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Saskatoon Police: 2005

Stonechild public forum lightly attended

Saskatoon Police crest

A one-time forum to solicit public response on how to improve relations between the community and the Saskatoon police force in the aftermath of the Neil Stonechild inquiry attracted a thin crowd Tuesday night.

The newly created committee on strategic renewal, a sub-committee of the board of police commissioners, held the forum at the Centennial Auditorium to seek feedback on the recommendations for change that came out of the Stonechild inquiry report.

The report and recommendations focus on two main areas: enhancing race relations and improving the police complaints process.

"A reputation can be built over a career but destroyed in an hour. It will take a lot to demonstrate a willingness to work together but that's what we're trying to do," said police Chief Russ Sabo.

In September 2003, the inquiry into the freezing death of Stonechild, 17, began. Two Saskatoon police constables were suspended from duty and later fired after Justice David Wright, the inquiry's commissioner, found they had Stonechild in their custody on the night he was last seen alive.

It was the second time Saskatoon police were implicated in such a case. Two other constables Ken Munson and Dan Hatchen were fired in 2001 after they were convicted of unlawful confinement for abandoning an intoxicated aboriginal man, Darrell Night, on the outskirts of the city in 2000.

"What brought this (report) to a head was devastating to our police service. Hopefully this will establish confidence that we are doing things to improve," said Sabo.

The committee on strategic renewal considers the recommendations to be a draft at this point, said Mayor Don Atchison, chair of the police commission.

Rather than a formal presentation with a question-and-answer period at the end, the committee set up display boards on easels around the room. The boards contained a summary of Wright's report, while the complete package was also available.

People were encouraged to walk around between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. and speak to committee on strategic renewal members, police commissioners, Atchison, Sabo and Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Glenn Johnstone. Each display board had at least one person from those groups ready to discuss the issue.

If people preferred, they could fill out a comment form at a table with a dozen spots to sit. By 8 p.m., the table looked as though no one had been there, although a box did contain a handful of completed sheets.

Atchison said he wasn't concerned "one bit" by the fact only about 20 people filled the room at any one time -- about 15 of them being organizers.

"There are people coming and going all the time," he said, standing by an easel outlining a proposed new complaints process that would put the provincial minister of justice in charge.

"That's why we decided to have the forum in this format. It's designed for people to take in at their convenience and to focus on the issues that concern them most. We know not everyone could be here for 7 p.m. if we were to hold a presentation. And we know not everyone could have stayed until 9 p.m."

The committee on strategic renewal will also meet with the tribal council and Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations to get more feedback, but Tuesday night was the only public forum.

"The reason is time," explained Atchison. "We could run this forever and never get to a point where everyone agrees. But we intend to implement something as soon as possible."

In fact, some of the recommendations have been acted on, he noted. The police service hired two aboriginal liaison officers even before the report came out suggesting it.

"We're serious about this," said Atchison, promising to do what he can while pushing for those things not in his control.

"We can't tell the justice minister what to do but we can suggest it because we feel we have pretty good reasons. How would you feel if you had a complaint about the police that you had to make to the police? Well, that's the way it is right now.

"We want people to feel comfortable. There needs to be trust."

One man, who only provided his first name, Dave, said the report is lacking in some areas. It seems to point to the police as being solely responsible for making communities safe, yet there are many other organizations involved.

Pinning it all on the police is unfair, he said.

After all of the stakeholder groups have had input, the revised recommendations will go to the Saskatchewan Police Commission and then the justice minister before going back to the board of police commissioners.