The Board of Police Commissioners met on Wednesday, July 6, in person at City Hall for the first time in a long time. Commissioner Yemi Akindoju brought muffins for everyone. It was a nice gesture for a meeting dominated by gun violence and a prolonged discussion about what to do about our unhoused neighbours.
The board received a presentation from Robin Tress, who, in May 2022, witnessed police evicting a woman from the Dartmouth Commons for sleeping in a tent. Tress told the board the interaction with police was degrading and harmful. She said the police initially just watched the woman pack up from a few feet away, even though the woman asked the officers to move back a bit to give the semblance of privacy. Tress also told the board the police gave no help, no ride, no information—just instructions to pack up and leave.
“I didn’t know you could be renovicted from a park,” said Tress. “But here we are.”
And this is where we are: Politicians, the chief of police and the board frequently say that no one wants to, and no one will, displace people in tents before they have stable housing. But there are no policies to hold politicians or police accountable to those words.
Tress says it’s time for a policy and accountability.
Immediately after that presentation, commissioner Harry Critchley put forward a motion to get a report outlining all “policies, procedure and other operational guidance provided to officers regarding the enforcement” of bylaw P-600 (the no camping in parks bylaw). During the debate, Critchley made a compelling argument that the board—a police oversight body—should know how the police are trained to act when removing people from parks.
Halifax Regional Police chief Dan Kinsella told the board that the police do not remove people unless they have somewhere else to go. He also told the board that the HRP does not have a policy dictating its response. The RCMP’s interim local boss, inspector Jeremie Landry, told the board the Mounties have a directive not to remove people from parks.
City lawyer Marty Ward told the board that the city is providing other sites for people to go to. Critchley acknowledged those points, and then handed out a spreadsheet about available beds and sleeping sites. There are far fewer places to sleep than the number of people who need beds.
Critchley argued that there are constitutional concerns with evicting people from parks. He said since police have done several evictions across the country, case law is being created; and the man brought receipts. For those who don’t want to read a legal argument in PDF form, the abridged version is that in evicting people who have nowhere to go, the police and city are violating their right to life, liberty and security of person.
City lawyer John Traves said ensuring the constitutionality of enforcement is HRM’s responsibility. He did not make clear how an HRM police oversight body making sure HRM’s police force acted constitutionally towards its citizens was not HRM exercising that responsibility. (As an aside, having an independent lawyer, Critchley, on the board challenging the city’s lawyer makes a strong case that the board should have a lawyer who is not beholden to HRM.)
Councillor Lindell Smith, chair of the BOPC, amended the motion to narrow the report's scope to police enforcement in city parks under the Protection of Property Act. That act is what legally allows unhoused park evictions with no other criminal element.
In formal legal language, Critchley also argued that fining unhoused people $10,000 is incredibly dumb. It makes sense. If someone in People’s Park has $10,000 laying around, they also have “afford housing money” and likely wouldn’t be sleeping in the park.
His motion passed.
One of the more surreal moments of the day happened at the end of the meeting, when councillor Lisa Blackburn asked Kinsella for the police’s plan for July 17, when the city intends to evict the residents of People’s Park. In response to that request, chief administrative officer Jaques Dubé had the gall to tell the police oversight body not to worry about it. He told the board that he and Kinsella had it handled. As a reminder, the last time Dubé and Kinsella handled the eviction of unhoused people it was an unmitigated disaster, resulting in many people getting arrested, a kid getting pepper-sprayed and a years-long PR nightmare for council.
It is slightly terrifying that the CAO bristled against this oversight, when meaningful oversight into his decision making with the police is exactly the thing that would have prevented last year’s unhoused eviction fustercluck.
The rest of the meeting featured police chief updates. Kinsella told the board that gun violence is up and that he’s worried about it. He also told the board a lot of people are applying to join the police. Commissioners then asked Kinsella questions about various police initiatives, which Kinsella artfully dodged with a barrage of police jargon word salad.
And the RCMP’s Landry also gave an update and highlighted RCMP members who responded to medical emergencies faster than ambulances. Is it possible that cops respond to medical emergencies faster than ambulances because of how much money the two services get? The HRM spends $120.1 million on policing for the city ($87,830,000 HRP and $32,303,000 RCMP). In contrast, the province only spends $174.8 million on emergency health services for the whole province.