By Morgana Adby
The Ottawa Police Services Board continues to be a site of considerable conflict in 2022. In January, residents and board members sparred over their dueling interpretations of the right to ask questions at board meetings. Soon after, the whole board was replaced in the wake of the so-called Freedom Convoy in February.
The spat over the the right venue to ask questions
The police board oversees the police service and reports to city council and the province. In principle, it is the main way the public can hold the police accountable, since it holds monthly public meetings and is made up of elected city councillors and appointed community representatives. (For a deep dive into the other main mechanism for police accountability available to the public, the complaints process, see our article “Nothing But Dead Ends.”)
At the January 24 Ottawa Police Services Board (OPSB) meeting, the board accepted a report that recommended the OPSB establish community roundtables for deliberating contentious issues. Meanwhile, a proposed bylaw amendment that states board members will not answer community member’s questions at meetings concerned activist groups like Horizon Ottawa. Councillor Diane Deans, then the board chair, said Horizon Ottawa “misrepresented” the amendment on social media.
The board contracted two consulting firms, Public Affairs and Community Engagement (PACE) and Middle Ground Policy Research, to write a report, which recommended separate spaces for public consultation and for the OPSB to deliberate with residents.
According to Councillor Diane Deans, then the chair of the OPSB, policy never allowed for a back-and-forth questions or discussion between community members and the board. She said the purpose of public delegations is exclusively for the board to listen to relevant information from community members, to inform how the board conducts business. This narrow form of communication is what the PACE report refers to as “consultation.”
However, community members have demanded answers and accountability at board meetings since at least November 2020, when community pressure to defund the Ottawa police began in earnest. So the PACE report recommended the board create a space that is exclusively dedicated to back-and-forth dialogue, questions, and deliberation.
The community seems determined to keep asking tough questions at any venue, even if the OPS and police board might want to control when and how they respond to their critics.
The report recommends deliberation roundtables to discuss contentious issues, with the OPSB meetings reserved for consultation. The new process would require the board to write a response to what the community discusses at roundtables within 90 days. Deans said that she intended to implement the recommended roundtables “early this year.”
The board submitted the PACE report to the Policy and Governance Committee of the OSPB for implementation.
This seemed to please at least one community member. Jack Bellmare is a resident who has attended numerous police board meetings. During the January 24 OPSB meeting, Bellmare said he was “struck by the quality” of the PACE report and recommendations. Bellemare said more “evidence of significant listening” would temper residents’ radical demands, like defunding or abolishing the Ottawa Police Service (OPS) altogether.
He urged the board to take action that would demonstrate they have heard the community demands for accountability. For Bellemare, this would look like firing notable police officers accused of criminal acts. He said most police do not engage in criminal activity, but there remain “dozens” of accused officers in the OPS.
“You would mollify a lot of community advocates if you just fired Abdirahman Abdi’s killer,” Bellemare said. The board noted that under the Provincial Police Act, they do not have jurisdiction to fire individual officers. Despite assertions that back-and-forth dialogues are disallowed, the board sometimes responded to what residents said.
The PACE report notes that some community members were concerned that roundtables would become “just another committee” that could be ignored at the whim of the OSPB. Until the process is established, it is impossible to know if the board will substantively respond to the concerns which arise at the community roundtables. Residents have continued to ask questions at OSPB meetings. Advocates like Robin Browne experienced opaque access to information on the OPS through other channels of communication.
Browne, co-founder of 613-819 Black Hub, said OPS is “actively hiding data they don’t like.” When he tried to retrieve use of force data aggregated by racialization from the Ottawa police, he was sent to a provincial ministry – who forwarded his request back to the Ottawa police. The ministry told Browne the data was “in [the OPS’s] custody and control,” he said.
Browne said the lack of data transparency at the OPS continues to erode trust. This is a common refrain — transparency at the OPS and OPSB has been an ongoing concern for many community activists. Peter Sloly, then the Chief of Police, later said the data for 2020 would be given to the board in February.
When Horizon Ottawa member Sam Hersh heard about the proposed bylaw change to how the OPSB hears public delegations, he spread the word. He said it would “stifle democracy” on social media and through a Horizon Ottawa press release.
At the meeting, Deans said Hersh misrepresented what the bylaw would do, because public delegations at the OPSB are already not allowed to direct questions to the board. The bylaw change is not substantive and is only to provide additional clarity, Deans said.
The draft amendment to bylaw three (31) of the board’s procedure states that community members cannot direct questions to members of the board or police officers at board meetings. The bylaw text did not address the question of questions before this proposed change.
Deans said is the only change from the status quo was the bylaw amendment would change the deadline to register to speak at a meeting. Before the bylaw change, community members could register to speak anytime before 4 p.m. on the day of an OPSB meeting. With this bylaw change, community members would have to register by noon on the day of an OPSB meeting.
If Deans is correct about questions currently not being allowed at board meetings, Hersh said, the board should change the policy to allow questions. He added that community members should have a right to ask about the money the OSPB allocates for tasers and why police are still in schools after the school resource officer was abolished.
Without the public seeking answers at board meetings, the OPS would not be held accountable, Hersh said. “This is not railroading. It is democracy, and democracy takes time.”
