Dr. Bonnie Henry’s lapse in credibility: A lesson for all

This is no time for questions of rock-solid trust in our public health leaders. Yet, British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, a paragon of trust, veracity, and evidence-based pandemic science in Canada, recently sustained a bizarre and credibility crushing moment during a presentation to a legislative committee looking at Police Act reforms. It is a lesson for us all as I delineate below in my list of Reputation Teflon Tips: Perhaps driven by hubris, noble intentions, or simply fatigue after a year of almost daily Covid briefings, Dr. Henry presented herself as an expert on policing, especially policing vulnerable populations plagued by alcohol, drugs, and the often associated mental illness and or emotional distress.

As reported in the Vancouver Sun on February 23 (https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/culture-clash-between-rcmp-and-municipal-police-leads-to-different-treatment-for-people-in-mental-health-crisis-provincial-health-officer), the good doctor opined that there is a “culture clash” between the RCMP and “municipal police.” Which, at least according to the media reports, is Dr. Henry’s first cloud of confusion.

Reputation Teflon Tip 1. Be clear with your “facts.” Citing a “culture clash” between the RCMP approach to policing and “municipal policing,” Dr. Henry paints a very incomplete picture of the facts. The fact is, in 2019 (most current data), there were 77 municipalities in BC responsible for providing police services within their municipal boundaries.
Twelve municipalities were policed by municipal police departments and 65 were policed by the RCMP. Of those municipalities in BC over a population of 15,000, there are 31 with contracts with the RCMP to be policed by that service. These bigger municipalities, including Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, Burnaby, Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, Prince George in the north, and Kelowna in the sunny Okanagan pay 90 percent of policing costs. These are very much “municipal police” departments with budgets and priorities set by local municipal councils.

There are indeed “municipal police” departments to use Dr. Henry’s vague language. There are 11 of them in BC with their own police officers and no contractual ties with the RCMP. They pay 100% of costs. The obvious ones are Vancouver, Victoria, Delta within the Lower Mainland, and Nelson (population about 11,00) in BC’s southern Interior.

And then we have about 121 municipalities with a population under 5,000 spread throughout BC, which again according to BC government police statistics, are served by smaller RCMP detachments and for which the BC government pays 70 percent of costs and the federal government 30 percent.

As well reported now in many news and social media outlets, the Vancouver Sun’s article reported, “Henry said she has noticed a major difference in how RCMP and municipal officers reflect community values, especially when it comes to dealing with mental health and addiction. Henry said in her experience, municipal police officers are “more closely aligned with the community and the community norms and ideas and issues.”

Now, no disputing Dr. Henry’s credentials and expertise in medicine and public health. But also criminology, police sciences, social work, and sociology? Please Dr. Henry, take care when venturing into dark forests of uncertain trails. Her comments lead many to question her research and fact-checking in general. Not a good time for that now with pandemic madness. I wasn’t present when Dr. Henry made her assertions but I can only conclude there were follow-up questions about exactly what did she mean precisely by “Municipal” and “RCMP: policing?

Oh wait..Dr. Henry offered “proof” according to the Vancouver Sun report “We see a real difference in the culture and the understanding of the norms within British Columbia and the approaches in B.C. when we’re talking with people who work with the RCMP versus a municipal police force,” she said. Henry’s brother-in-law used to be a Mountie with Sayward RCMP, so she says she understands the challenges facing small RCMP detachments.” (my italics and bold type).

Sayward? Say what? Say…where?!!!! Well I am certain her brother-in-law may have served in many detachments as RCMP members do, but the reported reference point for her research and analysis is the community of Sayward located on Vancouver Island near the scenic Sayward forest.. According to the BC Government’s Police Resources in British Columbia (2019) publication, Sayward has a population of 796 with three full time RCMP sworn officers, and a crime rate a little over the average for all small municipalities. So let’s be clear. Dr. Henry’s sample size is based on N=1?

Reputation tip No. 2. Have all the facts. Dr. Henry does raise a major point with her albeit abstract and fuzzy presentation. As reported, she said ““We need to do better at equipping our police — hopefully not to be doctors and nurses, but to be that first aid that helps bring people along rather than traumatize them,” she said. Well, duh, yeah! But instead of creating conflicts and nonsensical biases between municipal and RCMP police officers Dr. Henry should point the sharp finger of blame where it lies and that is squarely in the lap of all provincial governments in BC who have blindly, willfully, and unconscionably short-changed funding for RCMP services in the province.

Way back in 2014 an RCMP survey of municipal leaders, those that are served by the RCMP, showed that the greatest single contributor to increased demands on police services in their community (62%) was “Reduction in services from other agencies dealing with social, health, and education issues.” This issue was seen by municipal officials as having a far greater impact than a growing population, high unemployment, an elderly population, an increase of younger adults, and ethnic diversity (the survey gathered opinions from 103 municipal leaders from 92 communities).

Nothing much has changed since 2014. The Province continues to underfund policing in BC and while it indeed does pay 70 percent of policing costs in the smaller communities especially in need of social services and drug and alcohol tragedies, it claws back 31 percent of that generosity through a Provincial Police tax. In the 2019 report from the Police Services Division (the latest) it pulled in $31 million from the Police Tax pouring it into the black hole of General Revenues. Meanwhile, Mounties daily serve their communities as police officers, welfare counsellors, substance abuse specialists, and whatever else is asked of them because no other agency is fully equipped to have their back. Many surveys have shown this condition has a debilitating impact on both the emotional and physical wellness of RCMP officers.

So, Dr. Henry, the broad and troubling matter of a pandemic demands clear facts, credibility, and sustained trust. Maybe best not to venture into that dark and strange forest of dangerous pathways that can hurt your stature on things you certainly know.

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