Police accountability should take place in public, councillor says

· The Pulse

More discussions about police accountability should take place in public, says Coun. Anne Stevenson, one of two city councillors serving on the Edmonton Police Commission.

Stevenson told Episode 175 of Speaking Municipally, Taproot's civic affairs podcast, that when she started her term as a police commissioner she was surprised at how quiet the public meetings were. "I wasn't hearing a lot of questions," she said. She soon learned that the way information is shared — first with private committees of the commission, then later at public meetings — means that there aren't many questions left when an item finally comes before the public.

"I see the accountability, I see the questions that come up. I think they're good questions, they're the right questions to be asking. But again, the public doesn't get to see any of that," Stevenson said. "In my mind it's a real shame that that's not happening in public."

"I think that the absence of seeing the act of accountability can work to undermine the confidence that people have in that."

Stevenson also suggested that increasing the number of Edmonton Police Commission staff might strengthen the commission's ability to provide oversight. Having more staff would allow for dedicated resources to review reports, provide feedback, and draft recommendations, she explained.

"So instead of the (Edmonton Police Service) providing recommendations to commissioners, it would be the commission staff providing those recommendations," Stevenson said.

No discussions about increasing the number of commission employees have taken place yet, but Stevenson said she thinks there's appetite for the idea. "It's a conversation I'm keen to have," she said. "I think that's something we can move toward."

According to its latest financial report, the commission has an annual budget of about $1.4 million, 56% of which is spent on personnel costs.

A third idea from Stevenson to "rethink" the commission is to consider making city council members non-voting. "It is very complicated to govern two separate organizations which have such a close relationship with each other," she said.

In March, city council approved amendments to the Edmonton Police Commission Bylaw to allow for one additional public member, expanding the maximum size of the commission to 12 members. Currently, two of the commissioners may be city councillors or employees of the city, but they serve as full members.

"I think it's worth exploring...having non-voting members of council on the commission, I think there's real value in that."

Anne Stevenson at a podium

Anne Stevenson, who was sworn in as a city councillor on Oct. 26, 2021, said serving on the Edmonton Police Commission was her top pick for board and commission appointments. (Mack Male/Flickr)

Stevenson signalled a focus on community safety during her campaign, and after she was elected, identified the police commission as her top pick for boards and commissions to serve on. But she said her interest in the topic shouldn't get in the way of asking hard questions.

"Something that I'm really mindful of is constantly checking in with myself to make sure that I'm not self-censoring," Stevenson said. "I don't want my desire to be on the commission to silence me in any way, to prevent me from sharing thoughts and helping, hopefully, to facilitate some change and more community conversation about these issues."

When asked why she did not speak up at the Edmonton Police Commission meeting in February when commissioners were asked if they stood behind chair John McDougall's op-ed defending the Edmonton Police Service response to the convoy protests, Stevenson said she was unsure about how she was allowed to respond.

"We have a very strict guideline in our code of conduct as commissioners that only the chair and the vice-chair speak to members of the media," she said. "That was the rule I was holding in my head and which is why I didn't speak out."

Stevenson said she has since clarified that she can speak up and express an opinion, she just cannot speak on behalf of the commission.

"It was that moment, that feeling of frustration of not being able to be transparent, of not being able to speak openly, that really spurred me to have those conversations about...what are the limits of my oath as a commissioner, what are the legalities around it."

"That is not how I should have handled it," Stevenson said. "If I had the information I have now, I definitely would have responded differently."

Stevenson also addressed concerns that commissioners aren't allowed to criticize police.

"I think that there has been an implicit belief or understanding that if you join the police commission you can no longer critique the police," she said. "Through the analysis that I've done and the legal advice that I've received, that is in no way the case."

Stevenson said it is important to have difficult conversations about police, in public. "I think it's always important to remember that questions are not criticism, and that criticisms are not attacks."

She also cautioned against falling into the narrative of being pro- or anti-police.

"I think, genuinely, we are often all working towards a similar end goal," Stevenson said. "I think we really run into problems when we see others as enemies."

"We need to be tough on the problems and easy on the people."