Fail to the chief

On November 29, 2019, just five months into his new job, Halifax police chief Dan Kinsella stood before an audience of the city’s Black community at the Halifax Central Library, bemedaled in his dress blues, and offered an historic apology.

Far too many times we have failed you. I acknowledge the community’s concerns that the actions of police have had a negative and deep impact on generations of the African Nova Scotian community and disproportionately on young black men.

On behalf of the Halifax regional police, I am sorry. I am sorry for our actions that have caused you pain. I am sorry for all of the times you were mistreated, victimized and revictimized.

While decades of injustices cannot be undone, we are committed to doing better moving forward.

It was the pinnacle of Kinsella’s four-year stint as Halifax’s top cop. It ended with a whimper last week in a news release issued just before the September 6 meeting of the Board of Police Commissioners. Kinsella announced his last day on the job would arrive less than 10 days later, on September 15, 2023.

Ironically, Kinsella’s highlight-reel apology was probably one reason for his undoing.

But only one. Among many.

There were those, like activist and columnist El Jones, who noted at the time of his police checks wea culpa that Kinsella hadn’t apologized for racial profiling by the Hamilton, Ontario, police force when he was its deputy chief before his Halifax appointment and wasn’t even the Halifax chief when the province ordered a moratorium on street checks here. She rightly questioned the sincerity of his apology.

We are therefore receiving a belated apology from a force that declined to apologize even when requested to do so by the Police Commission, and agreed only after their position was made untenable by the opinion of a white former Chief Justice, given to us by a man [Kinsella] who is not sorry for racially profiling in another municipality and wasn’t even here before the police supposedly stopped checking us.

There were others, of course, especially inside the force, who almost certainly resented Kinsella for apologizing on their behalf for actions they believed were routine and reasonable.

That may help explain last year’s overwhelming vote — 96.6 percent of the 84 percent of rank-and-file officers voting — of no confidence in his leadership.

It’s worth noting that union members’ laundry list of two dozen grievances against the chief began with this: “consistent lack of support for officers both publicly and internally.”

That is barely disguised code for the chief’s apology.

And then, of course, there were those ping-ponging moments when the chief seemed to vacillate between playing progressive when doing so came with little risk — his statement on the “deplorable circumstances” of George Floyd’s murder by police 3,000 km away in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 2020 — while playing let’s-bang-some-heads, old-style cop with his public defence of indefensible police actions closer to home.

Remember the indiscriminate police use of pepper spray during a protest in the summer of 2021. Kinsella publicly declared police “responded appropriately” in evicting the homeless from their encampments that day, even though neither he nor the officer in charge of the police action was ever present at the scene.

Despite that, he accused protesters of being…

… confrontational, assaultive, and caused hazardous situations… A number of the protesters were also organized, armed with sensory irritants and projectiles… Some also brought decontamination for the sensory irritant here. Some of the protesters’ behaviour included throwing projectiles at our officers and municipal staff and damaging municipal property.”

But Zane Woodford, the Examiner’s reporter who was there, reported:

The Halifax Examiner saw no use of sensory irritants by protesters. The decontamination referred to is milk and water, most of which was brought on scene after police started pepper spraying people. People were throwing water bottles around the time police started pepper spraying, and again as a municipal worker took a chainsaw to the second temporary shelter.

None of this suggests this was an easy time to be the chief of police in Halifax. Becky Kent, chair of the board of police commissioners, catalogued some of the challenges he faced: “a global pandemic, growing calls for accountability in policing internationally and locally, certainly, and tragedies that impacted our own communities, our own province and the nation.”

That’s only the beginning. Consider:

Oh, and then there are the many and various reports like the mouthful “Policing Transformation Study Recommendation Report” and “Defunding the Police: Defining the Way Forward for HRM” …

What action is happening as a result of those reports?

Uh… study… further report… study… someday… one day…

While not all of this is the fault of Dan Kinsella, his departure is an opportunity to press reset on the mess that is policing in Halifax.

Time to start over and, to borrow a cliché, Build Back Better. Yesterday.

A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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