By Greg Price
The recent Community Standards Bylaw that was passed by town council late last month has come under fire by some over the sweeping powers some parts of it give to police due to how wide its parametres are in some of its wording.
Ken Holst, chairman of the Taber Municipal Police Commission (TMPC), who, along with the Taber Police Service, helped draft the bylaw, took issue over what he feels is a misconception of the intent of the bylaw by media outlets.
“The intention of the bylaw, from the commission standpoint and from the police service standpoint, and I think somewhat from town council’s standpoint, is totally opposite from what was said in (last week’s Taber Times editorial),” said Holst. “Even the Criminal Code of Canada has discretion to it. I have a police background, I used to be a policeman. You have that discretion whether it’s a bylaw or whether it’s the Criminal Code of Canada to lay that charge, it’s still discretionary in that.”
At their Feb. 23 meeting, town council voted 6-1 to pass third and final reading of Community Standards Bylaw 4-2015, with minor amendments. Coun. Joe Strojwas opposed the motion without comment.
The bylaw will attempt to regulate and prohibit certain activities in order to prevent and compel the abatement of noise, nuisances, graffiti, and public disturbances, as well as a curfew for minors. According to administration, in order to provide for better and more consistent oversight, bylaw enforcement and policing of various matters in the Town of Taber, the Taber Police Service in conjunction with the TMPC drafted the bylaw. The draft bylaw was reviewed by the TMPC in 2014 and was discussed at the commission’s Jan. 14 meeting, following which the commission adopted a resolution recommending the draft bylaw be forwarded to town council for consideration and adoption.
“Our intention in this is to make Taber a better place to be. A better place for our community and a better place for our businesses. We are hearing these extreme things and it is so contrary to our intentions on this,” said Holst. “Let’s take the curfew for example. Let’s say little Johnny is out at two in the morning and the police grab him and take him home to mom. Then a half hour later, Johnny is outside again, that’s where I think the bylaw has to come into effect. Those are the types of scenarios we want to give police some ability to go to another level when all else fails. It’s the same with dispersing.”
A part of the bylaw that has come under the largest scrutiny is the inclusion regarding an assembly of persons. ‘No person shall be a member of the assembly of three or more persons in any public place where a peace officer has reasonable grounds to believe the assembly will disturb the peace of the neighbourhood, and any such person shall disperse as requested by a peace officer’ reads the section of the bylaw which carries a first offence penalty of $250.
“Sometimes police go in there and there’s a 100 guys there. Sometimes it’s ‘hey, how it’s going’ and everyone is happy and nothing is going on and they walk away. Sometimes they go in there and maybe they are drinking beer or smoking dope and they are getting really lippy with them as they lay the booze charges on them,” said Holst. “To prevent further offences, they have nothing to disperse them (prior to the bylaw). That is the intent of these bylaws in what it gives to the police service. It’s helping us be better in what the scenarios are.”
Law professionals have voiced their concerns over the legality of the bylaw, most notably the being a member of an assembly and failing to disperse as directed by a peace officer. Under a strict interpretation, this would give local law enforcement the power to disperse an otherwise peaceful assembly based only on an officer’s discretion – not whether an assembly was actually causing a disturbance of the peace.
The General Definitions section of the bylaw includes no description or definition of what would be considered “reasonable grounds to believe” nor defines what actions would actually constitute a disturbance of the peace.
Sec. 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms includes “freedom of peaceful assembly” as one of the fundamental freedoms assured to Canadians under the charter.
“The only piece (law offices) are concerned about is the gathering piece. Because all the other stuff which other media channels how now taken with the spitting ($75 fine), the swearing ($150 fine) all those pieces. All those things were in place before and are in a new place now,” said Holst, adding several parametres of the bylaw already existed in past legislation. “It’s not newly written. These were before this bylaw.”