Let's lift the veil of police board secrecy

By Stanley Tromp, editorial, Vancouver Sun, 13 Dec. 2005



Police boards were established in British Columbia in 1893 on the basic principle that appointed civilians and elected officials -- not the police -- should guide policing policy, as well as seek the views of the community and report back to it on crime and security issues.

Police openness fosters public trust, while secrecy can foster fear and suspicion.

Under section 69 of the Police Act, the Vancouver Police Board must hold all meetings in public, with only four topics the board "may" (not must) place in closed sessions.

These arise when disclosure could "seriously impair" (not slightly impair) security or law enforcement; matters of a person's personal or financial affairs (and only if this person's interest outweighs the public interest); labour negotiations and management; or information that a person requested he or she could present to the board in private. Nothing else.

But for years, as far back as I know of, the VPB has been discussing many other items in closed meetings, in apparent breach of the Police Act: Its budget and finances, amendments to the police procedures manual, a briefing on the public complaint process, private vehicles used on department business, time allowance for meals, monthly statistical reports, aboriginal hiring, Justice Wally Oppal's diversity issues report, a laundry contract report, the purchase of portable radios, VPD policy on striking people's knees, the board's own code of ethics, agenda calendar, public relations policies, and so on.

Legality aside, there is a question of common sense: What real need is there to discuss all these topics in secret?

These problems were confirmed two years ago in a valuable 200 page report by the B.C. Justice Institute on police board management (www.pssg.gov.bc.ca/police_services/publications/index.htm ).

It said, "A significant number of police board members [and police union officials] expressed concern over the tendency to shift more and more discussion to in camera sessions. This seeming lack of transparency does little to build public confidence in the governance process . . . . Unfortunately, not all boards appear to be following the legislation in terms of what they move to in camera meetings."

The report added that "several [B.C. police] board members observed that their public meetings are carefully scripted and that the real discussion takes place in camera."

The police may object that some subjects beyond those prescribed in the Police Act are too risky to publicly disclose. For example, at its in camera meeting on June 15, the board "received a briefing on the recruitment of schoolchildren into the sex trade." Yet parents have an urgent need and right to know about this tragedy, promptly.

There is a solution: Carefully separate the matter into public and private sessions, rather as courts do in their procedures. First, in the public session, the VPB and public can be briefed on the scope of the problem in general terms. Then, in private session, other parts that are truly confidential could be discussed, such as undercover methods or identified suspects and victims.

We can disregard government's complaints that dividing a topic so would entail too much "labour," because if one asked for written records on that matter through an FOI request, the VPB (as it routinely does) would separate and white-out the exempt portions from the non-exempt and send the latter to the applicant; the same principle can be applied to oral presentations, which are often read aloud from a text anyway. The publication of more topics might even assist the police, if citizens read of the subjects and step forward with new information.

For five years, I have made Freedom of Information Act requests to the VPB for minutes of its lengthy in camera sessions, and received almost nothing in return. Yet in partial reply, last June the board began posting headings of its in camera meeting topics and decisions on its internet page (www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/police/ policeboard/MeetingMinutes.htm), which is a good start.

There is another quandary of public access. Most VPB meetings occur in police headquarters at 2120 Cambie Street, where all visitors must sign in and wear tags, then be escorted by armed police up an elevator to the seventh floor, then down a corridor to a small boardroom with too few chairs.

"By making visitor badges mandatory, the message, 'you don't belong here' is subtly conveyed," the Justice Institute report said. "For some community members, including some new Canadians, the very act of entering a police building is unnerving." The report urged boards to hold most meetings offsite.

As well, most of the public seem unaware of when meetings are held; the VPB needs to advertise widely, such as in the free community events listings of various local media, and in various languages. Most B.C. police board members said they thought their work is mainly invisible to the community, the Justice Institute report noted.

It praised the VPB's website, but also advised the board to issue a public annual report of its work, and invite more public submissions.

We regrettably recall the style of former VPB chair, mayor Larry Campbell, a former RCMP officer, who forbade any board member but himself to speak to the media, and at one recent meeting (in full Da Vinci’s Inquest mode) called reporters "sharks" and expelled them from the room after 20 minutes.

It is to be hoped that the new mayor, Sam Sullivan, who doubles as the de facto VPB chair, will be the new broom that sweeps clean, will set a good tone for the rest of his term, and will open the board more to the public in his first meeting on Wednesday.



P.S. Ten years after this editorial, I noted a hopeful sign in my book The Vanishing Record, on needed reforms to the B.C. Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.  http://www.canadafoi.ca/thevanishingrecord.pdf

“B.C. FOIPP Act Section 12 exempts the “substance of deliberations” of local public bodies, but here, unlike with cabinet, it is hopeful to see that progress is possible, as the following example will attest.

“In 1999, I made a request to the Vancouver Police Board for the agenda and minutes of its in-camera meetings. It was denied in full, with the Section 12 “substance of deliberations” claim. I appealed, and in Order 00-14, the Commissioner rejected the VPB’s claim and ordered many of the records opened, including agenda headings. The Board later explained that it had inherited its traditions on meetings from years past, and had simply followed them without reflection.

“Then, after its careful consideration of the Order, everything changed. Fewer issues were placed into closed session discussions and more into open meetings, and today the Board even proactively posts portions of all its closed meeting agendas online. I have never before in B.C. seen such a major reversal in attitude and practice on an FOI issue than this - one that I wish all public bodies would follow.”

-       S. Tromp