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Thunder Bay Police Service on patrol on March 10.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

Andrew Graham might be the country’s foremost booster of citizen police boards and their power to keep law enforcement in check – but he’s not so sure about Thunder Bay.

In 2018, Mr. Graham, professor emeritus at Queen’s University’s School of Policy Studies, advised then-senator Murray Sinclair on a report that said the city’s police board had ignored a “clear and indisputable pattern of violence and systemic racism” against the city’s Indigenous people.

A relentless champion for Canada’s model of civilian police oversight, Mr. Graham says Thunder Bay opened his eyes.

“I left my own experience in Thunder Bay thinking they need a brand-new model,” Mr. Graham said. “That they need to blow this up.”

Thunder Bay police chief says she remains confident in her force after reports outline shortcomings in past investigations

Indigenous leader calls for dismantling of Thunder Bay police

The idea of a fresh start for policing has gained traction in recent months as a deluge of reports, investigations and complaints have continued to raise doubts about the city’s municipal police force. But many policing experts say the city and the province need to exhaust all other options before making such a radical move.

“I think it’s a drastic option for a big community like Thunder Bay,” said former Toronto Police board chair Alok Mukherjee, tapped this week to lead an expert panel reviewing all the Thunder Bay police board’s policies and procedures.

The board formed the panel in the wake of two high-level audits that found evidence of inadequate police work on nine separate investigations into Indigenous deaths and recommended a reinvestigation of 16 other cases. The Ministry of the Attorney-General is now considering the request. The audits also identified 25 unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The Thunder Bay experience is emblematic of policing controversies across North America. The 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer brought demands to dismantle police departments to the forefront of public conversation. The Ottawa Police Service’s hands-off approach to the recent blockades of city streets reanimated those sentiments, raising questions about the very purpose of police and the often weak boards overseeing them.

The approach to restoring trust in Thunder Bay could become a template or a cautionary tale.

The audits follow seven years’ worth of reports and allegations that have brought more scrutiny to the 343-member department than perhaps any other police force in the country.

Several probes remain ongoing. They include an investigation into Chief Sylvie Hauth and Deputy Chief Ryan Hughes by the Ontario Civilian Police Commission (OCPC), which oversees police boards, and an OPP criminal investigation into unnamed members of the force launched at the Solicitor-General’s request.

The service is also facing nine human-rights complaints made by members of the force and board member Georjann Morriseau alleging harassment and discrimination.

The most recent call to disband came from Anna Betty Achneepineskum, Deputy Grand Chief for Nishnawbe Aski Nation, the powerful political organization representing 49 First Nations across northern Ontario. In light of the two audits, Ms. Achneepineskum told The Globe and Mail that the service and its board “should just be dismantled.”

It’s an option with little precedent. Perhaps the most prominent example of a North American police department being disbanded comes from Camden, N.J. Amid a 2012 spike in crime and a plunge in state funding, the Camden Police Department was dismantled and reconstituted as the Camden County Police Department.

The new agency rehired two-thirds of the defunct force’s officers. After a rocky start with community pushback against aggressive policing tactics, the department reportedly adopted a more respectful approach toward the city’s prominently Black and Latino population.

And in Northern Ireland, the Police Service of Northern Ireland replaced the heavily militarized and overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary in 2001 to comply with the Good Friday Agreement. The new force emphasized hiring Catholics and training recruits in human rights rather than paramilitary conflict.

“The police are now seen as above the sectarian divide, they’re seen as impartial,” said Christian Leuprecht, political-science professor at Canada’s Royal Military College and Queen’s University, who studied the Northern Ireland example for Force 2.0, a 2017 report on overhauling the RCMP.

Currently, police boards, municipalities and the OCPC have the power to abolish police forces in the province, according to Greg Flood, spokesman for Ministry of the Solicitor-General. Several Ontario towns, including Orangeville and Midland, have replaced their municipal forces with the OPP as a cost-saving measure of late.

Dr. Mukherjee said it’s possible that the OCPC will find the service beyond repair after its misconduct investigation of the chief and deputy chief, and recommend that the Solicitor-General send in the OPP, at least temporarily.

But he thinks the service and board can be salvaged with “very strong intervention.”

He told The Globe that Thunder Bay needs more time to implement recommendations from the 2018 Sinclair report, which focused on strengthening board governance. The report also recommended repairing the board’s relationship with First Nations communities and creating provincial training and evaluation standards for all boards.

“There are issues generally around effective governance and that, to me, includes much more clarity in the Police Services Act about the role and responsibility of the board,” he said.

He said the Police Services Act doesn’t allow for adequate vetting of board members and how they are appointed.

“There are no specific requirements for who can be or who should be the board members.”

The Sinclair report found that board members couldn’t agree on their legal obligations. Some said they could direct the chief on specific police actions, others felt they had no power over the chief at all.

When Mr. Graham was advising Mr. Sinclair, he found a coziness between the chief and board that he’d observed in countless other small and medium-sized communities.

“They begin to rely on the chief for administrative support even though the chief is their employee,” he said. In Thunder Bay, he said, the relationship took on the atmosphere of a country club.

Legislation exists to address some of these pitfalls, but it has stalled at the implementation phase. The Ford government passed a new police act in 2019 (which was almost identical to the one created late in the previous Liberal term) that mandates board training on human rights, systemic racism, legislative duties, multiculturalism and Indigenous rights.

That same legislation dissolves the Ontario Civilian Police Commission, the agency currently investigating Thunder Bay’s police brass, and replaces it with an Inspector-General responsible for monitoring, inspecting and disciplining police boards and departments.

Three years after passing it, however, the government has yet to bring the new legislation into force.

But board reform means little without changes to front-line policing. A 2018 report called Broken Trust from the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), which oversees police complaints in the province, found a profound lack of expertise and experience among some Thunder Bay officers working on death investigations. The report also found a fractured relationship between the police and Indigenous residents.

Current OIPRD director Stephen Leach said it’s clear that no trust has been re-established between the police and community, the overarching point of the Broken Trust investigation.

“In fact, more and more information is coming out that reinforces the original findings of Broken Trust,” he said about the latest reports and findings of deficient policing.

Former Edmonton police chief Dave Cassels says gaps in officer training could be fixed with the formation of a national regulatory college for police, along the lines of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, that would set training standards for every officer in the country.

“Thunder Bay shows how there is little effort to focus the police curriculum on understanding racism, personal bias, mental illness, de-escalation, Indigenous colonization, peacekeeping,” said Mr. Cassels, co-founder of the Coalition for Canadian Police Reform. “There is a clear, indisputable pattern of violence and systemic racism against First Nations people in the city. And it’s heartbreaking to think about because there are solutions.”

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