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Should police boards be elected?

Today, the Times Colonist notes that Britain is experimenting with elected police commissioners. The editorial wonders if a similar system would work here, but makes no mention of the fact that citizens in BC directly elected police board members between 1917 and 1957.

This doesn’t surprise me. When it comes to policing, we think about our modern society, we don’t think about history.

In 2003, the SolGen’s office, through the Justice Institute of BC, published a review of municipal police board governance. Page 21 notes the history of police boards in British Columbia:

  • 1996 (Police Act): Required all municipal police departments (12) to be governed by a panel of up to seven members consisting of a mayor, one person appointed by the municipal council, and up to five other persons appointed by the Lieutenant Governor in Council. The enactment of this legislation strengthened the ongoing influence of provincial authority over police boards.
  • 1974 (Police Act): Replaced all preceding legislation on police boards and required all municipal police departments (12) to be governed by a panel of five consisting of a mayor (ex officio chairman), one person appointed by municipal council, and three persons appointed by the Lieutenant- Governor in Council. The enactment of this legislation guaranteed the ongoing influence of provincial government authority over police boards.
  • 1957 (Municipal Act): Provincial legislation that abolished “direct election boards” and required that boards be comprised of a mayor (or Reeve) who was ex officio chairman, one person appointed by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council, and another by municipal council. The interesting part of these changes was the absence of comment restricting whom council could appoint (i.e. the person could be an elected official).
  • 1917 (Municipal Act Amendment Act): All municipalities were required to have a board comprised of a mayor (or reeve), who was ex officio Chairman of the Board, and two other persons who were to be directly elected to their positions on the board by the citizens of the municipality.
  • 1899 (Municipal Clauses Act Amendment Act): Representation on police boards changed. Two persons would be appointed by the Lieutenant Governor in Council, one of who would be a member of Council. This amendment removed the requirement for judicial representation, increased elected municipal representation on the board and re-emphasized the provincial government’s desire to control policing.
  • 1896 (Municipal Clauses Act replaces the Municipal Act): Only cities were required to have police boards. Boards were comprised of a mayor, police magistrate and a person selected by the Lieutenant Governor in Council. All municipalities were required to report to the Superintendent of Police. Again, Vancouver and New Westminster were exempt.
  • 1893 (Municipalities Act Amendment Act): Provincial statute requires all municipalities to establish a police board comprised of a mayor, the local county or district judge and police magistrate. The only municipalities exempt were Vancouver and New Westminster. This Act effectively conceded provincial power over governance of the police from the Superintendent of Police to the municipalities.

I’ve edited this timeline for clarity and brevity. Check out the original timeline on page 21 here (which itself is based on the research of Philip Stenning in his report Police Commissions and Boards in Canada).