicPD).

“Trying to give governance without having the effective authority to control many of the critical factors is—it's more for show rather than for reality,” Schachter told Capital Daily.

His resignation comes at a time when the BC government is determining how oversight of police might look in the future.

This spring, BC Solicitor General and Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth unveiled a long-awaited report from an all-party committee of the legislature. The 96-page document made 11 recommendations aimed at modernizing policing in the province, rooting out systemic racism and establishing alternate ways to respond to citizens experiencing mental health, addictions and other “complex social issues.”

But since then, little has happened.

Had the provincial government indicated any urgency in addressing the report’s recommendations, Schachter said he probably would have served the remainder of his term on the police board.

“If they were really taking action on that, yeah, I think I would have wanted to be part of that process,” he told Capital Daily.

The Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General did not have much to say about its efforts to implement the report’s recommendations.

“The province plans to take a phased approach in responding to the recommendations to support the modernization of policing and public safety in BC,” the ministry said in a statement to Capital Daily.

Policies to inform “new policing and oversight legislation” will be crafted over the next two years, the ministry said, with input from First Nations and local governments.

Politically charged policing

Policing in BC and beyond is at an inflection point. Pressure has been building to address racism and bias in policing with “Defund the police!” becoming a regular rallying cry at demonstrations across the country in recent years.

Farnworth’s announcement of the Police Act review in July 2020 came shortly after Black Lives Matter protests in response to police brutality against Black people and other people of colour swept across the continent, and a month after 26-year-old Nuu-Chah-Nulth woman Chantel Moore was killed by a police officer in New Brunswick. If realized, the committee’s recommendations would see increased civilian oversight of policing, improvements to police data collection and reporting, restructuring of police boards, and changing the way police services are funded.

Those changes would happen alongside the development and funding of a range of services to respond to mental health, addiction, and other complex social issues—“with a focus on prevention and community-led responses and ensuring appropriate first response,” the report reads.

To Schachter, that is the most important recommendation in the report because it could lead to better outcomes for people experiencing mental health crises or experiencing homelessness while freeing up policing resources for issues more appropriate to their training.

“[Police] don't give any treatment, they can’t provide social housing, they can’t provide supportive services,” Schachter said, pointing instead to community-led response and a broader net of social services. “That's the only way we're going to solve some of the problems that are here and it's the only way we're going to detask the police.”

At a time when concerns about public safety are running high, talking about reassigning social order-related jobs away from police can be fraught. BC’s Urban Mayors Caucus has repeatedly called on the provincial government to address the issue of prolific and repeat offenders in cities across the province and community safety was a key issue during this year’s municipal elections.

Newly minted NDP Premier David Eby is no stranger to the issue either. As attorney general, Eby was regularly accused of being “soft on crime” by the opposition BC Liberals—criticism that has not stopped since his move to the premier’s office.

The day after Eby announced a suite of “intervention and enforcement” measures aimed at addressing public safety, the premier again faced questions about his credibility on the public safety file in the legislature.

“Why would anyone trust this soft-on-crime premier when he's delayed action and played politics at the expense of something as important as public safety?” asked Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon.

Liberal MLA Elenore Sturko—a former RCMP officer—brought up Eby’s time as a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, describing him as “as a militant activist.”

“Given his long track record of standing in the way of law enforcement, why would anyone trust the soft-on-crime premier to deliver anything other than the terrible results we've seen over the past five years?” Sturko said.

Eby’s public safety plan includes support for policing alternatives—a pledge to launch 12 peer-assisted response teams (PACTs) across BC as well as $3 million to expand specialized mobile crisis-response units that partner a police officer with a health-care worker to respond to mental-health calls. Days after it was unveiled, Eby announced $230 million over three years to hire more RCMP officers for rural and specialized detachments.

Police boards in the dark

While he saw plenty of potential to improve various aspects of policing, Schachter said he and fellow board members did not have access to vital information that could have helped them contribute to the conversation about the future of policing.

The board received regular updates about how police budgets were spent but information about how police decide what to spend on, and when and how those resources are used was not available, Schachter said.

He pointed to the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team (GVERT)—an integrated unit composed of Saanich and Victoria police officers and tasked with responding to high-risk and dangerous incidents—as an example. GVERT’s funding, spending and response rates were all part of the information the police board received but the decision-making process for deploying it wasn’t, Schachter said, noting that GVERT has been deployed to situations where an individual was experiencing a mental health crisis.

“I don't know whether or not their response is correct but I can't even review…whether or not the operation could have called for a de-escalation at the beginning [or] a non-show of force where the situation could have been resolved with less expenditure of funds now,” he said. “It's a problem.”

Schachter acknowledges it would not be appropriate for the police board to dictate how police do their jobs but does believe that civilian input and perspective on police operations has value.

“I just want to be able to do that job better,” he said. “If you can't look at what's happening in the operations, how can you give any type of guidance and oversight or even analysis to be able to do that?”

