A group of Alberta researchers and police officers is studying the possibility of establishing a provincial college of policing.
They've been given a $100,000 grant from the B.C. provincial government to examine the feasibility of professionalizing law enforcement through a regulatory body, much like how medical professions are supervised.
The research will cover if and how police in British Columbia could be licensed through a college — one that would protect the public from officer malpractice by establishing and enforcing ethics codes, educational requirements and professional standards.
It's being headed by three academics: a criminologist from Mount Royal University, a Calgary Police Service officer who is also a lecturer at the university, and a police chief with a PhD in education.
"I believe it would have a profound impact and improvement on public trust and, in the public's view, trust and legitimacy in those agencies," said Kelly Sundberg, a professor at MRU.
"I think it's time to stop looking at gizmos and gadgets and to start looking at how do we change this institution."
The study begins in the coming weeks and will look at models in the U.K., where the country professionalized its own police forces in 2012.
The research is slated to wrap up in September 2022.
A provincial college could register and license officers, standardize enforcement and investigation policies, establish credential requirements, make rulings on complaints against officers and facilitate continuing education for established officers — rather than having those specifics dictated by a mixture of boards or committees at the provincial and municipal level.
Each province would have jurisdiction over the professionalizing body, and the researchers say the funding of the college would rely heavily on government funds and fees from members, much like medical colleges. The researchers say the idea would require buy-in from police forces.
Change the 'root causes of concern,' researcher says
The B.C. government has money set aside for academic research like this through its Crime Reduction Research Program (CRRP), and the group has had preliminary conversations with the Government of Alberta.
"The intent of the CRRP is to explore and expand interest in focused research based in Canadian universities on crime reduction, policing and public safety issues and to improve evidence-based decision making in criminal justice," said a statement from the B.C. government, sent after initial publication of this story.
"This particular project can assist in the current work being done in B.C. of modernizing the Police Act."
There is no peer-reviewed regime for police practices in Alberta, Sundberg said. Alberta's government is studying the potential costs, benefits and logistics of replacing RCMP services with a provincial police force.
The office of Alberta's minister of justice said the government's focus is on reforming the Police Act, under which officers are already regulated.
"The Government of Alberta is undertaking a full-scale reform of the Police Act to modernize policing in this province, and will address things like establishing a credible complaints process throughout the entire province, officer educational requirements and civilian oversight," the statement reads.
Graham Abela, the police chief in Taber, said he hoped Alberta would be the first province to study an external body like a professional college.
"What is it that we can establish that are clearly defined roles, functions and educational needs that people should have to enter what we call the profession of policing, and then we should certify them to do so," he said.
"We're still hiring people into our industry that have a Grade 12 education, go through 26 weeks of training.… And I can tell you, some of them have never had a course focusing on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But yet we ask them to go and deal with people utilizing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms every day."
Abela said professionalizing policing would help as law enforcement undergoes a period of extreme change and scrutiny.
"The public are demanding and asking for much more transparency, much more oversight and accountability that, in my view, has to be provided by an external source."
Sundberg said a college could address some of the growing concerns people have expressed with law enforcement tactics and conduct in recent years, including at the federal level.
"[A college] would cost about the same as applying body cameras to every Mountie. Which, in my view, it makes more sense to change the foundational root causes of concern."
Education and continuing skills training for officers
On top of the college handling things like misconduct allegations, the researchers say a college could require specific education for certain roles. Currently, there is no core educational requirement for officers to prepare them for many specializations, such as the cybercrimes unit.
The group says a college could build on many of the principles already in provincial police acts, but it would be more hands-on and add other important components like education.
Sundberg rejected the idea that adding a regulatory body would increase the complexity of entering policing and therefore drive down the number of recruits.
Once the study concludes, the group is hoping to meet with the B.C. minister and deputy minister of public safety to review the results. Then the stakeholders could discuss how to proceed with potentially starting up a college, which the research team thinks is feasible — not only in B.C., but in other provinces.
Despite work starting now, Sundberg says it could take years to see a college of policing established in a Canadian province.