Ottawa's Mad Tea Party 2017: Policing Reform in the Post-Truth Era
Since 2014, allegations of improprieties and pockets of favouritism have plagued the Ottawa Police Services (OPS) executive, breeding distrust, anger and apathy throughout the force. In 2016, the Ottawa Police Services Board (OPSB) Chair repeatedly refused to acknowledge and take action on systemic organizational issues in OPS, triggering the call for the Chair's resignation by the Ottawa Police Association (OPA) and driving some police members to break rank and go public. The Mayor shot back, inviting anyone at OPS who doesn't like their job, to leave.
Little has changed. Over the past year and before that, similar issues have repeatedly surfaced, leading many to suggest the greater root cause is flagrant abuse of the institution and ignores legislation for the benefit of a select few. Just last week, the OPA called for the Chair to take charge and invoke legislation under the Police Services Act (PSA) against the Chief, well within the power and duties of the OPSB. Again, it was refused without explanation, leaving some to speculate on the Chair's reluctance to upset the apple cart, suspicions of self-interest and what appeared to be obstinate attempts to preserve the status quo.
In this case, the status quo works only for a select group, and it is no longer a matter of ignoring "the elephant in the room", it is the outright denial that there is an elephant in the room at all. The illogical, haiku-like discourse that has been witnessed in the media goes something like this:
The Reasonable and Educated: "The blue sky is lovely today ..."
Them: "It's not blue ..."
The Reasonable and Educated: "... Sure it is ..."
Them: "Prove it ... "
The Reasonable and Educated: "Well, the perception of blue is based on the visual interpretation of short, scattered wavelengths that --- "
Them: The opinion of a few does not speak for the entire organization."
Even if marked change were to be marshalled, if you have the same people who were perceived to have created the problem, tasked with fixing it, the expectations of positive improvement diminish exponentially. Frankly, the OPS, that was once the pride of many, including in my own family, is critically damaged and while continuing to slowly incinerate over the past decade, OPS leadership and the OPSB seem to be perfectly content perched above the ashes.
"It is far better to be feared than loved" - Red Queen
The earliest warnings of trouble in the OPS were in 2015; the force spoke loud and clear through the OPS gender audit, ordered by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and the OPS employee satisfaction survey, both throwing numerous red flags. The employee survey revealed 45% of respondents were dissatisfied with the Chief, the then Deputy Chief Keeley and the civilian Director General; 28% had 'no opinion'. Only two-thirds were proud of being apart of the OPS with less than half recommending the service as an employer. The Ontario Human Rights Commission gender audit was abysmal.
With both results, the Chief failed to acknowledge the palpable discontent expressed by OPS employees, which was seconded by the Chair with silence and inaction. With frustrations left unchecked, the wheels began to fall off in the spring of 2016: several members stood off the line in utter frustration, publicly voicing their deep dissatisfaction with the OPS executive and OPSB Chair and perceived inappropriateness of their activities. Ignoring that a sizeable percentage of the OPS had already voiced their upset in the 2015 survey, the OPSB Chair El-Chantiry stated that "one or two discontented officers do not speak for the entire force".
With much of the ire directed at the Chief, many began to wonder whether the interests of the executive have surpassed the basic human rights of the rank and file, reducing the public organization to not much more than private corporation presiding over an industrial sweatshop. Fairness is difficult to achieve when a handful have the plurality of support, which is from the most powerful who are beneath them. The majority - those with little or no power - have no chance of breaching that wall of loyalty, irrespective of access to processes meant to maintain fairness.
(Worth noting, OPS members only have access to internal complaints processes or the OPA; they cannot use complain through the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD) or Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC) and the OPA does not have standing with either.)
With the seriousness of the recent allegations brought into focus, the number of disgruntled OPS members becomes irrelevant. Last week, when Matt Skof, OPA president, called for the OPSB Chair to intervene on the Chief's refusal to suspend or reassign the senior OPS officers facing criminal allegations (failing to disclose evidence and making false statements, now under investigation by the OPP), the Chair responded that "it is the practice of chiefs to look at each case and determine what to do, based on a set of criteria" and that "there is nothing to be done about complaints about inconsistencies when officers are suspended because the law allows for it".
Nothing more than defiance wrapped in riddly-rhetoric, the absurdity of this statement is stunning. Aside from permitting those charged with criminal offences relating to the integrity of evidence that arose from their actual duties, one being the OPS lawyer, to continue performing those duties is mind-boggling and unacceptable on every level. Every file touched before and after by those individuals will now be marred with doubt and scrutiny, if not appeals; this inaction leaves the credibility of the organization and its chain of custody to substantial risk and recourse.
