Expert panel's 'roadmap for real change' released Thursday is latest try at spurring reform
Policing report billed as 'roadmap for real change' in Thunder Bay. But will it make a difference?
The expert panel struck to make recommendations on transforming policing in Thunder Bay, Ont., has released its final report. Board Chair Alok Mukherjee sits down with CBC's Logan Turner to explain the work that's gone into it and where it goes from here.
An expert panel's latest report detailing recommendations for the troubled Thunder Bay Police Service's oversight board calls for major and measurable changes to prevent further erosion of police morale and trust in the force.
The report, billed a "roadmap for real change," was released Thursday, after decades of building pressure on and scrutiny of the TBPS and the Thunder Bay Police Services Board, dozens of reports, investigations and coroner's inquests, and hundreds of recommendations.
The independent expert panel was created in March 2022 amidst reports of low officer morale, human rights violations, and investigations into criminal misconduct by officers and leaders in the force.
Shortly after the panel was formed, a leaked confidential report detailed serious deficiencies in sudden death investigations of Indigenous people in Thunder Bay and called for the reinvestigation of 14 cases, including some as recent as 2019.
The new report calls for urgent, transformational change to overcome growing frustration — including calls from First Nations leaders for disbandment of the force.
The report warns that without significant, measurable evidence of change, "we will continue to see an erosion of morale and effectiveness within the service and irresolvable issues of trust outside it."
'A great deal of frustration'
In an interview with CBC News, the chair of the expert panel, Alok Mukherjee, said now is the time for city police and other social service agencies, and the Ontario and federal governments to come together, create and adequately fund the services needed to improve community safety and policing work in Thunder Bay.
"There's a great deal of frustration and pessimism in Thunder Bay with regard to the quality of policing," Mukherjee said.
"We came to the realization that the efforts that had been made [in previous years] were not very systemic, that the board had not played its governance role to the extent that it needed to have played in order to move the change forward."
To create that change, the 200-page report included several findings and recommendations, all of which must be acted upon urgently, it says.
Administrator Malcolm Mercer, who holds the sole vote on the oversight board, thanked the expert panel for their work and said the board will now review the report.
"We will now closely review the report for both the board and service to better provide policing to the communities that we serve," he said in a statement.
CBC News has reviewed the report and pulled out the key findings. Follow the links below to skip to a specific section:
- Develop a regional, collaborative policing model.
- Build trust with Indigenous people in the region.
- Address labour relations and a toxic workplace.
- Increased funding from provincial, federal governments.
Track progress on recommendations
Throughout the report, the expert panel makes it clear this work builds on top of the findings and recommendations from the growing number of prior investigations, coroner's inquests and reports into the TBPS.
Collectively, the panel found roughly 550 recommendations that have previously been made about community safety.
Some of those recommendations — like the longstanding call for the creation of a regional forensic pathology unit in Thunder Bay — are out of the hands of police and require action from the Ontario government.
But many others have been made directly to the police and its board, such as the dozens of recommendations from the Office of the Independent Police Review Director's (OIPRD) "Broken Trust" report and retired senator Murray Sinclair's report. Both found evidence of systemic racism, and called for drastic improvements to criminal investigations and governance.
When it comes to those recommendations, the expert panel said that implementation has been uneven and often lacks concrete evidence of the degree to which a recommendation has been carried out.
One example relates to the establishment of a major crimes unit, which was previously marked complete by then police Chief Sylvie Hauth. But the panel contested that finding, saying the unit does not have its full complement, and has been hampered by budget constraints and ongoing staffing challenges.
The panel is calling on the police board to create a timeline with clearly measurable actions to implement outstanding recommendations. To hold itself accountable to the public, the board should create an online, interactive dashboard by this fall, according to the report.
It adds that the provincial oversight bodies — the OIPRD and the Ontario Civilian Police Commission — must continue to monitor the board and the service's progress on implementing the recommendations to ensure there is accountability.
Perhaps one of the more substantial calls in the report is the development of a regional policing model that would see formalized agreements between the four major policing agencies in the immediate region: TBPS, Ontario Provincial Police, Anishinabek Policing Services and the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service.
The report says this model should:
- Share resources and decision-making between the services and their boards.
