History of the Commission

Did you know a Calgary mayor once forbid police from raiding illegal gambling halls after a raid in 1888 resulted in some prominent Calgarians being caught? Or that Calgary’s police chief was once demoted to a constable by a council that then directly took over the day-to-day management of the department?

Police governance has taken many forms in Calgary over the years in an attempt to balance the need for both political independence and democratic accountability.

The Early Years

Calgary Police Force Headquarters

Calgary’s first police headquarters building

In Calgary’s early years, it was commonplace for city council to direct law enforcement activities and little thought was given to police independence. Not only did council directly hire, fire and individually set the wages of every officer, but the mayor was also 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 across North America had already adopted the police commission model, but with varying results. When one alderman (the former title of city councillors) proposed a police commission be formed, council was unimpressed with how commissions had worked out elsewhere and instead opted to pass oversight of the police to the city administration, providing some separation without creating a new body.

Calgary Herald Clip - February 24 1908

An editorial in the Calgary Herald on Feb 24, 1908

Media coverage was initially supportive of not having a commission, until the 1912 resignation of a police chief that was underperforming. Desiring a more professional and less politicized approach to police oversight, the Calgary Herald published editorials calling on the city to find 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 leadership model became even louder when, in 1914, the company’s newsies went on strike and the police chief did not crack down on union activities to the level desired by the Herald’s owners. Ironically, 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.

Commissions Come to Alberta

Calgary’s council revisited creating a police commission in 1913, the same year that Lethbridge became the first Alberta municipality to form a police commission. The idea was debated again in 1915, the same year Edmonton formed their first commission. Council decided both times to leave the police under the control of city administration. The province then created a provincial police commission in 1917 to oversee the newly formed Alberta Provincial Police.

Historic City Hall Overtop of Police Headquarters

Calgary’s new city hall being built by police headquarters in 1911

The three Alberta examples likely did not end up easing the concerns of local aldermen though. Lethbridge’s commission was disbanded after just two years when everyone resigned. Edmonton’s commission was abolished and their police chief resigned in disgust after only five years, and the Calgary Herald called the provincial commission an “unhappy experience” before it was reorganized just after its second anniversary.

By the next time that 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

Calgary's first police commissioners

Photo in the Calgary Herald on May 4, 1934

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. Council requested that the 86 members of the police force also get a chance to vote on the issue and an overwhelming majority supported being governed by a commission.

Council required a change to Calgary’s City Charter to create a police commission, a change only the provincial legislature could make. After holding a public plebiscite to gauge Calgarians’ support for both a police commission and hospital board, council sent their requested charter changes to the province in January 1934. Three months later, provincial approval was granted.

 

 

Calgary’s new police commission was to be 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 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 commission meetings, the public was not.

In 1971, the province created the first Police Act and the composition of commissions across the province became 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.

A former Commission Chair delivers a speech

Additional changes over the years to both the provincial Police Act and Calgary’s bylaws eventually resulted in provincial appointees being dropped and citizen appointees being added to create the 12 person 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 responsibility for investigating and disciplining police misconduct now largely being handled by other specialized bodies.

What has never changed though is the main function of the commission – providing independent governance and oversight of Calgary’s police on behalf of all Calgarians.