Next Steps in Strengthening Police Oversight and Building Community Safety and Well-Being
The past few weeks have shown—in some of the starkest and ugliest ways possible—the deep-seated racism that exists in our society. At the same time, we have also seen a tremendous groundswell of support for change in order to address these inequalities and injustices.
Our test as a society in this moment is to not turn away.
I first ran for office when my first son was 18 months old because I wanted to know he would grow up in a community where people worked together, found strength in one another, and overcame the division and polarization that has affected so much of our history.
The injustices of racism have been building for generations. Saskatoon, like communities across North America, has to reckon with this history, its legacy, and the inequalities and failures that continue to this day.
I hear the calls for racial justice, the calls to defund or transform the police, and the calls to create a community with greater safety for those who have been marginalized for far too long.
These calls for justice are part of a long history of the courageous and important work by so many people who have fought to rectify racist policies aimed at the colonization of Indigenous people and the marginalization of different groups throughout history.
I have spent the past weeks talking to leaders in this community, talking to people who live with racism, and determining how to move forward. I have offered to meet with the Black Lives Matter organizers, and will continue to work on these issues and support as constructive and honest a dialogue as I can to lead us to concrete actions.
Our ability as a society to make change depends on how honest we can be with the truth.
Are we able to hear the truth of those in the Indigenous community, the Black community, and other racialized people, to listen without getting defensive, without shutting down the conversation? Are we able to sit with the discomfort of what is said and commit to change, commit to act?
Much of the focus in recent weeks has been on the police. The police play an important role in this conversation, but I believe that we must also widen the conversation to include the other systems at play in our society that work to address mental health issues, addictions, trauma, and poverty. The Provincial Government also needs to be part of this conversation. And as I’ve said time and time again, this entire system requires an overhaul.
I have actively been working on these issues over the years, in my roles as mayor, member of the Board of Police Commissioners, councillor, and as a citizen of this city. I have worked with many of you on these issues. And we have seen some concrete improvements made. But it has not been enough and it has not been fast enough.
At the upcoming Board of Police Commissioners meeting, I will be putting forward two motions to help advance this conversation and action in our community.
The first motion is meant to build a better understanding of how the police end up picking up the pieces of a broken system of care and supports for people experiencing mental health concerns, addictions, homelessness, and family breakdown. Right now, due to a lack of coordination and adequate services in place to address these issues, police are far too often left filling in the gaps. As a 24/7 service they become the last resort, left to intervene in situations that should have been managed much earlier in a crisis. The majority of these programs fall within the responsibility of the Provincial Government—health, justice, and social services are the three critical departments.
Across the continent and here in Saskatoon we are hearing people call for defunding the police, to put a greater priority on the preventative systems of care in a community and not rely on police to address social challenges. This need to create a better system of care has been a top priority and the focus of much of the effort of the Safe Community Action Alliance and the Community Safety and Well-Being Partners Group in Saskatoon.
In order to have the most constructive approach to this challenge we need to understand better what this context is:
- How much of what the police currently respond to is not criminal behaviour but is related to mental health, addictions, and family breakdown;
- What are the gaps in the continuum of care, both in terms of programs as well as funding;
- In a more effective and cost-efficient system of care, what is the best role for the police and what is the best role for the Province.
Rebuilding our broken system is one of the most critical challenges in building community safety and well-being.
Motion two relates to advocating to the Provincial Government to improve the system of police oversight in Saskatchewan, particularly in the case of police complaints and accountability.
Yesterday the Provincial Government announced the first steps of reform to Saskatchewan’s police oversight system. These steps are important for reducing the backlog in complaints and improving the transparency of the complaints process. The reality is that even with these reforms we remain behind other provinces: we still have the practice of police investigating police in serious incident investigations. Seven provinces have implemented Serious Incident Response Teams to replace the practice of police investigating police. Saskatchewan moving to a more independent process is something that is supported by police services, First Nations leaders, and human rights advocates alike, as a way to improve the independence of the process.
This process of improvement is an important opportunity to work with community partners to ensure that these reforms lead to safe and culturally-accessible processes for people to bring forward their concerns. We need to work with leaders in the Indigenous, Black, and other racially marginalized communities and with subject matter experts to develop an oversight body and a complaints process that will be successful.
I don’t claim that these motions will address everything that is on people’s minds right now, but I do believe that they are important steps in improving our systems to create a safer community for everyone.
I also ask you to think about what is important to you in building a safe and healthy community for your children, for your neighbour’s children, and for the city’s future.