“Acknowledging the past, the wrongs that have occurred,” Dan Kinsella, chief of the Halifax Regional Police, said of what has to happen.
The first of many: Community conversation about street checks held in Halifax
Kinsella said the “first and most necessary step,” is a public apology from the police department to the black community for the longtime practice of street checks, that unfairly focused on black youth and wilted trust in local police.
Natalie Borden, chairwoman of the Halifax police commission and one of the four panellists Monday, agreed with the necessity of an apology. Borden said an apology stops the excuses for street checks, excuses that tried to justify the practice and downplayed its impact on the black community.
Borden said that training and education of police officers must follow the necessary first step.
“Educating people’s biases and turning those biases around can be done,” Borden said.
The public meeting was promoted by 902 ManUp, a group of African Nova Scotia men dedicated to promoting a safe and healthy community. The two-hour meeting was moderated by CBC Information Morning host Portia Clark, who dished out questions for the four panellists, who also included Tony Ince, the provincial minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs, and Kymberly Franklin, a senior lawyer with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, to comment on.
Street checks have been defined as an interaction or observation whereby personal and/or identifying information is collected by an officer and entered into a database. The long-standing police practice was brought into focus by the release in late March of a report from Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley, who found that blacks were almost six times more likely to be street checked than whites in Halifax Regional Municipality.
“Street checks have contributed to the criminalization of black youth, eroded trust in law enforcement and undermined the perceived legitimacy of the entire criminal justice system,” Wortley said in his report, recommending that the practice be banned outright or strictly regulated.
The provincial government first instituted a moratorium on street checks but later upgraded it to a ban after former Chief Justice Michael MacDonald submitted a legal opinion to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission that the practice was illegal.
Franklin called street checks and their legacy “very hurtful,” saying the practice has promoted distrust and fear.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Franklin said. “There are other problems besides street checks.”
“I’m pleased that government, police and the community are all in the same room to talk about it,” Ince said. “We have a long way to go.”
Kinsella, who took over the job as Halifax’s top cop in July, said he has been talking with the black community from the time he arrived in the city.
How do you repair trust when no trust existed in the first place, asked one audience member during the question-and-answer period.
Kinsella announced at a police commission meeting earlier in the day he would deliver the long-awaited public apology to the black community on Nov. 29 at 11 a.m., at the Halifax Central Library.
The chief said the many community members and leaders he has met with will be invited to the public apology.
“It’s a powerful way to move forward but it’s much more than just an apology, it’s the post-apology work that we will build into the plan to make sure that collectively we can move forward.”
Justice Minister Mark Furey has also promised an apology to the black community on behalf of the province.
Chief Supt. Chris Leather of the RCMP Halifax Division said an apology is still under consideration but it would have to take into account the implications for a wider apology that reaches beyond Nova Scotia.
“Street checks, of course, is an issue for a number of jurisdictions in a number of provinces,” Leather said.
The union representing hundreds of police officers in Halifax says all too often there are only one or two people overseeing the booking cells at police headquarters — leaving both workers and people in custody vulnerable.
Dean Stienburg, president of the Halifax Regional Police Association, wrote to Chief Dan Kinsella Friday, calling for increased staffing levels, more training for those working in the prisoner-care facility and changes to the design of the cell area.
"It's a dangerous place to work. We're dealing with aggressive, often drunk, illogical people," Stienburg said in an interview.
"Our members are concerned about liability, they're concerned about their own personal jeopardy, they're concerned about being physically injured. But they're also concerned about the fact that, you know, we have to take care of these prisoners and that's what we want to do."
Stienburg's letter comes in the wake of the recent conviction of two peace officers, Dan Fraser and Cheryl Gardner, for criminal negligence causing death, following the 2016 death of Corey Rogers.
Rogers was arrested for public intoxication and was wearing a spit hood, a fabric mask that covers the lower half of a person's face, when he died of asphyxiation by choking on his own vomit in a cell at police headquarters.
The case "set a new standard" and showed people in custody require more resources than are currently available, said Stienburg. He noted the Halifax police cells deal with about 2,800 intoxicated people a year, along with 3,500 other people arrested in criminal matters. There are 18 individual cells and two drunk tanks.
"The reality is our members are nervous. This could have been any one of [them]," he said of the convictions.
Among other things, Stienburg wants additional training for how to use spit hoods, assess intoxicated people and employ fire extinguishing equipment.
Kinsella, speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, said he is reviewing prisoner care to make sure it's effective and safe. That includes looking at staffing, supervision and equipment — including spit hoods, handcuffs and leg restraints.
"I'm taking a close personal look at it in its entity. Where there's gaps, we're going to fill the gaps to make sure we provide proper care for anyone that is taken into custody," he said.
The union has already been pushing for increased staffing, so far unsuccessfully. Stienburg said the force moved away from having sergeants oversee the prisoner area decades ago and also shifted to hiring civilian peace officers, who are paid less than police officers.
He said half of the full-time staff are now on leave due to physical or psychological injuries they suffered on the job, leaving part-timers in the positions.
Stienburg wants to see a sergeant or corporal overseeing two staff members to make any big calls if they arise. He said reassigning a police officer to work in the cell area when it gets busy isn't adequate because it takes them away from patrol outside the station.
If a brawl breaks out or if there is a medical emergency, he said having people there to deal with it is crucial.
"We can't wait to call people in. It needs to be staffed appropriately. It's a high-liability area," he said.
He also is proposing the force's management considering employing a medical professional who is able to monitor people in custody. He said having someone — whether it's a paramedic or a nurse — who is able to assess people's blood pressure and overall condition could go a long way.
"Simple medical procedures that will give you a better idea of what this person's health actually is. And are they in a health crisis or are they playing possum? Or are they just faking or are they just drunk and they're going to sleep it off?" he said.
Without that expertise, he said staff call Emergency Health Services for help, and he expects they will be more likely to do so going forward due to concerns about not being equipped to assess people.
There's long been discussion of replacing the Gottingen Street police headquarters, which opened in 1974. Stienburg said the cells themselves are outdated, having never been updated. Too often when something goes wrong, officers must scramble to unlock a barred sliding door with an "antiquated old keys."
"It also is a huge risk for the officers going in that you have six or eight people in that cell and there's one maybe two officers trying to get in that cell to break up a fight or something. You never know if the other prisoners are going to turn on them getting in and out," he said.
"I'm not exaggerating in that letter when I said our booking officers have all had feces thrown at them. They've all had urine thrown at them. They've all had toilet water thrown at them and, you know, the solutions and the stuff that we do to mitigate it in my opinion are bandages."
The police association is calling for new locks that could open doors remotely. The doors of the cells are barred with a type of plexiglass installed to prevent people in custody from throwing things out of it.
Elizabeth McMillan is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Over the past 10 years, she has reported from the edge of the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Coast and loves sharing people's stories. She can be reached at [email protected]
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