Policing issues true democratic test for councils

First published: July 27, 2007

The swearing in of RCMP Commissioner William Elliott is important on many levels, but most significantly, it hold several key lessons for residents of Northumberland County as a debate about the future of local policing begins in earnest.

Elliot is the bureaucrat named by Prime Minister Stephen Harper with no police experience to run the beleaguered RCMP. The move is controversial for some, mainly the RCMP itself, because it is the first time a non-commissioned officer is in charge. To stem a host of concerns, Elliot immediately appointed veteran RCMP Deputy Commissioner Bill Sweeney as his right hand on policing matters, demonstrating his savvy to his critics. In another smart move, Elliot wore a dark suit instead of the iconic red serge RCMP uniform, as another signal of respect towards the officers, who were upset with the possibility a non-officer wearing such an important symbol.

Municipal politicians are looking to revamp policing in Northumberland County as several proposals are currently under study with little public debate. County council’s steering committee received an OPP proposal for policing the entire region at the end of June and a series of recommendations related to the report will go before council in mid-August. The county could be making a decision in September.

This comes on the heels of Cobourg council’s current discussions about switching to the OPP. There are a number of outstanding issues dating back to May that are being considered including the actual number of police officers, the administrative structure, dispatching, and the final dollar figures. Councillor Stan Frost, the town’s member of the police services board, has worked hard to keep the issue front and centre over the past few weeks, defending the local force. Also, a group of residents are creating a petition to demonstrate support for a municipal force rather than the OPP. (Let’s not forget how Cobourg council treats petitions).

There are two aspects of this issue that are vital: the practical and the symbolic. And, while bureaucrats want us to only see the hard numbers, it is this other aspect where the heartfelt debate will occur.

To argue the cost of policing is taking up a disproportionate amount of the municipal budget is smoke and mirrors. One only needs to look at any other municipality to realize policing costs are a huge part of the overall expenses. Toronto’s police budget is more than double the expense of any other item. For an average taxpayer in the city, they pay $531.52 for policing compared to $265.99 for debt charges, which is the next largest expense. And, no doubt, there will be plenty of numbers tossed around during the debates as all sides try to win their case.

But, this is not what will really drive this decision. And, here is where the RCMP comes in. Elliot’s appointment reminds us that it is NOT the reality of something, but what it represents that is far more important to people. RCMP officers and the public were outraged a non-commissioned officer might run a police force. It was not that a highly skilled bureaucrat was about to take over a managerial job. Running a police force is more about politics than policing these days. Nobody cares about that. It was the symbolic things that upset everyone, as in wearing the red serge, for example.

The same is true for local police forces. Having a dedicated police force is central to the identity of any municipality. To say a town has a police force, fire department and the like are all crucial things we think of when we consider ourselves a sophisticated local government. We take pride in these things and it helps us think about ourselves in a positive way. Many rural municipalities have lost important icons like this: major industries have left, as well as the arrival of big box stores and other signs of excessive development that strip away our feelings of a small, self-sufficient municipality.

Sadly, Cobourg’s police force has faced a series of unfortunate events that have tarnished its image. The Nelles case, the departure of two police chiefs under a dark cloud and a number of other items. Yes, this stirs some bad feelings, but it is certainly not enough to ruin the proud history of the force and its important role, both practical and representative in the community. Already the appointment of Acting Chief Paul Sweet, a longtime officer in the local force, has done a lot to re-establish credibility.

Politicians cannot ignore this aspect of the policing debate. Those, like the leaders in Port Hope, are able to manipulate public sentiment against change by reinforcing resident’s emotions in support of a local force, while others, like Cobourg, will try to sway the debate toward more process and practical aspects to justify their actions. Neither approach serves the public and ignores a balanced debate. It is vital citizens have access to all the information and a healthy, even lengthy public discussion must occur before any final decisions are made either locally or at the county level. Otherwise, we will end up with another debacle where civic discourse was at the bottom of the heap rather than the top. Elliot’s example of respect and smarts is a good example to follow. Let’s pray ego and personal agendas don’t dominate this absolutely critical issue.

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