Policing mess must be cleaned up

First published: January 28, 2006

When Cobourg Councillor Lloyd Williams announced his seasonal wish was to see peace within the local police force, it was an example of just what is so seriously wrong. The politicians and administration are trying so hard to pretend everything is all right, when in fact nothing is working at all.

Mr. Williams’ comments are an insult to residents. As a member of the police services board, no one has more authority to ensure harmonious relations. But that is far from the case. Rather he and his counterpart Deputy Mayor Bob Spooner, along with the rest of council, are pushing matters to a critical point. Yet, no one is placing the blame where it should. The results could be an unnecessary, massive overhaul of police services in West Northumberland that could leave residents worse off.

Unfortunately, Chief Garry Clement is placed at the epicenter of this mess. In many ways, he has not helped himself, but the blame cannot be placed squarely on his shoulders alone. His credibility is shot due to a lack of support on all sides, mainly from politicians and from some members of the police association.

Let’s get something straight first, Chief Clement is not a bad individual nor is he incompetent. He served with distinction within the RCMP and comes to his job with lots of qualifications. He is capable and won the praise of council, the community and his peers on many occasions. Yet, a series of events have conspired to reduce his credibility, leaving him painted into a corner.

This situation finds its genesis in the dispute with Hamilton Township. When police service board members and council failed to successfully resolve a dispute over billings to the township, the seeds were planted. Frontline officers’ jobs were suddenly threatened, as Hamilton Township council set the wheels in motion to end its service agreement. Nothing could be more demoralizing for these men and women. And, there was no reason for this other than a lack of political will by both councils to successful resolve the dispute.

But, it was the funeral of Chris Garrett where the most serious sin was committed in May 2004. When council failed to pick up the expenses, as requested by the police association, there was a level of bitterness that would not go away.

From here, the tension steadily grew. The bawdyhouse investigation in August 2004 brought complaints from Mr. Spooner after police officers refused to go to court to testify. The woman charged was let go and paid a $2,000 donation. Spooner said taxpayers were irked by what had happened. Again, a politician, who was too thin skinned to keep the criticism of a few taxpayers to himself, did not give the officers the support they deserved.

Next came the Police Services Act tribunal for Constable Shawn Nelles. What should have been a simple disciplinary hearing, where Nelles pleaded guilty to discreditable conduct, neglecting duty and committing deceit, has become something out of a Wagnerian opera and the fat lady has not sung. The debate over the open or closed procedures, combined with leaked documents, a possible investigation by the provincial government and the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services into the matter, on top of calls by Mr. Spooner to try to stop Nelles’ pay, would be laughable if it weren’t all true. Sadly, it is.

So, it is no wonder the police association expressed its dissatisfaction through a non-confidence vote directed at the chief and the police board.

If this weren’t enough of a burden on the chief, there are also the two-faced actions of Cobourg council and county council, who are seeking information on OPP services for the area. Nobody believes for a second that anyone with credibility can pledge support to Chief Clements in one breath and then in the next say it is important to go and get a price on services from the OPP. You can’t suck and blow at the same time. Still, there is Mayor Peter Delanty, Mr. Spooner and all of Cobourg council voting to proceed with a study. Few citizens are being fooled by this council’s lack of support for the police service.

In his directional statement for 2006, the chief wrote; “(The Cobourg Police Service) is still an organization in transition and therefore, to the casual observer, will look like an organization in turmoil.”

In his effort to gloss over the difficulties of the past year, the chief fails to instill the credibility he needs to lead. Proposals such as better traffic enforcement, drive wise programs for seniors, adopt-a-cop and no gang colours programs are only a band-aid on a wound that seriously needs stitches.

No matter how many times the chief says he is here to stay, circumstances are saying something else. And while he wants to keep fighting for the Cobourg police service, it is obvious no matter what he does, he does not have the support of those who work under him or the politicians who supervise him. If he does not act, either Cobourg council or the county will push for OPP service and a turmoil far greater and more damaging could be the result. This could lead to a massive reduction of service from an impersonal and less localized policing model. Or, it could lead to yet another round of inter-municipal fighting over a West Northumberland force that would bring out old, bitter disputes between Cobourg, Port Hope and Hamilton Township, leading to more unnecessary bickering.

There are really two groups who suffer in all of this: the frontline officers and citizens. For the men and women whose only interest is to serve the community with honour and do their job with dignity and integrity, it must be very demoralizing. As politicians and administration battle, rarely do you hear anyone give credit to these outstanding individuals who ultimately do the job that everyone else talks about. Ask any one of them and they would all say they just want to go to work and get rid of all the politics. Amen.

Finally, citizens are also ignored. Things are so mismanaged, people just shake their heads in dismay. Nobody wants to hear about another leaked memo or OPP service. A majority simply wants what the officers want, a Cobourg police force that is allowed to do its best job.

Instead of wishing for peace, maybe Mr. Williams and his fellow councillors should resolve to roll up their sleeves and shovel out the dirty stalls in the barn rather than sitting on the fence. Time to clean up the mess.

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