Cop confidential

Why is so much of the city’s police budget discussion happening behind closed doors? We can’t say…

The blue crest for Halifax Regional Police

What really goes on behind closed doors?

Do those doors need to be closed?

Does the Halifax Regional Police need more money to do its job properly?

Those, of course, are different questions, but it’s hard to answer either of the last two without knowing what happened in the first. What “disturbing facts” — as Coun. Tim Outhit described them — did Police Chief Dan Kinsella privately share during recent separate in-camera meetings with members of council and its board of police commissioners?

We do know the chief is asking, among other asks, for 26 new sworn officers and 10 more civilians, all of it adding up to $2 million more than the nearly $89 million we shelled out for HRP last year. Which was $2.5 million more than the year before that.

(A digression: how is it that, more than three years after legalizing cannabis, and at least year filled with discussions about how to transfer responsibilities for dealing with social problems from police, we’re still talking about more and more money for policing? But I digress…)

We also know, thanks to my colleague, the indefatigable Zane Woodford, that members of the public, who spoke about the police request — 24 during a board of police commissioners’ meeting on February 1, 20 during council budget committee meetings last week — were almost unanimous in their opposition to any increase:

Numerous speakers cited the conduct of police on August 18, 2021, when they arrested and pepper sprayed protesters outside the Halifax Memorial Library as city staff evicted unhoused people from makeshift shelters. They cited the Wortley report that found Black people were six times more likely than white people to be street checked in Halifax. They cited the many instances of police violence against Black people in the city, like Demario Chambers and Santina Rao.

The speakers argued the municipality should heed the recommendations from El Jones’ Subcommittee to Define Defunding the Police. That subcommittee’s report, tabled in January, recommended better oversight, “detasking” the police from some of their duties, and increasing spending on social programs including affordable housing.

After the public speakers made their case, the committee heard Kinsella’s. The chief argued there were “unique complexities” to policing in Halifax, and that the force needs more resources to keep up with the growing population…

Kinsella offered to give councillors more detail in camera — that is, out of public view. The police board got the same in-camera presentation at its meeting, lasting about an hour, and then voted in favour of Kinsella’s request.

We don’t know what Kinsella said in those in-camera sessions.

We do know, however, that after his one-hour private briefing for the board of police commissioners, its members voted 4–3 to give the chief everything he asked for.

And we know too that, after two-and-a-half hours’ worth of behind-closed-door sessions with Kinsella, the council’s budget committee (which is to say all of the council, including Mayor Savage) voted 9–8 in favour of a motion by Coun. Tony Mancini to fund at least part of the chief’s wish list — “12 new patrol constables, one new ‘member reintegration’ constable, and four of the requested emergency response (911) communicators.”

(In reality, of course, council has no control over how the chief would actually allocate Mancini’s proposed $1,393,850 sweetener. But whatever.)

So it goes.

Where does that leave us? Nowhere, really.

We still don’t know why the views expressed by the public at the meetings or in the report of the subcommittee to define defunding the police seemed to count for so little when the votes were cast.

And we still don’t know what really went on behind those closed doors.

During last week’s meeting, the municipal solicitor, John Traves, outlined some of the city charter’s justifications for council to meet in camera: “personnel matters, labour relations, contract negotiations, litigation or potential litigation, legal advice eligible for solicitor-client privilege, public security, and more.”

None was cited as the reason for going dark on these discussions. As Woodford notes, “it’s uncommon for councillors to hold in-camera sessions during budget deliberations.”

Coun. Becky Kent, who also serves on the police commission, said she felt she couldn’t deny the chief’s request to speak to councillors away from the prying ears of the public:

I would like to have the other councillors hear what [the board of police commissioners heard] so they can have the full context of the decisions that were made at and being considered for approving the budget at the time as a board member.

What was it she wanted her fellow councillors — but not the public — to hear?

I’m very, very, very serious and concerned about our staffing issues in relation to the health of our serving members … I can’t ignore it.

And I’m also very, very serious and cognizant of the work we have to do going forward to bring about change, creating a plan for re-tasking, whatever that might look like.

“Creating a plan for re-tasking” seems exactly the sort of issue that should be discussed in public.

While “staffing issues in relation to the health of our serving members” may fall under the “personnel matters” justification for in-camera meetings, should the chief be discussing the cases of individual police officers in a budget committee meeting? If the health issues are widespread, shouldn’t that also be part of the public discussion?

And should such discussions really occupy two and a half hours of in-camera meeting time? With no accounting after?

As is usual, nothing has been settled. Zane Woodford again:

That means the budget is back to the board of police commissioners. The board may recommend a different figure, or a different use of the money. It has a meeting scheduled for Monday, and the debate could happen then, or at a future meeting.

After the board votes in favour of a budget recommendation, it will come back to council for a final vote, or potentially to be sent back down to the board for further revision. Chief financial officer Jerry Blackwood said that process would ideally be complete before March 15.

It ain’t over ’til it’s over.


A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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