A consultant’s report into police staffing in Nelson has finally been made public, revealing the divide in thinking between city council and the police board.
In March, the provincial director of police services decided the City of Nelson and its police board must hire one more officer and one more administrative position. Last week the city and police board released the text of Clayton Pecknold’s decision, along with related documents: the consultant’s report that informed the decision, and two submissions from the City of Nelson, all written in the fall of 2015.
Those documents, totalling 85 pages, are attached at the bottom of this story.
Two years ago, the police department asked the city for a $311,000 increase to cover the cost of two additional officers and an administrator for the Nelson Police Department, but council declined. The police board then appealed to the provincial director of police services, who has the power to investigate and declare the minimum number of officers required in Nelson.
In his decision, in addition to mandating the new hiring, Pecknold ordered that a review of the department’s service delivery structure be carried out and completed by November of this year.
The consultant Pecknold hired to look into the situation was retired police chief Peter Lepine, whose report outlines a number of gaps in service, including:
• Nelson police respond to an inordinate and increasing number of non-criminal matters including mental health calls, threatening the police’s ability to deal with criminal matters. Lepine writes that the province and Interior Health Authority, with jurisdiction over mental health issues, are seen as unwilling to take over this non-police work.
Lepine twice refers to a social service “industry” in Nelson.
His report states the police board told him it “is aware of the city’s desire to expand the social service industry within the City of Nelson beyond what exists today. The large number of agencies offering services in such a concentrated location will naturally attract clients who will avail themselves of these services.”
Lepine concludes “with council’s continued support to expand services to this vulnerable sector group, it is highly likely that the Nelson Police Department will be required to expend even further resources in reacting to call for service in this area.” In its submissions, Nelson council denies it wants to create such an industry.
• The Nelson Police Department isn’t doing enough traffic patrol work and lacks a dedicated traffic unit.
• Other “proactive policing strategies” the department fails to do for lack of staffing are community policing including schools programs, focusing on high-volume offenders, focusing on “crime and disorder hotspots,” placing a beat cop downtown, and developing and implementing a crime reduction policy. Lepine suggests the use of staff hours to do mental health policing is largely responsible for the failure in these other areas.
• The Nelson police operate Corrections BC’s jail facility and remand centre. Lepine writes that police staffing levels don’t allow adequate supervision of prisoners and are therefore a risk, straining resources.
• The Nelson police administer bylaw enforcement and employ bylaw officers, another strain on resources.
• The Nelson police consistently use overtime to accommodate required staff training, placing a strain on officers, and provide inadequate training in some areas.
Lepine looked at staffing statistics for 14 police forces with populations similar to Nelson, some municipal and some RCMP, and concluded that Nelson sits close to the average in terms of officer numbers, crime rate, case load, and population per officer, and that an additional two officers wouldn’t change that. It would, however, improve the department’s functioning, he wrote.
Nelson city council, in its submissions to Pecknold, argued the review of the department that Lepine recommended should have taken place before the director got involved.
The city’s submitted arguments include:
• The requested two additional policing staff and administrative person would mean a four to five per cent tax increase. (A one per cent tax increase raises $75,000 annually in Nelson.)
• “Council has reviewed the level of policing in similar-sized jurisdictions in BC,” they wrote. “In every metric that council has reviewed, Nelson’s current staffing levels meet or exceed those of other jurisdictions … Nelson is unique in being the only independent municipal police department in a community of less than 15,000 residents. The comparitor communities are therefore all RCMP jurisdictions.”
• Staff shortages at the Nelson police in the past few years have been due to injuries, illness, and one officer being on administrative duty, resulting in staffing as low as 13 officers in a force of 17. Staffing is now at its full complement of 17 for the first time in several years.
• Nelson council now has three initiatives underway to deal with mental health issues, namely the street culture collective, Nelson at its Best, and a new agreement with Kootenay Lake Hospital to minimize wait times for police officers.
“Even though they are in their infancy, they are aimed at addressing the real issues and taking pressure off our police officers as default responders,” council said in its submission.
• Council agreed with Lepine that a review should look at more collaboration between the Nelson police and RCMP.
“Council does not think the status quo is an option,” they wrote. “Policing is becoming more and more complex. Continuing to add more officers is not the solution nor it is sustainable.”
• Council agreed the issues of the jail and bylaw enforcement would be appropriate subjects for a review and questioned why the police board itself didn’t address the issues and why the province saw fit to mandate new hiring before such a review.
• Council challenged the appropriateness of Pecknold getting involved in the matter at all: “Council is ultimately the voice of the community and should be the level of government that sets service levels in the community. It should be in only extraordinary circumstances that the province should step into council’s role.”
Pecknold, in his written decision, essentially agreed with Lepine and disagreed with the city on most matters, but compromised and mandated only one police officer and an administrator be hired, not two officers as requested by the police board.
He rejected most of the statistical comparisons to other communities made by both Lepine and council, stating that comparisons between municipal police forces and the RCMP and between urban and rural areas aren’t meaningful.
Pecknold concluded there must be a made-in-Nelson solution based on the upcoming mandated review of the department’s function, to be carried out by the police chief. He said the report should address the gaps Lepine identified.
Pecknold also said for things to improve, city council and the police board have to get along and must do a better job of communicating with each other.
“There is some reason to believe that in the months leading to this matter coming before me, that relationship was strained,” he wrote.