It appears if one wishes to fundamentally change the way police services boards operate, the worst vantage point for achieving that is to actually be on a police services board. That was the news delivered to newcomers Camron Kroetsch and Esther Pauls at Thursdays Police Services Board meeting. Members were taken through a presentation on the roles and responsibilities of a police service board member, and unlike most political bodies, the role of a police service board is to do or say nothing that would dimmish public trust in policing. Anything to do with internal operations of the police service are strictly hands off for police service board members.
The Board then considered the 2023 budget which will go to Hamilton City Council in the new year. The budget will be just short of a seven percent increase to $196 million. Chief Frank Bergin presented statistics that show Hamilton has a higher serious crime index compared to other large cities in Ontario but a lower ratio of police to population. He also pointed out that the percentage of the city budget that goes to policing is on par with similar cities.
Kroetsch, who opposed the budget at the Board’s budget committee, again opposed it at the full board meeting. As he said, “this should come as no surprise.” He came to be meeting with a series of questions, an approach which seemed to be out of the ordinary in HPSB meetings, as Chair Pat Mandy tried to hurry him along. But in the end members allowed Kroetsch to complete his questions, most of which were answered by Chief Bergen. Pride Hamilton. Of which Kroetsch is former chair, is taking the Police to the Human Rights Tribunal seeking damages over the Police role in the 2019 violence at Gage Park. Kroetsch recently released an opinion from the Integrity Commissioner advising him that because of his previous role as Chair of Pride Hamilton he must declare a conflict of interest and recuse himself from any meetings where the upcoming Pride case is being discussed.
Back to the budget, Deputy Chair Fred Bennink delivered what appeared to be a prepared speech aimed at the new members in which he tackled groups in the community that have been advocating for diversion of the police budget to social services , since the George Floyd murder. He ticked off several crisis intervention operations HPS operates using trained civilians, and said front-line officers welcome them and find them to be successful in deescalating crisis situations. He compared Hamilton’s budget ask with other cities and repeated that Hamilton’s numbers are not out of line with comparator jurisdictions. Hamilton’s budget calls for the addition of 13 new officers in 2023—Bennink noted that London will hire more than 50 in the same period.
In the end the board voted, with Kroetsch objecting to send the budget to Hamilton Council for approval.
The operation of Hamilton Police Service Board meetings has improved from the days when members and the media were buzzed in through locked doors to the windowless meeting room at Police Headquarters. The meetings are now held in City Council chambers where anyone can attend. But the meetings still give an appearance of being carefully managed and most members appear to be uncomfortable with anything that gets too close to open debate. At one point Kroetsch was invited to take some of his questions to an off-line meeting with the Chief, and he was clearly not interested in that.