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Comment: Police Act committee delivered needed change

A commentary by the Green MLA for Saanich North and the Islands.
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Special provincial constables provide a wide array of unique policing services, including environmental and protective operations, that must be considered if the province moves to a provincial police force, Bryce Casavant writes. TIMES COLONIST

For the past 15 months, I have had the honour of serving on the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act.

This has been some of the most productive and collaborative work I have been a part of in my five years as an MLA.

The 100-page report contains an overview of what the committee heard from the 411 presentations, submissions and 1,500 survey responses, a view of the committee deliberations on what we heard, and 11 key recommendations.

We heard consistently that British Columbians wanted our committee to be bold and recommend transformational change. That is exactly what we delivered. A new public safety act and the creation of a provincial police service are just two key parts of the transformation.

Through the hours of presentations and deliberations, it was clear that to rebuild public trust and confidence our current policing culture needs to be transformed. Policing services are fragmented, oversight is inconsistent, training and education lack, and the entire system is plagued by institutional racism.

I came away from the process with a new respect for the challenges facing police officers and our police services.

As the police are responsible for every call that is not a fire or medical emergency, they have become our primary responders to most mental-health crises. They are not educated nor are they trained to deliver mental-health crisis intervention.

In many ways, we need to better support the police officers who are serving our communities.

We heard that British Columbians want a focus on community security and public safety, not militarized police enforcement. Many groups who presented may not see the specific language they left with the committee.

However, when the government implements the recommendations of this report, we will see an entirely different culture in public safety and policing that reflects in the values of our society, community and neighbourhoods. This report is much more than a change in uniforms.

Police services will be less fragmented, with a single, independent, civilian-led, accountable body. Indigenous communities will have the freedom to choose their policing services and are encouraged to develop and provide policing services.

Transformational change will require the provincial government to set the standards of recruitment, education, training, data-collection, including regular evaluation and reporting requirements. Those standards will be consistent for communities across the province.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth gave the special committee a broad term of reference. Government named it “Reforming the Police Act” not “Reviewing the Police Act.”

This is an important point, because this process has always been about reform. That is what the public expects as the outcome of the work. I encourage the provincial government to begin this process and set it up for success for future governments as well.

It does not get easier from here. In many respects, the easiest part of the work has been completed. Transforming police services in British Columbia is the work ahead.

It is difficult work, but, as we have seen in New Zealand, transformation is possible. It need not be the burden, or the work, of any one minister or government. Serious reform will happen over multiple governments, and so it needs to be a project of the entire Legislative Assembly.

I hope the B.C. NDP undertake a comprehensive review of the Mental Health Act. This is a key recommendation of the report that can be started with no delay. I hope to have the opportunity to serve on that all-party reform committee.

Success will require collaboration and co-operation across all governments and society. It is a project we undertake together, and to this end I am hopeful the minister will appoint an oversight committee to work with the ministry to not just oversee the transformation but deliver key public engagement aspects of the work.

Our committee talked to many jurisdictions around the world who are leaders in police reform. Their accomplishments are encouraging, and I am hopeful that our legislative assembly will rise to this challenge.

I am excited that one day soon people will be looking to the innovations of British Columbia and seeking our advice on police transformation and reform.