Dr. Shelina Musaji of West Kootenay People for Racial Justice. Photo: Mike Graeme

Dr. Shelina Musaji of West Kootenay People for Racial Justice. Photo: Mike Graeme

Nelson group ‘cautiously optimistic’ about Police Act recommendations

The West Kootenay People for Racial Justice, Nelson’s police chief and mayor respond to the report

A Nelson group calling for changes to how police interact with Indigenous, Black and people of colour says it is buoyed by proposed changes to the provincial Police Act.

Last month, an all-party committee of MLAs released 11 recommended changes to the act meant to address issues including systemic racism, decolonization and how officers respond to mental health calls.

Dr. Shelina Musaji of the West Kootenay People for Racial Justice (WKPRJ), which were invited to make a presentation to the committee in July 2021, said the group feels the recommendations will result in impactful changes.

“I think overall most of us feel that it’s ambitious and promising and that we’re cautiously optimistic and encouraged,” said Musaji.

“But we really want to see that there’s actual clear and rapid implementation of most of these recommendations, and that there’s real change.”

The provincial government was spurred to review the 26-year-old Police Act in 2020 following Black Lives Matter protests as well as the RCMP’s criticized enforcement of opposition to a natural gas pipeline in Wet’suwet’en territory.

Several of the recommendations made by WKPRJ, such as the decriminalization of sex work and a ban on lethal force by police, were not included in the final report. But the group is still encouraged by what is being recommended.

They have previously lobbied for changes to how complaints are made about police conduct. In B.C., oversight is split up by the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, the Independent Investigations Office of BC, and the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP.

Musaji said the recommended establishment of a civilian-led agency that would review all complaints independent of RCMP and municipal departments, for example, would be an important addition.

“I think there’s hope. I think that’s one thing that we’re glad they did listen to a lot of people, to us included, and there’s quite a few recommendations in there that are quite hopeful.”

Nelson Police Department Chief Donovan Fisher said he isn’t opposed to the recommended changes and believes most departments would welcome them. But he also expressed concern about the cost of implementing the report.

One of the recommendations, for example, includes a proposed funding model that calls for increases to the municipal shares of policing expenses. Fisher said that would be unrealistic for the 11 B.C. cities including Nelson that have their own city departments independent of the RCMP.

“I wouldn’t be supportive of reallocating or moving money from police budget lines until these programs are set up and running and proven effective.”

The highlight recommendation in the report suggests the creation of a provincial police force, such as those in Ontario and Quebec, that would replace the RCMP.

Fisher, who joined the department in March 2021 after 25 years with the RCMP in Saskatchewan, said he doesn’t believe a change in uniforms will address issues like the difficulty in staffing small detachments.

Starting over from scratch, he said, will be expensive and may also not include federal funding.

“This seems like it’s going to increase costs to the province on the policing front and does nothing to address some of the other initiatives and things that are talked about in this document.”

Mental health, meanwhile, is a reoccurring topic in the report, which calls for a focus on appropriate first response on calls that may not require police officers.

In 2020, 12 per cent of calls to NPD were related to mental health. Fisher has said in the past he believes law enforcement must work side-by-side with health and social services, and that the majority of calls are handled well by his officers.

He agrees police aren’t always ideal responders to mental health calls, but he also doubts that will change in the near future.

“If we can somehow come up with a practical and affordable program where mental health professionals are able to take on more of these calls, or at least be able to assist with the calls, which I think would be a monumental step on its own, then I would be all for it,” said Fisher.

“But as it stands, I don’t see an alternative to police continuing to do those calls.”

What role the city should play on police boards is also brought into question by the report.

One of the recommendations suggests not allowing mayors to serve as board chairs while also ensuring city council representation.

Mayor John Dooley, who chairs the Nelson Police Board, said he’s open to having an officer or civilian take on the role. But he also thinks the current system is working.

Dooley is also skeptical that a revised Police Act will bring meaningful change to law enforcement in B.C.

“At the end of the day, policing is a very cut and dry profession,” he said. “If you’re looking for a kinder, gentler police force, I don’t know if you’re going to accomplish that through the Police Act. There’s a lot conversations that need to be had that a Police Act is not going to cure.”

Public safety minister Mike Farnworth has said public consultations on the report’s recommendations will begin this summer. To read the complete report, click here.