By Trevor Busch
Due largely to policy requirements at the federal level, in 2017 the Taber Police Service will be integrating bylaw enforcement directly into the service through an additional constable rather than re-hiring a community peace officer.
“We, as a police service, received a CPIC (Canadian Police Information Centre) audit at the end of September that said that we had our community peace officer in the past on our radio frequency getting CPIC information from us and being in a protected environment,” said Taber Police Service chief Graham Abela. “There are national police service policies, that to be absolutely clear with you, I was not aware of, and it was only after the audit that we understood that we needed to fix it. The issue that we had, to fix it was going to be quite costly, because we were going to have to implement a new radio infrastructure with a different radio channel, as well as the employee could not be in our protected environment, which is more or less our building. Bylaw services were probably going to fall under a different department as a result.”
Abela voiced his opposition to the policy requirements, but was faced with a bureaucratic stone wall in Ottawa.
“I didn’t agree with the policies, first of all. I thought they lacked common sense. So I sent a letter to CPIC advising that, and they flew two senior officers in from Ottawa to talk with me, and we chatted about the approach that we have, and the fact that they simply just would not budge off the policies. Which I kind of expected, because it’s a national police, and the policy is the same for everyone. As a result, we kind of started looking at ways that we could deal with our community standards issues that we have, so when I talk about that I mean things like bylaw enforcement, parking, animal control, provincial statutes, weed compliance. Can we look at that a different way, by possibly having a direct employee of the police service, who gains their authority through the Police Act, perform that function rather than a community peace officer.”
The option eventually favoured by the Taber Municipal Police Commission and Taber town council — namely replacing the CPO (community peace officer) position with a class five constable — will actually save the town financially, according to Abela.
“So I created a business plan, and I put that forward to the police commission, and we needed to get some permission from CUPE in order to do it, and they were absolutely agreeable to our solution, and as a result of that discussion we had to go to council to request that the budget that is currently assigned to bylaw services be assigned to the police service,” said Abela. “We’ve actually received some economies of scale as a result of that, so there’s actually a reduction. So if you were to take the two pools of money, one was the Taber Police Service budget, and one was the Taber bylaw budget — by combining them we were able to gain some synergies and actually decrease the costs to the community for providing the same service.”
The cost savings to the town through the change is likely to be in the five figures, asserts Abela.
“I don’t know it off the top of my head, but it’s over $10,000. So from my perspective, it’s significant. So by hiring a police constable to do the role that’s limited in scope, but (he/she) has full authority. So the individual would be hired, and would be delegated and assigned by task to perform community standards functions. So all of those functions that were formerly done by our CPO would now just simply be done by a police constable. So what we’ve done is amalgamated departments, and as a result, gave us synergies. I think it’s a good thing. We’re going to try it. The way our department demographically lays out over the next five years, we expect a few vacancies due to retirements. So if it doesn’t work, we have the opportunity of revisiting it later when some of our retirements go.”
Although almost exclusively discussed in closed session (in camera) at the police commission and town council levels due to personnel issues, Abela was able to impart the proposition was viewed favourably by the body of the commission.
“I think that the commission was absolutely supportive of the business case. I outlined the pros and cons, of what the three different scenarios that we could have had as a result of the policy issues that we had to fix. When you look at the pros and cons of that, there’s just simply one answer that makes sense from the perspective of fiscal responsibility, authority, and supervision of a program that’s needed in the community to handle our community standards issues. The commission listened to my presentation, and at the end of the day unanimously agreed that this was a solution that should move forward to council.”
While the police commission determines complement strength, town council ultimately controls the public purse strings, explained Abela.
“Some of the complexities of this are, the police commission establishes our complement strength for the police department, but the budget comes from the town. So the complexity of this is, is that this is actually a council decision not a police commission decision. It couldn’t come out of the police commission as a motion without council approving it. So council approved it at the time of budget — that was the time to do it — because they assign budget. They don’t really have any other legislative authority over the police commission. So they assigned our budget, and once the budget was assigned, the police commission increased our complement strength by one officer. So that’s where we’re at now.”
The change will help clarify perceptions in the community about the role of bylaw enforcement, which had recently been under the management of the Taber Police Service but not their direct jurisdiction through the employment of a police officer as opposed to a community peace officer.
“I think from my perspective it allows us to use the current system that we have within our organization, so for example the records management system, our access to CPIC, our supervisory system that we have within the organization, to be able to be able to better supervise and monitor the community standards function within our police service,” said Abela. “The community has a direct link to us through our police commission. There’s always been a grey area about where the CPO sat — was the CPO actually an employee of the police commission? The Police Act is clear on it, but some of the community felt that possibly it wasn’t. So this also allows for that clarification to occur.”
Recently approved by a 5-1 vote at town council’s Nov. 28 regular meeting, Coun. Joe Strojwas was strongly opposed to the change to bylaw enforcement included in the 2017 operating budget, and voted against the motion.
“Council is supportive of is as well, (at least) the majority,” said Abela. “So this, to me, is a positive step forward as the police service continues to grow and face different issues that are occurring within the policing environment.”
Despite the changes being mandated, Abela is still frustrated with federal policy requirements that he believes really don’t make any sense.
“The impetus for this wasn’t from inside. The impetus for this change was an external pressure from an audit. And we don’t mind being audited — being audited is a good thing. We need to understand where we maybe could do better, and that’s what an audit’s for. We passed the audit in glowing terms, except for that one issue. I was happy CPIC brought it up — it flies in the face of a bit of common sense, from my perspective, that a community peace officer who goes through a battery of testing and checks and balances to ensure he can be security cleared, more so than what some civilian employees go through. We have civilian employees that are able to access CPIC and be in a protected environment, but a CPO isn’t because of a CPIC policy. It just doesn’t make sense, and that was the intent of my letter to Ottawa — this may be an old practice that needs revamping. But they didn’t agree with me.”
Now that the approvals have been made and the changes are in place, Abela isn’t wasting any time in seeking a replacement for the former community peace officer.
“So as a police chief I have to act. Come April, the community standards issues have to be dealt with. They need to be dealt with year-round, but it’s a very critical time in April, compliance with garbage and weeds and animal control, and I need someone in the position in April to do that. I’m hiring.”
For those who object to police officers handling bylaw functions, Abela was quick to point out the police service already regularly deals with bylaw enforcement issues.
“I think it’s been a good process, it’s been a good initiative. We’ll assess it and move forward, and go from there. There will be some that will say say do you have a police officer performing those functions? Here’s the answer: We already perform those functions. Come 4:30 or 5 p.m. when the former CPO went off duty, if we got an animal call, or a noise call, or a parking call — things that would normally fall under community standards — our police officers handle it. We’re already doing it. The RCMP have an enhanced position, and the purpose of that enhanced position is to deal with community standards issues in the municipal district. Municipal police across the province deal with this.”
According to Abela, taxpayers could even see a savings on wages through the replacement of the CPO position.
“We’re just fortunate right now where I can hire a fifth class constable and actually come in hired at less money than a CPO on a CUPE contract would be hired at. So right off the bat there’s a savings, so that also made a bit of sense. We scanned for the issues, and I think we put good thought into solutions to all of the issues, and I think we’re at the stage where we’re ready to go.”