History of our Commission
Did you know Calgary’s mayor forbid police from raiding illegal gambling halls in 1888 after a raid resulted in several prominent Calgarians being arrested? Or that Calgary’s police chief was once demoted to a constable so city council could take over directing the day-to-day activities of officers?
Fortunately, police governance has evolved significantly since those days. Our society now recognizes the need to protect law enforcement from being used for political purposes, while still providing indirect accountability to our community’s elected leaders.
The Early Years
In the early years, it was common for council to direct law enforcement activities, often in the favour of wealthy and politically connected citizens. Not only did council directly hire, fire and individually set the wages of each officer, but the mayor was automatically a justice of the peace tasked with conducting trials.
By 1908, Calgary’s court system had greatly improved and the city had started to turn its mind towards preventing the police from being used for private political interests. Other cities had already adopted the police commission model, but with varying results.
When one alderman (the former title of city councillors) proposed a police commission for Calgary, council was unimpressed with how commissions had worked out elsewhere. They instead opted to pass governance of the police to the city administration, providing some separation from council.
Media coverage was initially supportive of this arrangement. However, this had changed by 1912.
Desiring a more professional and less politicized approach to police governance, the Calgary Herald published editorials calling for a better model. Pushing for more distance from council, one editorial stated that, “there are certain portions of a civic administration that are better kept apart from elections, and the police force is one of them.”
The Herald’s public calls for a new police governance model became even louder when, in 1914, the police chief did not crack down on union activities after the company’s newsies went on strike.
The way this outrage at the police was expressed was mostly just confusing. Some editorials argued that the existing model gave the chief too much autonomy while others argued that council had too much control of the force.
Police Commissions Come to Alberta
Lethbridge established Alberta’s first police commission in 1913, causing Calgary to revisit the idea. The idea was debated again after Edmonton established their first commission in 1915, and again when the province created a provincial police commission in 1917 to oversee the newly-formed Alberta Provincial Police.
The three Alberta examples likely did not ease the hesitations of aldermen in Calgary though. Lethbridge’s commission was disbanded after two years when all the commissioners resigned. Edmonton’s commission was abolished and their police chief resigned in disgust after only five years. As for the provincial commission, it was completely reorganized after just two years of what the Calgary Herald characterized as an “unhappy experience.”
By the next time the idea of a police commission came up in Calgary, most municipalities in British Columbia and Ontario had moved to the model, and both Saskatchewan and Manitoba were quickly catching up. Even small cities like Moose Jaw, Fernie and Cranbrook had established well-functioning, independent police commissions.
A Commission Comes to Calgary
In October 1933, council passed a motion from Alderman William Ayer Lincoln to explore creating a police commission. A council committee recommended after two months of studying other cities that Calgary adopt the model.
A public plebiscite showed support for the change and Council even requested that a separate vote be held for the 86 members of the police force. An overwhelming majority supported being governed by a commission.
Council formally asked the provincial legislature to amend Calgary’s City Charter in January 1934 so a police commission could be formed. Three months later, provincial approval was granted.
Calgary’s new police commission had broad responsibilities that included licensing, traffic control, directing the police chief and disciplining officers. It was made up of the individuals holding three different offices: the mayor, the senior judge of the district court, and the senior police court magistrate. In 1934, these positions were held by Mayor Andrew Davidson, Judge E.P. McNeill, and Magistrate H.G. Scott.
The first Calgary Police Commission meeting was held on May 11, 1934.
Commissioners hit the ground running, directing at their first meeting that Chief David Ritchie update the Calgary Police Force’s manual, which had not been changed since 1912. During their first year, the commission also designed new stop signs for the city, revoked a taxi driver’s licence, worked with the school board to address school break and enters, and recommended to council that several cigar shops be closed.
The Commission of Today
The Calgary Police Commission remained the same until council added two aldermen in 1955. Council also considered making the commission meetings public at the time but decided against it. While media had always been allowed to observe meetings, the public was not.
In 1971, the province created the first Police Act and the composition of commissions across the province was standardized. Commissions were required to have three people appointed by the province (in consultation with the local mayor) and two people appointed by council, which in Calgary were both aldermen. For the first time, police commission meetings were also open to the public.
Additional changes over the years to the Police Act and local bylaws saw the elimination of provincial appointees and the addition of ten council-appointed community members. City councillors always kept their two seats, except for a brief period in the mid-1990s when a senior member of the city administration was appointed instead.
By 2023, Calgary’s commission had become a diverse group of people bringing a wide range of expertise and experience to their role as commissioners. Following the lead of most other provinces across the country, the Government of Alberta reinstated provincial appointees to create the commission of today.
The role of the Calgary Police Commission has also changed substantially with responsibility for licensing and traffic control being returned to the city administration and provincial bodies now being far more involved in investigating police use of force and addressing serious police misconduct.
What has never changed is the Calgary Police Commission’s main function – to provide independent governance of Calgary’s police on behalf of all Calgarians.