Further to that, this is not a matter of "inconsistency" and the law does not "allow" for it, as the Chair claims. Nowhere in the Police Services Act (PSA) does it permit arbitrary and subjective determination of suspensions, implicitly or explicitly. The PSA is bound by six overarching principles, two of which squarely address equality and human rights - to be consistent and fair and to prevent abuse and bias in the application of the legislation. To suggest otherwise is to manipulate the legislation in order to deliver the least possible that can be enforced.
What an elected official must do under legislation is the highest measure, what they can do is permitted in immense detail at the regulatory, policy and procedural level to maintain the confidence of the public; ignoring that, just makes you look sketchy.
To that, with regard to what the Chair infers is out of his control in the current OPS controversy, the PSA allows for a number of options to be exercised by the OPSB, which are actually part of their mandate anyways. The Chair indicated that the suspension criteria and procedures exist; therefore if it does in fact exist, the most reasonable action would be to invoke Section 31(1) of the PSA and request these criteria from the Chief, conduct a full review with the Board and then share that information and results with the public. Depending on fullness of the criteria provided, the OPSB can direct the Chief, as allowed under 31(1)(e), if that disclosure is misaligned to any part of the OPS mandate or PSA.
The Chair's statement affords the Chief the benefit of doubt that the PSA is being adhered to, when it is suggested otherwise. Instead of stepping up to the responsibility of the OPSB under the PSA, the Chair exercises a distinct habit of verbally stonewalling an exchange by either denying it exists or deeming it out of the scope of his control - nothing can be done ..., it is not consistent with ..., there is no basis for ... - without backing up his opposition with facts or even the actual section laid out legislation. The actions suggested under 31(1) alone would demonstrate accountability, responsibility and transparency of the OPSB and commitment to public interest, possibly restoring public confidence. If the criteria do not exist contradicting the Chair's statement, that would only appear to be par for the course.
"What a regrettably large head you have" - The Mad Hatter
At a minimum, the expectation of a Police Services Board Chair is that they possess explicit understanding and commitment to the PSA, in order to fairly administer police services. Clearly, gaps in legislative knowledge or ad hoc interpretation can set one onto a misguided path. In the Chair's recent article "Here's how to reform policing in Ontario" he suggests that the PSA is out-dated legislation (even though it has been amended numerous times to reflect the shifting and evolving values of our diverse society) and that legislation is the root of policing issues in Ontario.
Reformation of legislation is not the answer to policing woes; in fact, it is the absolute opposite of what research in managing police organizations has revealed as best practices. Legislation will not cure organizational issues and any attempt to reform policing at the organizational level is futile without first addressing systemic or recurring misconduct: that begins with removing those who perpetuate it, installing new leadership who instils confidence, renewing policies to guide the transformation of the culture and demonstrating commitment through core values, upheld as organizational principles. Outside the organization, reformation relies on a collaborative relationship between police and the public; it cannot survive when designed in isolation or through unilateral decision-making.
In the end, legislation is only as good as its moral application; it is expected, as outlined in other statues, that elected officials act - both perceptively and in actuality - in 'good faith' and for the best interests of the public they serve. Until the Chair is willing to follow through on those prerequisites, it may be prudent that he put aside writing articles on police reform and focus on the more pressing issues in the OPS.
"If one drinks much from a bottle marked "poison", it's almost certain to disagree with you sooner or later." - Alice
In this post-truth era, politicians and leadership have come to rely on sound bites and one-liners that are disconnected from the details of policy and where open communications and rebuttals are thwarted by denial, deflection and misrepresentation. If those fail, the door slams shut and communication ceases, except for fugacious attempts at 'good press' as a diversion. Shortcutting an issue or glossing it over with generalities is not new but controlling the rhetoric to the disadvantage of the public ... ? Should that tactic be permitted to trickle down and 'normalize' in the municipal and local politics, a new low will be reached.
Recently confronted with concerns over his indiscriminate choice of "friends" on social media, the Chair distanced himself from his Facebook account, claimed it was for city business, blamed his staff and hide his 'friends list' from public view. Many, including OPS members who understood the gravity of the optic presented to these well-known individuals and their associates, were incensed and insulted that a Police Services Board Chair would lack judgment and be so reckless. But the poor choice of friends became the background story: the Councillor cum Chair forgot (again) that a few months before he had changed the nature of the account from a ward account to his personal account, announcing this publicly on Facebook. He goes as far as to indicate that his account would be managed by him going forward, while pointing his constituents to his Facebook ward page.
