The UCP provincial government intends to install political appointees to police commissions across Alberta. For Calgary, the UCP has given themselves the power to appoint up to fifty per cent of the Calgary Police Commission.
The provincial government already has power over the justice system. With the Alberta Sovereignty within a United Canada Act, the UCP have given themselves the power to direct an organization like the Calgary Police Service to disobey federal law. With Bill 6, the new Police Amendment Act, the UCP are seeking control over police commissions, the organizations tasked with police oversight and governance. More importantly, police commissions are supposed to be where policing is responsive to citizens, not other orders of government.
The concentration of power over policing in the hands of the provincial government makes political interference over policing unavoidable. These changes will likely make policing less responsive to local community concerns, and present troubling risks to our democracy.
Local autonomy—known perhaps better to the current Government of Alberta as “freedom”— is cast into question. The City of Calgary funds the Calgary Police Service to the tune of $453 million a year, yet these changes reduce the ability for Calgarians to provide oversight of our own police service. The City of Calgary, and in turn, Calgarians, are increasingly serving the role of a bank, paying for policing that is largely controlled by a provincial Minister.
Bill 6: Police Amendment Act, passed on December 15, 2022, has three major issues.
First, Bill 6 will force police commissions to align their oversight priorities and direction with the priorities of the Government of Alberta, competing with local needs and concerns. Police oversight and direction should never be subject to partisan influence, be it the UCP, the NDP, or any political party.
Second, Bill 6 gives the Minister of Justice the power to add political appointees to police commissions. For a commission the size of Calgary’s, the Minister of Justice could make up to fifty per cent of the Calgary Police Commission political appointees. This significantly reduces the voice of citizens — at least, those without connections to a political party— on police commissions.
And third, Bill 6 strengthens the power of the Minister of Justice to personally interfere with the work of Commission if there is ever a “disagreement” between commission, the community, and police services.
For context, there are three core principles of policing in Alberta, listed in the Alberta Policing Oversight Standards for Municipal Police Commissions:
Bill 6 pushes the boundaries of every single principle of police oversight in Alberta. The changes put forward by the UCP to police commissions undermine the independence of civilian oversight of the police and damages the credibility of commissions.
The Police Act Reform bill does contain some long-awaited and welcome changes, including independent review of police misconduct and complaints. Altogether, however, this legislation is a classic case of one step forward, three steps back.
With the recently-passed Alberta Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act, the UCP have given themselves the power to direct provincial bodies (like the City of Calgary and the Calgary Police Service) to disobey federal laws that “harm Alberta.”
The burden of proof for what will “harm Alberta” is troublingly low: the only requirement for enacting these powers is the Government of Alberta’s opinion.
With the federal government’s Bill C-21 on the horizon which predominately targets handguns and assault-style weapons, the UCP are positioning themselves to not only direct the police to not enforce federal laws through the use of the Sovereignty Act, but are now asserting influence over oversight bodies that might disagree with them.
This raises the spectre of politicized or partisan policing. Recent incidents have called into question the political independence of police services, such as the unauthorized surveillance of an elected Member of the Legislature by members of the Lethbridge Police Service, and alleged leaks from the Ontario Provincial Police to Ottawa occupiers. These incidents underline how important it is to have police services that operate in the absence of political influence.
Advocates for police reform have long demanded better citizen oversight and transparency, not less. This bill concentrates power over municipal policing into whichever political party has control of the provincial government and is not responsive to the needs of Calgarians.
It is unclear where this recommendation came from, or which community voices even asked for it.
Who, in four years of engagement, suggested that more partisanship and less citizen oversight was the solution?
Update: On May 9th, 2023, Council learned that that three new members of the Calgary Police Commission had been appointed by the Minister on April 24th. Calgary Police Commission was informed of the appointments on May 1st. Council voted against updating its bylaws that would have aligned them with the new Police Act.