A desire for better data

The Victoria Police Department declined to answer questions related to Schachter’s resignation and the proposed reforms to the Police Act, instead directing Capital Daily to police board spokesperson and Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins.

Desjardins, a member of the board since 2008, saw that Schachter chafed against the “constraints” of serving on the police board and sympathized with his frustration.

“He challenged all the way along, which was really good and we enjoyed having him there,” she told Capital Daily of Schachter’s time on the police board. “But there is a clear delineation between the board's role—and being able to question around operations—[versus] being involved in operational things.”

Desjardins is also keen to see the province take action on the police reforms proposed earlier this year—especially the restructuring of police boards and the removal of mayors as board chairs—but said, “I'm not holding my breath on the amount of time they might take.”

Better data on policing could help highlight what police are doing well and where changes are most needed, Desjardins said.

“We do need to figure out how we can break things down a little bit more to provide the data that's required,” she said. “Part of that challenge lies with the province in terms of the standards that they require for policing.”

Victoria and Esquimalt councils each received community safety report cards from Victoria Police Del Manak last month. The quarterly update includes an array of metrics on policing over a three month period and compares them to previous quarters.

During his presentation to Victoria councillors, Manak emphasized the effort the department makes to be open and transparent to the communities it serves, going “the extra mile” to provide information through its data portal as well as directly to councils.

“This really does take a tremendous amount of staff time but we feel the return on investment is worth it because we want to… be transparent into what is happening on a quarterly basis within VicPD,” Manak said.

Schachter agreed that VicPD may indeed be exceeding its current transparency obligations.

“Of course, they're not required to be very transparent,” he added. “The information that is given out, there's no doubt that it is used to support the need for more policing, rather than… what the evidence is about how policing is keeping our community safe.”

‘A marginal increase’

Manak’s presentation was appreciated by new Victoria councillors Jeremy Caradonna and Dave Thompson, both of whom see the need for solutions beyond policing in order to address the issues police are grappling with.

Cardonna pointed to the crime severity index (CSI), a standardized federal measurement of the number and severity of police-reported incidents in a community. Victoria has the highest CSI of any municipally-policed community in the province—overall, and in terms of both violent and non-violent crime—although the city saw a drop in crime severity between 2020 and 2021, falling to 148. Other cities with a higher CSI in BC included Prince George (224), Hope (292), and Prince Rupert (159).

“There has been a marginal increase in severe and violent crime, which we need to acknowledge, but really the major uptick in the CSI has been around petty theft, mischief and crimes of that nature and other ones related to social order—what I would call poverty-related crimes,” Caradonna said.

Thompson agreed, adding that the long-term solutions to crimes committed due to poverty and social disorder driven by mental health crises lie “completely outside the realm of policing.”

“Whether it's providing housing across the spectrum, or mental health care supports or substance use disorder supports—the whole range of social services that we cut back in the 1990s—we need to restore and do a better job of [those],” he said. “Policing and bylaw are necessary functions but they're not going to solve these problems.”

Lack of meaningful action to address those issues—most of which are beyond the scope of local governments—adds pressure to continue increasing police budgets, Thompson added, even if police are not equipped to address the root causes.

“We're not going to be able to just throw a big budget increase into bylaw [services] or into policing and expect that the whole problem is going to disappear as a result,” he said.

Caradonna noted that the conversation on police and their suitability to handle complex social issues is shifting.

“There is an emerging consensus that the police have been asked to do too much,” he said. “They've been the catch-all and they end up doing all sorts of things that they either don't want to do, or trained to do and not budgeted to do.”

Community-based response initiatives—like the PACT expected to launch soon in Victoria—are gaining ground and Cardonna sees them as “a step in the right direction” when it comes to addressing the burden currently placed on police.

In order to successfully supplement and possibly replace some policing efforts, community policing initiaitves will need to be adequately funded, something the committee that assembled the Police Act report heard from a former RCMP officer. Rob Creasser warned that “half measures will not help address mental health, addiction, homelessness, criminal behaviour, and other societal issues.”

Thompson hopes to make the case to the province that local governments need help to address the big issues contributing to public safety concerns.

“It tends to be easy for a province to say to municipalities, ‘Oh, a policing problem, it's on your plate,’” he said. “I think we need to point out that this isn't a policing problem, it's a social problem—a wide-ranging social problem—and that is squarely within provincial bailiwick.”

Schachter would also like to see the province step up on some of the more complex issues facing communities.

“The province is downloading more responsibilities on municipalities and municipal police when they don't have really the authority to do anything,” he said. “These are things that the province should be taking responsibility for.”

He has so far seen little appetite at the provincial level to address his concerns but, under Eby, Schachter sees potential for a shift.

“He's shown himself to be a little bit willing to put his neck on the line on certain things so maybe there is some hope for the future.”

Correction at 11:30am on Dec. 5: A previous version of this article said Chantel Moore was killed by the RCMP. She was shot by an Edmundston police officer.

Article Author's Profile Picture
Shannon Waters
Municipal affairs reporter
contact@capitaldaily.ca

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