Again, following an inadvertent disclosure of a personal, pecuniary interest of the Chair in recent interviews on the flooding in Constance Bay, he (as Ward Councillor) he issued several explanations on the nature of the interest, all different. He stated that his property, was under a metre and a half of water, much more than any other property on Bayview Dr., and that he had was no different than any other affected residents, he had lost his "home" too. It quickly became his "second home" when a photo of his true primary - and dry - home was circulated on Facebook. Then, a day later he described it as a guest/ flop house occupied by a female "family friend". Previously, it had been identified as a cottage and also a rental with a tenant.
Such a big cognitive load for what should have been a fairly uncomplicated answer. While it is entirely possible to act with impunity, it is not possible to speak with impunity and not surprisingly, there is ample silence. And irrespective of whether you are a Chair or Chief, this is the public's arena and no one will be apologizing for noticing and asking questions, when glaring inconsistencies, recurring behaviours and subjective truths materialize in a flip.
"Of all the silly nonsense, this is the stupidest tea party I've ever been to in all my life ... " - Alice
Behaviours by the Chief, senior executive and the organization's dysfunction are one set if problems and the inaction by the OPSB and the Chair is yet another, but both are clear indication that more than one system is failing under the severity of issues and intersecting relationship. On top of that, if those responsible rely on complaints and divisional court to force accountability, rather than adhering to the prescribed legislation in the first place, bureaucracy is in high rotation. And you can bet if the response by any bureaucrat is "file a complaint", they are marketing that suggestion with confidence.
The OPA president's statement that, "No other problem compares with what may emerge from the OPP investigation into these very serious claims against the chief’s small circle of advisers" and that it "demonstrates an unwritten standard" for the inner circle to enjoy impunity and protection, is unsettling. Though the Chief may have been ineffective in providing fair and balanced leadership and failed to respond to the systemic organizational wounds that were left to fester, the OPSB and the Chair are no better.
At best, the OPSB may be nothing more than a co-dependent partner, actively refusing to redress bad behaviour, and in doing so, reinforcing and supporting it. At worst, the OPSB may have lost sight of 'good faith' and 'public interest', as it shifted to protecting unfair practices, in the face of their mandate and legislative capabilities, and rejecting all notion of openness, transparency and accountability.
The Chair was fast to stall any action using the OPP investigation as the excuse; "The OPP, hopefully, with their investigation, can shed some light on it ... that’s why we asked an outside police agency to investigate so that we can regain public confidence". While slick, the Chair makes it sound as they pulled the pin, willingly requested the OPP investigation. In fact, it was outside stakeholder that led Edelson and the Crown, after months of tethering fact to fact, to reveal the alleged evidence tinkering to the Chief; he was under full obligation to engage the OPP. The only action by the Royal We was the scrambling for cell phones when Edelson's letter hit their desk on a Friday afternoon.
If the above is any indication, the trio of 'reluctant-to-engage-with-anyone-but-each-other' leaders will maintain their stronghold, preserving each other's tenure, interests and hides, while the public and police divide, dissent and wait for one of them to be struck by moral lightening. For now, the OPS as an organization has devolved to a shell of what begged for change yesterday. Ever-less of the public's making and absent of any vision or visionary to transform it, it will continue on its protracted collapse under the reign those who twist the ropes of power.
Understanding how policing is administered in Ontario is pretty straightforward. In the simplest terms, the Chief is responsible for the delivery of police services to the City by the police services members (as an organization); he is the 'employer' and sworn members and civilians are employees. What constitutes those services is defined by provincial and federal statues and the greater vision and requirements of the City (defined by the mayor) for the public. The Chief is selected by and reports to the Police Services Board; they ensure that City's requirements and quality of services are met and if needed, are adjusted by monitoring, directing and providing feedback to the Chief. A police association represent police service members' interests only and have no responsibility to the public. The public can complain to the Chief, the organization's professional standards section or the Police Services Board members, depending on the complaint.
The Police Services Act for Ontario governs the above; it is founded on six overarching principles, two of them point to the importance of respect and human rights: "safeguarding fundamental rights", guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Human Rights Code, and fostering values of those they serve "the need for cooperation between police services and the communities". The PSA outlines the roles, responsibilities, conduct and conventions of police officers, chiefs and deputy chiefs, police services boards and review boards and can be used to invoke investigations or charges against police officers. Although permitted for, it is rarely (if ever) used for the same toward police chiefs and police services boards. The conduct of police services board members are outlined in the Code of Conduct, Ontario Regulation 421/97.
 CNC News, Nov 14, 2016: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/ottawa-police-women-hiring-gender-a...
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 CTV News, May 18, 2016: http://ottawa.ctvnews.ca/relations-are-deteriorating-within-ottawa-polic...
 Metro news, May 3, 2017: http://www.metronews.ca/news/ottawa/2017/05/03/ottawa-police-union-wants...
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 Ottawa Citizen, May 12, 2017: http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/deciding-who-gets-suspended-and...