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Panel issues recommendations for "real change" to Thunder Bay policing

An expert panel has recommended dramatic changes to how Thunder Bay's embattled police force is governed.
Police Expert Panel 1
The independent expert panel appointed by the Thunder Bay Police Services Board during a meeting in July. (File photo)

THUNDER BAY – The expert panel appointed to advise the Thunder Bay Police Services Board has tabled an interim report recommending sweeping changes that – if fully implemented – would dramatically reshape how the city's police force is governed.

It calls for more funding to strengthen civilian oversight, for an expanded police services board with significant First Nations representation, and for giving preference in the search for a new police chief to candidates who know Thunder Bay and who are Indigenous or racialized, as long as they meet other criteria.

And to shore up what some call a "toxic" work environment, the panel proposes a new arms-length Human Rights/Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Unit within the force.

The report, entitled Turning the Page: An Urgent Memo to the Thunder Bay Police Services Board from the Independent Expert Panel, contains dozens of recommendations centred on three issues: selection of a new police chief, the makeup of the police services board, and labour relations.

The 20-page document is meant to address those time-sensitive topics ahead of a more comprehensive final report. It will be available at the board’s website on Tuesday, and was provided in advance to media under embargo.

Released just weeks shy of a municipal election, the report offers recommendations likely to prove not just controversial, but expensive. The panel argues they're also necessary.

“We share the view expressed by many that real change is urgently required in the policing of Thunder Bay so that the public receives the policing service it needs and expects while members of the service are treated in a manner that is compassionate, caring, and supportive,” the report states.

To underline the need for change, the panel pointed to its own consultations and previous findings of systemic racism in the force that prompted the reinvestigation of the deaths of over a dozen Indigenous people.

The panel's findings were based on over 80 consultations, including with 26 current and former police officers and civilian staff, members of the senior command, board members, Indigenous leaders, city staff, union leaders, at least 25 community groups, and citizens at two town halls.

The panel also reviewed documents including the Sinclair Report, the OIPRD “Broken Trust” report, and human rights complaints filed against the service.

The recommendations will for now lie in the hands of administrator Malcolm Mercer, appointed to oversee the police services board amid internal dysfucntion.

Mercer also recently suggested serious changes to TBPS governance could be needed.


Selecting a police chief

The panel’s first recommendations address the search process for a successor to suspended chief Sylvie Hauth, who announced her retirement earlier this year and faces hearings over allegations under the Police Services Act.

“The health of the service, its future direction, and its relationship with the community, especially the First Nations, depend critically on who is placed at the helm,” the report states.

The panel urges the board to take “key actions” in the recruitment process: apply an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) lens, consult with the community including staff and Indigenous groups, and conduct broader outreach to attract candidates through groups like the First Nations Police Governance Council and First Nations Chiefs of Police Association.

The board should also "give preference to selecting a chief who is Indigenous, or, alternatively, from a racialized background,” as long as that person meets the other leadership criteria, the panel recommends.

The report suggested top characteristics for a new chief: knowledge of Thunder Bay as a regional hub, support for strong civilian governance, an understanding of “social determinants of community safety… such as poverty, homelessness, mental health, and racism” and of the role of First Nations governments in the region, and a commitment "to implementing Indigenous principles of justice, specifically, restorative justice."

The panel recommended its criteria also be applied in future chief and deputy chief searches.


Reshaping the board

The panel recommended expanding and reshaping the polices services board, which appoints the chief and provides oversight to the force.

The board currently includes five members: three appointed by the city, including two city councillors and a citizen member, and two provincial appointees. The latter two seats remain vacant after a majority of the board resigned to protest Mercer's appointment.

The panel recommends the board work with the city, OCPC, and the Solicitor General “to seek exemption to expand its membership to seven… and remove the requirement of local residency due to the unique nature of Thunder Bay as the regional hub of Northwestern Ontario and the need for the board to be reflective of the communities [the TBPS] serves.”

In its current five-member form, at least two members should be from First Nations, the panel advised. In a seven-member board, that representation should rise to three, it said, with at least one from Fort William First Nation.

In arguing for the change, the panel noted the force serves a significant population that comes to Thunder Bay from First Nations across the region.

“It is not sufficient to only consult with these communities,” the panel stated. “There must be representation that is reflective of the demographic realities of the region.”

The panel also suggested the board work with city council, which sets police budgets, to make the board chair a full-time position “paid equal to a city councillor,” and increase compensation for other members, to strengthen civilian governance.

Board training should also be overhauled and expanded, the panel recommended.


Labour relations

In its report, the panel outlined concerns over what was sometimes described as a “toxic” work environment, taking note of internal surveys with dismal results.

“We were struck by the relatively high number of disciplinary actions, requests for PTSD or other mental health related accommodations, and human rights complaints involving treatment of sworn and civilian employees.”

The panel recommends staffing a new, arms-length Human Rights/Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Unit within the force, responsible for developing workplace policies, conducting training, investigating complaints, and creating an alternative dispute resolution process.

The unit is recommended to report directly to the chief and be located outside of police headquarters “so that it is seen to be independent as well as to ensure confidentiality and safety.”

The panel also recommended other actions including implementing a trauma-informed approach to issues like mental health claims and fitness to return to work; hiring an “independent external expert in trauma-informed practice” to oversee new policies, procedures, and training; and developing internal support networks.


Immediate priorities for action

The panel also identified some other “immediate priorities” for action by the board.

Those included establishing a “formal nation-to-nation relationship” with First Nations to support joint service delivery, working with the city to find funding for “adequate staffing” (that could include “appointing a full-time governance specialist as Executive Director or establishing a committee of experts”), and developing a system to annually evaluate the board’s performance.

The board should ensure monthly updates on its progress to meet the report’s recommendations are provided at its meetings, the panel suggested.

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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