Report on struggling Thunder Bay police board brings hope but also doubts amid warning change that will take time

Community leaders and stakeholders in Thunder Bay, Ont., say they are carefully watching the police department’s next steps following a major report tabled with the police oversight board on Thursday evening.

The report, written by a nine-member panel of experts over a year, calls for urgent and transformative action, saying “the status quo and quick fixes are no longer tenable”. It built on hundreds of recommendations previously issued to the Thunder Bay Police Service (TBPS) and the Thunder Bay Police Services Board (TBPSB), with their implementation “patchy” at best.

“This report shows how the leadership of this service continues to refuse to accept responsibility for its failures and shows no signs of change,” Deputy Grand Chief Anna Betty Achneepineskum of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation said in a press release.

Achneepineskum previously called for the TBPS to lose its powers to investigate major criminal cases in the city and for the service to be disbanded.

“The path forward for real change must begin with remorse and acceptance of responsibility. It is critical that TBPS senior management and the Board of Directors acknowledge the expert panel’s warning that they will not can no longer continue with the status quo,” Achneepineskum said.

WATCH | CBC’s Logan Turner speaks with Alok Mukherjee, chair of the police commission’s panel:

Police report touted as ‘road map for real change’ in Thunder Bay. But will it make a difference?

The expert panel created to make recommendations on transforming policing in Thunder Bay, Ontario, has released its final report. Board Chairman Alok Mukherjee sits down with CBC’s Logan Turner to explain the work that has been done and where it goes from here.

The 200-page report – which the panel calls a “roadmap to real change” – included 10 measures, such as developing a regional police model, adding a new deputy chief to oversee Indigenous relations and the improvement of labor relations and outstanding human rights complaints.

It also calls on the governments of Ontario and the federal government to come to the table and provide resources to improve the quality of policing and community well-being in Thunder Bay.

“Inadequate investigations, mismanagement of cases and failure to address pressing issues are not the result of underfunding; they are a failure of leadership,” Achneepineskum said.

“Without leaders accepting responsibility, it is impossible to expect that serious issues such as systemic racism can even begin to be resolved.”

“Enormous challenges” to bring about real change

The Independent Panel was established in March 2022 amid reports of low officer morale, human rights abuses and investigations into criminal misconduct by officers and leaders of strength.

Shortly after the commission was formed, a leaked confidential report detailed serious flaws in Indigenous sudden death investigations in Thunder Bay and called for the reinvestigation of 14 cases, some dating back to 2019.

While the report points out that long-overdue changes are needed, members of the police commission and its governance committee are already warning that it could take time.

“Community members have to understand the balance between actually doing real things and believing that we can do anything right now,” Malcolm Mercer, the board administrator, said in an interview with CBC News after the filing. of the report on Thursday.

Two men are sitting in front of microphones and talking during a conference.
Malcolm Mercer, left, is the Provincially Appointed Administrator of the Thunder Bay Police Services Board (TBPSB). He is shown at a special board meeting about a new report released on Thursday that offers a way forward after more than a year of turmoil. (Marc Doucette/CBC News)

The Ontario Civilian Commission on Police (OCPC), a provincial oversight body, appointed Mercer as a director of the council in April 2022, and oversees and holds the exclusive vote on all council functions.

His appointment, which runs until July before he moves into an observer role until at least the end of March 2024, came amid an emergency in terms of oversight of the board of directors of Thunder Bay Police.

“In Canada, we have enormous challenges that result from generations of past and ongoing multi-generational trauma for individuals and communities,” Mercer said.

“Reversing this within the next two years would be a foolish goal, but not starting to do this work would be equally wrong.”

Karen Machado is one of six people on the Board’s Governance Committee responsible for reviewing and responding to the report. The province appointed her to a three-year term on the board in January.

“We have a lot of work to do, but I think it’s very important work,” Machado told CBC News. “It won’t happen overnight, but I know we’re very committed to getting the job done and reviewing it, prioritizing.”

First Nations leaders want to see action

Some First Nations leaders representing Thunder Bay residents say they are cautiously optimistic about the report.

“I think these recommendations are timely, but there definitely needs to be follow-up,” said Melvin Hardy, Deputy Grand Chief of the Anishinabek Nation for the Northern Superior Region.

He previously joined Achneepineskum in calling on the TBPS to lose its powers to investigate major criminal cases following a leaked report calling for the reopening of an investigation into 14 sudden death cases involving Indigenous.

Hardy, as well as David Paul Achneepineskum, both said they were happy with some recent developments. Achneepineskum represents nine regional First Nations as Chief of Management for Matawa First Nations and sits on the Police Board Governance Committee,

These developments include the appointment of two First Nations women to the board and the recent hiring of senior RCMP officer Darcy Fleury as the new TBPS Chief of Police. Fleury, who is Métis, will begin a month-long transition period on April 17 before being sworn in on May 15.

Human rights complaints have yet to be resolved

Fleury will begin a month-long transition period on April 17 before being sworn in on May 15.

He has a heavy task ahead of him as the report of the panel of experts issued a large number of measures to be taken in the chief’s office.

One of those recommendations is that the new police chief immediately address the growing human rights complaints and retaliation and address the issues urgently “to restore peace in the workplace.”

Chantelle Bryson is a Thunder Bay lawyer who represents more than a dozen current and former officers, civilian employees and community members who have filed human rights complaints. She welcomed the feeling of quickly resolving human rights issues, but thinks the recommendation is directed at the wrong person.

A woman wearing a black blazer looks at the camera.
Chantelle Bryson is a human rights lawyer based in Thunder Bay. She represents more than a dozen officers and civilians who have filed human rights complaints against TBPS. (Submitted by Chantelle Bryson)

“The Chief has no authority under the Police Services Act to resolve these complaints and I highly doubt he has the time, while running a police service, to engage in such a process,” she told CBC News.

Bryson said it is the police commission, as the employer, that needs to take a more active role in addressing alleged human rights abuses.

“We are going to be proactive. We will submit very detailed offers and substantiated calculations to the board once they are [regain their voting rights] on July 1 and explain our thoughts on the resolution,” Bryson said.

Ask the province and Ottawa to come to the table

One of the key findings of the panel’s report is that the provincial and federal governments support and help fund the transformative changes needed in Thunder Bay.

This recommendation has been echoed by other recent police reviews and commissions, such as the Mass Casualty Report examining the RCMP’s role in the Nova Scotia murder response and the Rouleau Inquiry into the Urgency of Law and Order. public around the Freedom Convoy protests in Ottawa, said Michael Kempa, a criminologist at the University of Ottawa who focuses on police governance.

“Most of these reforms aren’t rocket science. They’re very well-established, empirically-based recommendations for police reform,” Kempa told CBC News.

“It’s more about the will and the skill to implement these reforms…and we have now seen the catastrophic consequences that come from inaction.”

A spokesperson for Ontario’s Solicitor General told CBC News that the ministry is reviewing the report and “will carefully assess the recommendations.”

Patty Hajdu, Federal Minister of Indigenous Services and Member of Parliament for Thunder Bay-Superior North, said in a statement to CBC News, “This report clearly shows that much more needs to be done, and much faster…it’s time for all the parties do. this important and long overdue work.”

A spokesperson for Marco Mendicino, federal Minister of Public Safety, added that the government continues to work to improve and expand Indigenous policing, and will work closely with all parties. on the issues raised by the group’s final report.

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