Saturday, June 17, 2006

Citizens back in charge of city police? Commission's return pondered

By Bartley Kives

After two years of sitting on the idea of bringing back a police commission, city hall will think about putting ordinary citizens in charge of the Winnipeg Police Service. City council's left-leaning protection subcommittee voted yesterday to ask Mayor Sam Katz's cabinet and the province to explore the idea of starting up a police commission, a group of five to nine elected or appointed citizens and possibly politicians, which would set police policy and look into complaints. Winnipeg has not had such a commission since 1986, when the provincial Law Enforcement Review Agency was created to handle police complaints across the province. A move to bring a commission back here stalled in 2004. But yesterday, the protection committee set the wheels in motion again after a raucous morning meeting that saw more than two dozen inner-city groups petition for a new commission and members of activist group Critical Mass repeat claims of police misconduct at a downtown bike demonstration in May. "The police need to be accountable to a body other than themselves," said Jon Schledewitz, an Uptown Magazine and Winnipeg Sun photographer who was among dozens of protesters who've alleged mistreatment by police during and after a police-escorted ride on May 26. His view was echoed by Grand Chief Chris Henderson of the Southern Chiefs Organization, Bernice Getty of the North End Women's Resource Centre and Tom Simms of the Community Education Development Association, who held up a petition signed by leaders of 26 inner-city groups. Winnipeg is the only major city in Canada without a police commission, said Simms, who first put the idea before the protection committee one month ago. Yesterday, all four councillors on the committee -- Donald Benham, Jenny Gerbasi, Harvey Smith and chair Gord Steeves -- voted in favour of pursuing the idea. But any debate over the merits of a police commission was overshadowed by confusion at city hall, as Steeves and Gerbasi refused to let Critical Mass members or lawyer David Sanders relate details about the May 26 demonstration. Complaints stemming from the incident -- which saw eight demonstrators charged -- are heading to LERA, Steeves said, so any discussion about them at a subcommittee meeting could prejudice the results. "There is a body to hear complaints, and this isn't the one," said Steeves, noting police careers are on the line. "I'm surprised to hear members of this committee don't want to accept the responsibility of this committee," lawyer Sanders shot back. Outside the meeting, Winnipeg Police Chief Jack Ewatski said all allegations against police are serious and insisted LERA is the place to take them. He also denied Critical Mass allegations that officers in plain clothes deliberately provoked protesters at the rally. "There were no undercover officers with a role to mix it up," he said while several of the two dozen activists present heckled. On the weightier matter of the police commission, Ewatski said it would be inappropriate for him to offer an opinion because that would amount to choosing his next boss. Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz, meanwhile, said he would be willing to consider the notion of a police commission but noted the last incarnation in Winnipeg did not work very well. "Over time, everything the committee did do was sent to be reviewed to other areas," said Katz, who had wandered out of his office just in time to be surrounded by reporters who had just finished scrumming Ewatski. At the end of the day, Gerbasi said she was disappointed the Critical Mass issue diverted attention from the police commission. She also said she was upset protesters felt they had no voice at city hall, adding she and Benham have been trying to get the police and demonstrators to co-operate. Police and Critical Mass are slated to meet Friday, June 16 at the University of Winnipeg to work out a plan for a peaceful bike rally on Friday, June 30.

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