Frontline police officers deserve better treatment

First published:
Jan. 16, 2002

Policing in West Northumberland is on the verge of a serious crisis. With the fallout surrounding the Cobourg Police force and the turmoil in Port Hope over the future of the OPP, it is time the Solicitor General’s ministry sent somebody or some official body down here to get us back on track.

The Cobourg Police Service is mired in its most critical struggle for credibility in at least a decade. Not since former Mayor Angus Read and former Chief Dan McDougall squared off over the boardroom table has the police force been in such serious flux. Mayor Peter Delanty’s call for Chief John Kay’s resignation at council Monday night is a sign of the grave nature of recent events.

Certainly Police Services board chairman John Henderson’s announcement earlier this week regarding two new policies are crucial first steps. Charges will be automatically laid under the Police Services Act  when officers face criminal charges. And, action will be taken when officers or civilians operate a police vehicle after drinking any alcohol.

The police board is pulling the head off the dandelion and not dealing with the root.

It is not enough for the police board to asked legal counsel to review the situation. Nor would Kay’s resignation resolve the entire matter.

In order to regain the full confidence of the public, the police board should either ask the Solicitor General’s ministry to undertake in interim review or ask the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services – the provincial body responsible for ensuring police are accountable to the public – to undertake some kind of appropriate inquiry.

There is a deep feeling of distrust and a perception of unfairness right now. Recent critical letters to the editor are only the tip of the iceberg. There is no silent majority in this case. Delanty has said as much and his actions are being justified by the public pressure he feels. People are openly upset with some police administrators and board members. The reputation of the Cobourg force is deeply damaged. And frontline officers are unfairly taking the brunt.

The board’s new policies only deal with any future incidents. The resignation would remove Kay, whose actions are being seriously questioned.

But many decisions surrounding this case were made internally and behind closed doors. Some transparency is desperately needed. The public cannot see or hear the results of all those meetings (since legislation allows closed-door meetings because it involves personnel or legal matters). A review by the ministry looking at all aspects of the related events would go a long way to relieve the public concerns and, at the same time, protect people’s privacy. The relationship between the administration of the OPP and Cobourg police has also been raised by this incident. That must be examined, too.

A public report would quickly end any criticism and restore confidence. If nothing was found, then all parties are immediately vindicated. If recommendations are forthcoming, then these can be used to develop further policies and procedures. And finally, if any more disciplinary action is necessary, then the police board could move forward with much stronger public backing than it has now.

To delay further only erodes public trust, diminishes the reputations of all involved and intensifies the perception of a lack of full disclosure. It does not undermine the steps already taken and the call for Kay’s resignation. A full public airing is needed to get rid of the stench. Opening one window or two won’t do the job.

The other major concern is the policing in Port Hope. The debate over OPP and local police is more than a showdown over who is going to patrol former Hope Township. It is a crisis in confidence for the mayor and politicians. It is also the most serious challenge to the amalgamation.

The selection of a police force for Ward 2 was going on long before amalgamation. Claims and counterclaims have been volleyed back and forth resolving nothing. It is nice that the residents of Ward 2 love their police officers, but the real question is the level of service. Either force will tell you they can meet any demand set forward. All the officers will also tell you they are the best.

It is extremely rare that an urban force is not used following a municipal merger. If there are any serious fears, then those can be addressed by the police services board. When the next round of board appointments comes up, Ward 2 residents who are not happy can apply for the job.

It might also be wise for council to appoint two Ward 2 members to the police board from their ranks. Usually the mayor sits on the board, but it is not mandatory. It would also go a long way to assuring the public the former township is not being ignored. And it would give Ward 2 councillors a chance to show their sense of fairness when it comes to police issues in the urban areas.

If none of this can be achieved, then the Solicitor General’s ministry may need to intervene. It will be able to make an unbiased recommendation between OPP and town police which council can immediately adopt. An independent audit may be necessary to quell fears and restore public confidence to the process in Port Hope. Whatever the case may be, it is time to move.

If current situation in West Northumberland deeply concerns taxpayers, then they can choose not to wait for politicians or the police boards. By contacting the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services or the Solicitor General directly, the community could drive the agenda forward. This might be the best solution in the end.

The situation in West Northumberland is most disturbing. We need our local police to focus on keeping our community safe and feeling protected. The frontline officers work very hard to do this. Some assurances from these review agencies might be refreshing and provide much needed relief for them and the community.

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