New chief's plan must be substantial, not spin

First published:
May 7, 2003

The hiring of a new police chief in Cobourg could have ramifications for residents of both Cobourg and Port Hope, deserving a few moments of thought before hand.

Cobourg finally has a new police chief, Garry Clement, who started on Monday. A former RCMP superintendent, Chief Clement has 30 years of experience and a laundry list of special qualifications.

In a press interview, the new chief already has shown he has done his homework before coming to Cobourg. He has researched what the community has been saying about its police force, including some of the slamming going on of late. But he has also praised the officers for the hard work and dedication. He particularly noted a recent report saying the Cobourg Police Service has one of the highest clearance rates.

No doubt, it would be convenient for Chief Clement to put the past behind him as quickly as possible. The past few years have weighed heavy on the force’s image within the community. It would not be surprising that the front line officers would also like to get a fresh start. And the police board would also like to find something new to discuss.

However, it appears that may not happen. Cobourg resident Ron Kerr did not let Cobourg council off the hook last week for the handling of a review of the police force by the Solicitor General after Deputy Chief Kyle Foster was cleared of drinking and driving charges in 2001.

Mr. Kerr deserves the new chief’s full attention and the public’s full support. His dogged fight to have the police services board held accountable, and now Cobourg council, is worthy of immediate action. Last spring he called for a review by the Ontario Civilian Commission of Police Services, an idea still worth pursing.

The board tried to bury his request by having review by the Solicitor General’s department. That is done, but the police services board is refusing to release the results. Instead, Chairman John Henderson is sending the public to the Freedom of Information office in North Bay.

The audit done by the ministry did not look at key issues in terms of public accountability of the police services board: what the board did or did not do when the drinking and driving incident took place in November 1999 and whether or not the board failed when it did not levy public sanctions directed at either of the two officers.

The time for a civilian commission is ripe. Cobourg taxpayers have waited long enough while the police board and council hummed and hawed over what to do after former chief John Kay left. It has been an embarrassment to the town and the officers to watch the caliber of politics being played with one of the most important services provided to the community.

Just like moving into a new house, it is time to air out the building. Throw open the dark windows that have hidden the public’s view of the force and its operations, Chief Clement.

The timing may also be good for another reason: the province is seeking new appointees to the police service board. Maybe if Northumberland MPP Doug Galt is asked for his input, he could nudge the government to choose some new faces who have a more progressive notion of public accountability than those who serve presently.

A good first step in Cobourg would be the release of the Solicitor General’s report and then call in the civilian commission to fully investigate the board’s actions over the handling of the drinking and driving incident. The investigation should not further impugn those who have been dealt with by the courts, but strictly confine itself to the police board and its members.

That would automatically be a public document and finally bring closure to the entire affair. It would also bring a huge resurgence in the credibility of the board and lift a dark cloud over the entire force.

But there is more. And here is where Port Hope residents should also consider going after its police board.

The police boards are far too removed from public accountability. While in bureaucratic terms, the board may be serving the taxpayers, certainly after this past budget session, it appears quite different.

It may be time to take police service board meetings out of the backrooms and into the public realm. At the very least, public consultations regarding the police budget should be held prior to approval. Municipal councils have no say once the police board passes the budget, but taxpayers should be given a full opportunity to air any concerns. That would stop the horrendous carping we saw this year by municipal politicians looking for headlines.

But it could go even further. Community policing initiatives started several years ago failed to put in place public bodies which would provide the public with greater accessibility to the inner workings of the police forces. While a substantial amount of police work cannot be released to the public due to security concerns, the links between the police and the community is an important one. Community policing is far more than civilians who help out at the station, hand out pamphlets and cruise around in cool jackets at public events.

If that is too much, then at least get the board members out of the meeting rooms and into some public places, talking with the community they serve. Three or four public meetings at local schools or community centres might be a good start. Heck, maybe try a stunt like Cobourg council and hold a public portion of a meeting at the mall. But start talking to us.

True, attendance at these kinds of events is not always great, but the principles are far more important. And for that reason alone, it should be done.

Good luck Chief Clement. Let’s hope your 100-day plan includes a heavy dose of public accountability, not just public relations. We are all spun out.

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