When the CBC’s Atlantic Investigative Unit wanted to understand better how police handle complaints from the public for a project called “Police and Public Trust,” it filed freedom-of-information requests asking all provincial police forces for 11 years of internal discipline decisions.
Every force complied, except one. Halifax Regional Police declined to release any information at all.
The CBC appealed that refusal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, but before the case could be heard, the police, city and CBC reached what was supposed to be a settlement.
“Over the course of a year,” reported CBC investigative journalist Shaina Luck, “the police gradually released more and more information.” But some files were “too heavily redacted to understand, [so] CBC continued to press until it believed the police and city’s obligations had been sufficiently met.”
At that point, all sides signed a consent order ending the case, in which the police “acknowledged it should not have withheld information about its internal discipline decisions from the CBC.”
But because it did, the Halifax police — meaning you and me — ended up paying $1,500 in costs to the CBC — a minor penalty for its denying, delaying tactics. But that doesn’t begin to account for how much we will also now have to pay to cover the police department’s undoubtedly significant — and unnecessary — legal costs.
There are lots of questions here. Why did Halifax police resist the initial request for records when every other police department in the province apparently considered them matters of legitimate public interest? Who made that decision and why? Was Chief Dan Kinsella involved? Who in the city signed off on it, and why? Has anyone been held accountable? What specific changes in procedures have been made as a result?
Those are questions you might assume someone in authority at the Halifax Regional Police or the city would be prepared to answer.
Your assumption would be wrong.
The department declined to do an interview [with CBC] after the case ended, but acting public information officer Melissa MacInnis provided a statement.
“HRP recognizes and acknowledges that there is an increasing expectation of access to information related to policing, and we have a role to play in reviewing our processes as well as how we have done things historically,” she wrote.
“At the same time, our resourcing and systems associated with access to information have not kept up. We are looking internally on how we can support this area better using our current resources as well as what additional supports may help.”
“Provided a statement…”
The statement was blandly unspecific. As usual, as intended: “Recognizes and acknowledges… role to play… how we can support… additional supports…” And blah blah blah.
The reality is that that non-statement added nothing to the story.
Two days later, the Toronto Globe and Mail’s Lindsay Jones revealed that the Nova Scotia government had had “well-documented evidence that it was poorly prepared for extreme flooding, but officials didn’t take steps to correct those deficiencies before a catastrophic deluge last month that killed four people and damaged homes and infrastructure in the province.”
Jones interviewed Blair Feltmate, a co-author of the 2020 report, who told her the province “was performing poorly in eight of nine flood-risk preparedness criteria,” and that seven senior provincial officials had “reviewed and confirmed” the report’s results for the government.
“Water could have been directed to safe locations to keep people and property out of harm’s way to a much greater degree than happened,” Dr. Feltmate said. Part of the problem, he added, is that Nova Scotia is the only Atlantic province that delegates floodplain mapping to municipalities that may have a vested interest in not designating new areas as floodplains because that might lower land values.
Again, you might have expected Timothy Hallman, the minister of environment and climate change, or John Lohr, the minister in charge of municipal affairs, to call a press conference to refute these claims or, more refreshingly, acknowledge that mistakes had been made and explain, in specific detail, what the government was doing to correct them.
Not a chance.
In response to questions about what the province has done to address the problems identified in the report, Nova Scotia’s Department of Municipal Affairs and Housing and its Department of Environment and Climate Change provided a joint statement saying the province has a municipal flood-line mapping program and is creating updated hazard maps for all watersheds to help inform municipalities.
“The program will give municipalities more information they can use to help improve their preparedness and response plans for potential flood events,” provincial spokesperson Chrissy Matheson wrote, adding that municipalities are responsible for any zoning changes needed.
“Provided a joint statement….”
Translation: Blame it on the municipalities…
Someone should add up all the instances in which government ministers, municipal and other officials “declined to be interviewed” for a news story but instead “provided a statement” that was incomplete, unhelpful, or beside the point, usually all of the above.
Perhaps it’s time we in the media stopped carrying official statements that intentionally don’t respond to our legitimate questions. Maybe we should simply report that the accountable official declined to answer our questions. “The department instead sent a statement that didn’t answer the following questions…” and then we should repeat the questions instead of the non-answers. While we should include a link to the official statement for transparency’s sake, we shouldn’t give it credence by including it in the story.
Perhaps then those in authority would get the message.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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