Deans told to Hersh that he, “of all people should know,” that every committee under the city of Ottawa has the same rules, because he has worked for two councilors in the past.
“You suggested in a press release, to the public this week, that we are making an administrative change that is limiting and eroding your ability to address the board. That was factually incorrect,” she said.
Deans also told Hersh that if he sent her a question, she would find an answer to provide him. “You have to keep it real Sam, and you have to not make the impression that the board is taking away some right of the public,” Deans said.
Deans said the board will decide how to proceed with the bylaw amendment during the February 28 meeting. After some significant developments at city council, the February 28 meeting was cancelled by Councillor Eli El-Chantiry’s new leadership.
Heads roll at the Ottawa Police Service Board
From January 28 to February 16, the so-called Freedom Convoy occupation of Ottawa’s downtown core significantly disrupted residents’ lives — and the OPS and OPSB. In response to residents’ frustration with the apparent lack of a police response, Chief of Police Sloly resigned on February 15. Sloly was Ottawa’s first Black Chief of Police.
During a police board special meeting on February 15, Deans announced that Deputy Chief of Police Steve Bell would take over as interim Chief of Police. She did not explain the reasons behind the change in leadership because the resignation was a “labour relations matter.”
The February 16 city council meeting completely changed the OPSB. As Councillor Scott Moffatt put forward a motion to boot Deans from her position as chair of the OPSB, Councillor Rawlson King resigned to protest her removal. King was the first Black member of the OPSB. (Citizen board member Sandy Smallwood also resigned.)
King said Deans was committed to progressive change within the structural limits of the OPSB’s power and that he was proud to take on difficult work under her leadership. “Since the mayor has a different vision for police governance in this city, I will be tendering my resignation forthwith,” King said.
The city councillors voted 15-9 to replace Deans with El-Chantiry, an ally of Mayor Jim Watson who had previously chaired the board. Deans and several other councillors who have clashed with Watson expressed confidence he was behind Moffat’s motion, with Deans calling it “ugly dirty politics” and Somerset councillor Catherine McKenney calling it a “power grab by this mayor” during the long and rancorous council meeting. Under Deans, the board had just decided to hire a new interim chief from outside the OPS, something Watson criticized as furthering instability at the OPS rather than calming it.
Under the motion, Councillor Carol Anne Meehan also faced a vote to lose her seat as OPSB member. After the city council voted to keep Meehan on by 13-11, she still resigned in solidarity with Deans and King.
(An interpolation from your friendly neighbourhood Leveller editor: Meehan likely survived the vote due to distaste for her proposed replacement, Jan Harder. Harder, another Watson ally, resigned from the Planning Committee last year in the wake of a report by the city’s Integrity Commissioner which concluded Harder had “tainted the City’s planning and development process” with inappropriate business relationships that were first revealed in a Leveller article. Shortly before the vote, Councillor Sean Menard also read racist comments Harder had made in the past and asked her “Why do you want to be on the police board and how will you tackle systemic racism?” This question went unanswered, in part because Mayor Watson immediately intervened to point that Harder was procedurally “under no obligation to reply.”)
Since the members of the OPSB changed so significantly during this February 16 council meeting, the board announced that its February 28 meeting was cancelled. Instead, the board held a special meeting on February 24 for the OPS to brief the board about the police response to the so-called Freedom Convoy. This special meeting did not accept any public delegations. There is not yet a public agenda for the next regular meeting on March 28.
A case study in change-making: Asilu Collective and the SRO program
As the police board and community activists continue to clash over the appropriate venue to ask questions, the end of the School Resource Officer (SRO) program is a case study on how advocates have changed the Ottawa police. Before it was gutted, the SRO program assigned a police officer to each school as a contact.
Asilu Collective took the lead in advocating for the SRO program to end. They produced a qualitative report on student’s experiences with the SRO program. Their surveys found that many students felt uncomfortable with the program and observed alleged racial profiling. Asilu focussed on pressuring the school board even as they supported other organizations, like Horizon Ottawa and the Coalition Against More Surveillance, when they called for delegations to the police board.
This paid off when the Ottawa-Carleton school district board formally disengaged from the SRO program last June. Then the OPS discontinued the program altogether.
And yet, Hailey Dash, co-founder of the community organization Asilu Collective, said that since the program ended, police are still intervening in “trivial” matters at schools to surveil and criminalize students.
Dash said that “inappropriate collaboration” between individual school administrators and police has intensified since the SRO program ended.
“The schools were left with all these conflicts they are not used to dealing with, and they had no support system.” Dash added, “They just lost this intimidating person who was, by default, dealing with a lot of the conflict. Now they do not know how to appropriately respond to it.”
Groups who advocated against police in schools also wanted to see the reallocation of the $3.69 million for SROs in the 2021 OPS budget. Dash said this money was not put towards alternative methods of controlling conflict, such as mental health and peer support programs.
Dash said that Asilu Collective will continue to advocate for students experiencing surveillance, racial profiling, and criminalization in schools. The community seems determined to keep asking tough questions at any venue, even if the OPS and police board might want to control when and how they respond to their critics.