Stricter bail a 'balancing act' with overrepresented groups: police chiefs

OTTAWA — Toughening up the bail system without putting more people of colour behind bars is a balancing act, the leader of Canada's police chiefs said Tuesday.

Danny Smyth, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, made the comments in Ottawa after meeting other chiefs to discuss opportunities to recruit more immigrants into the profession.

The talks, held as part of the association's annual conference, come as the federal Liberal cabinet meets in Prince Edward Island ahead of Parliament's return next month. Housing, immigration and bail reform are expected to top the government's agenda.

Following a spate of high-profile violent crimes in the last year — including fatal shootings of officers — the police chiefs were among the voices calling on the federal government to reform the bail system to make it harder for people accused of certain crimes to return to the community. Premiers and advocates for victims of crime also encouraged the government to take action.

Criminal justice experts and defence lawyers say the bail system already has problems with bias: Black and Indigenous people are overrepresented and have difficulty getting bail, as do people suffering from mental health conditions.

"What I think people sometimes overlook is that the victims of crime are the very communities that (we're) talking about, where the racialized or the marginalized communities become very vulnerable. It's those people that are being harmed as well," said Smyth, who is also Winnipeg's police chief.

"There's a bit of a balancing act there," he added, saying "the reforms being considered are very specific to repeat violent offenders."

Since being appointed justice minister in last month's cabinet shuffle, Arif Virani has said his top priority is to pass a suite of new bail measures.

The government bill, presented by Virani's predecessor David Lametti in May, places a reverse onus on people charged with serious violence offences involving a weapon who have been convicted of a similar offence in the last five years.

In typical bail scenarios, a Crown prosecutor must convince a judge why an accused person should remain behind bars until a court hears their charge.

Under reverse onus provisions, the burden shifts to the person who is in custody to show a judge why they should be released while awaiting their day in court.

The Liberals are also seeking to add certain firearm offences and cases involving intimate partner violence to the reverse-onus provisions.

Virani has defended the government's move to make it harder for some people to get bail at a time when it's also tried to reduce the overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.

He has said the tougher reforms apply to a "finite" number of repeat offenders, and efforts to reduce the number of people of colour in jail mainly focus on non-violent offences.

Smyth, who has one year left in his term as president of the chiefs, said Tuesday that reforming the bail system is an important step to address violence, but he emphasized it is only "one step."

Statistics Canada recently said the country saw an uptick in violent crime last year, signalling a possible return to a trend that was disrupted by by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, which led to months of sweeping lockdowns.

On the issue of immigration, Smyth said many newcomers who are entering Canada do so with "strained" relationships with police based on experiences in their home countries.

"To many immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants and their families, policing is synonymous with corruption or oppression," he said.

At the same time, cities are set to become more diverse as Canada seeks to welcome half a million immigrants per year by 2025, which Smyth said underlines the need for police to build better relationships with newcomers.

The relationship between police and Indigenous, Black or other people of colour has been under a microscope in recent years following the 2020 U.S. slaying of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. It triggered a widespread reckoning about systemic racism within policing, also highlighted by Canada's national inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in 2019.

Smyth himself has faced criticism after deciding against searching a landfill outside Winnipeg for the remains of two slain Indigenous women — an issue he said Tuesday was "complicated" to discuss, but is now in the hands of the federal and provincial governments to decide what to do.

Ottawa Police Chief Eric Stubbs added Tuesday that when a tragedy or crisis strikes members of a particular ethnic community, having an officer who reflects that diversity lays the groundwork for better communication and increased trust.

Housing experts have warned that Canada's immigration targets are putting pressuring on an already worsening accommodation crisis.

Smyth said Tuesday it is crucial that people entering the country have access to the proper social supports to avoid becoming vulnerable. “At this point we’re not seeing a ton of pressure on policing that I’m aware of ... but it’s something to be mindful of."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug.22, 2023.

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press