Commissioner urges public accountability for police chiefs

By Rob Wipond, May 2014

Internal RCMP investigation also underway

Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has recommended that the BC Association of Chiefs of Police and BC Association of Municipal Chiefs of Police should be made subject to Provincial freedom of information laws. After a review of new evidence and a public consultation process, Denham wrote on April 2 to Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services Minister Andrew Wilkinson stating that these private associations play a “significant public policy role with respect to legal and law enforcement issues” and “appear to exert significant influence” over British Columbia’s public policing practices. And although the Office of the Registrar of Lobbyists—which Denham also oversees—had previously determined that the associations were not in breach of the BC Lobbyists Registration Act, Denham seemed to intimate that she might revisit this matter, too, when her letter highlighted that police chief associations elsewhere in Canada are registered as lobby groups. 

“The decision-making process of the Associations should, as a matter of public policy, be transparent, and transparency flows from access,” Denham wrote in conclusion. “I recommend that the Associations be added as public bodies under FIPPA [the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act].”

A government media liaison provided Focus with a written comment for attribution to Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton: “I appreciate comments from the Commissioner and see merit in her recommendation. We will review our options closely—I have directed staff to determine an appropriate course of action.” Anton will have to be careful to avoid an appearance of conflict of interest, since a number of senior representatives of the Ministry of Justice are associate members of the BCACP. Anton herself attended part of last November’s two-day BCACP meeting.

The BC government previously followed Denham’s recommendation to make the governing board of the Police Records Information Management Environment subject to FIPPA. Denham’s recommendation comes in the wake of two years of reporting in Focus on the police chief associations, revealing that the two associations function as both primary governing bodies for public policing in the province and as extremely effective private lobby groups, but without being publicly transparent nor held accountable under BC laws regulating either practice.

The BC Civil Liberties Association, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, Pivot Legal Society, post-doctoral fellow Adam Molnar of the Queen’s University Surveillance Studies Centre and I all provided submissions arguing that the police chief associations should be subject to FIPPA. 

Even the associations themselves, in their submissions to the Commissioner, indicated that they would not oppose being declared to be public bodies. “The BCACP takes no position on the ultimate issue of whether a recommendation should be made by the Commissioner in this matter. We defer to and will respect any decision made by you in this regard, and will fully comply with any decision the Legislature makes in response to your recommendations,” wrote current BCACP President and Abbotsford Deputy Chief Len Goerke. The BCAMCP endorsed the BCACP submission.

Only David Winkler, President of the BC Association of Police Boards, provided a submission opposing making the associations more transparent. It seemed ironic—or perhaps worryingly to the point—that these civilian overseers for our municipal police, who’ve been largely kept in the dark about the associations’ activities by our police chiefs, would not see the need for making the associations more publicly transparent and accountable.

The Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP, though, isn’t so indifferent to finding out more about what’s actually going on in BC policing. After being provided with a summary of my research and concerns, on the same day that Denham released her recommendation, the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP issued an order to the RCMP to conduct an investigation into the activities of the RCMP members of the BCACP. The Commission also instructed the RCMP to provide a written reply to seven specific allegations of possible police misconduct. These include concerns about the BCACP being a private group yet nevertheless signing official legal agreements on behalf of public police forces, diverting public resources to their group’s private benefit, and taking undeclared payments from the banking sector for their private group while conducting official police business with respect to financial crimes.

“The [RCMP’s response] will summarize your complaint, describe the RCMP’s investigation, and advise you of the RCMP’s conclusions…[and] will include any action the RCMP will take as a result,” stated the letter to me from the Commission. The RCMP is legally required to respond. That should be interesting reading; after two years of efforts, don’t let anyone say I didn’t go the extra mile to try to ensure I got the police’s side of the story. 

Rob Wipond