- Build a joint training and shared firing range facility.
- Implementing a system of continuous exchange of personnel.
- Provide training for TBPS officers by First Nation police services on best practices to deal with key policing issues in Indigenous communities.
- Create blended investigative teams, including Indigenous officers, to investigate cases of Indigenous sudden deaths and missing persons in Thunder Bay and the region.
Some of this work has already started, Mukherjee noted. Acting Chief Dan Taddeo and NAPS Chief Roland Morrison are in the process of finalizing an agreement that would formalize that relationship, he said.
The expert panel said they've reached out to the OPP to gauge interest in such a model, but hadn't heard back from them at the time of writing their final report.
The report details decades of historical and ongoing tensions between Thunder Bay police and Indigenous people in the region, including the work in the 1990s of the Grass Roots Committee on Native and Unsolved Murders in Thunder Bay.
At the time, the committee identified more than 30 suspicious deaths of Indigenous people, where it was alleged the TBPS did not conduct sufficient investigations.
Those concerns have only grown in the following years, especially after the work of the Broken Trust team, which found in a confidential report leaked to CBC News that there was evidence of deficient sudden death investigations as recent as 2019.
Mukherjee said the expert panel heard concerns from active police officers that there could be a "Broken Trust 2.0" report, with even more deficient sudden death investigations caused by the state of violent crime in the city, paired with a lack of resources, training and staffing issues.
Establishing a formalized, regional policing model with First Nations policing services — which have been promised additional funding and resources from the federal government — would help build trust between police and Indigenous people, Mukherjee said.
The panel also notably calls for the reorganization of the police service to include a branch of uniformed and civilian staff focused on Indigenous relations, headed by a second deputy chief position.
The panel also noted some significant changes, including the hiring of senior RCMP officer Darcy Fleury, who is Métis, as the TBPS's new police chief, as well as the recent appointments of "two highly accomplished and respected Indigenous women" to the board.
Part of the expert panel's mandate was to review labour relations within the police service, amidst worsening staff morale and disturbing allegations of a toxic workplace alleged in human rights complaints filed last year with Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.
In its interim report from September, the panel recommended the creation of an independent human rights office that reported directly to the police chief.
In his response from November, Mercer, the board administrator, largely shot down the idea, suggesting it was unnecessary for an office to exist for a police service the size of the TBPS.
Building on that recommendation, the expert panel has called on the board to develop a comprehensive policy focused on human rights, anti-racism and equity, diversity and inclusion, and for the new police chief to redesign an organizational change initiative that champions human rights.
The panel recommended that officers facing allegations of misconduct do not participate in promotional processes until those allegations have been investigated and resolved — a practice that has not taken place to this point.
They also call for an immediate review of all human rights complaints and grievances, and consider an alternative approach to resolving the issues "to restore workplace peace."
Mukherjee acknowledged to CBC News that all of these recommendations, in addition to the many laid out in prior reports, carry a significant cost.
The panel did not calculate the potential cost, Mukherjee told CBC News, but said there may be cost savings if they are implemented — including by reducing legal fees fighting human rights complaints, he gave as an example.
He lauded Thunder Bay's city council for increasing the force's budget in 2023 as a major step forward to ensure the service has the resources they need to properly investigate major crimes.
But the report added the municipal government and its tax base cannot pay for all the services needed to improve community safety and well-being.
The report calls on the Ontario and federal governments to come to the table "to ensure that funding of policing and social services in Thunder Bay matches the needs of the actual population."
Mukherjee told CBC News the expert panel believes the governments have failed the people of Thunder Bay by not ensuring there is sufficient funding in the region.
"We have used the phrase geographic discrimination," Mukherjee said. "When you look at the vastness of the region, when you look at the pressure on this city … the province has to come to the table."
The report is being tabled to the police board at a special meeting on Thursday night. The board is being asked to refer it to their new governance committee to review it and provide a response.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Logan Turner has been working as a journalist for CBC News, based in Thunder Bay, since graduating from journalism school at UBC in 2020. Born and raised along the north shore of Lake Superior in Robinson-Superior Treaty Territory, Logan covers a range of stories focused on health, justice, Indigenous communities, racism and the environment. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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