Matthew Martin has never been charged with a crime. He’s never been arrested, pulled over, or received so much as a parking ticket.
So the 29-year-old Saint John man was shocked to be told he had failed a security clearance check required to sit on the Saint John Board of Police Commissioners.
“I have never had any negative interaction with police,” Martin said.
Martin, who is president and CEO of Black Lives Matter New Brunswick, applied to the commission in summer 2020. A City of Saint John news release called for “citizens from all backgrounds to get involved.”
The Saint John police commission is tasked with helping maintain an adequate police force and advising common council on police funding decisions.
Growing up in the old north end, Martin said, meant he regularly saw police doing drop-ins at local community centres and dealing with his friends and family members. That, he said, gave him perspective on where the force could improve.
On the police commission, he said, he hoped to “bring the perspective of an individual who interacts regularly with police.”
Martin also sits on the chief’s advisory committee, a group intended to “increase diversity, inclusion, transparency, and accountability” in Saint John’s policing service.
Father, brothers have criminal records
More than a year passed between Martin’s initial application and an Aug. 31, 2021, email from the city clerk’s office saying he had “been recommended by Council for appointment to the Saint John Board of Police Commissioners for the next opening in November,” pending a security clearance.
On Nov. 30, 2021, City of Saint John administrative officer Richard Evans wrote back, “we have been informed that you did not pass the security clearance check” and advised Martin he was “not eligible to be appointed.”
Martin said no one told him specifically what happened to his recommendation.
The Level 2 security clearance form contains the disclaimer “to protect the confidentiality of sources, the Saint John Police Force will not provide detailed reasons for any failure to pass the security screening process.”
But Martin believes he knows why he failed to pass the check.
A section on the security clearance form asks for information on a long list of the applicant’s immediate family members, ranging from parents and siblings to in-laws and their spouses.
“I come from a poverty neighborhood. My father has a criminal record and my brothers have a criminal record,” said Martin, who grew up in the area around Main Street North.
“But myself, I kept my nose clean and really tried to focus on my future life.
“If we look at the facts, that is the only factor that I can see coming into play: the criminal record of someone in my past,” Martin said.
While Doug Jones, the vice-chair of the police commission, said he had no knowledge of Martin’s specific situation, having a close family member with a criminal record could compromise sensitive information.
“If I had a brother that was a member of an outlaw group of some kind, the chances of me getting a security clearance would be relatively small, I would think,” Jones said.
“You could potentially be put in a situation where you might be conflicted, or inadvertently information would get shared.”
Insp. Anika Becker with the Kennebecasis Regional Police Force, the third-party agency that conducted Martin’s security check, said, “we use the names and dates of birth to determine if someone has a criminal record. If someone identified on the list of immediate family members has a criminal record, we do flag it, but we don’t say what it is or who it is. We process it and send it back.”
Requiring a security clearance to sit on a police commission “is common in other jurisdictions in Canada, and has been followed in Saint John for over 15 years,” Nathalie Logan, a communications officer with the City of Saint John, said in an emailed statement.
‘Biases can be pro-police as well’
But just because a policy is common doesn’t mean it is fair, according to Michael Boudreau, professor of criminology and criminal justice at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.
While the intention of a security check may be to screen for anti-police bias or potential conflicts of interest, “biases can be pro-police as well. If you have not had any interactions with police, you might think the police can do no wrong.”
Since people are hesitant to publicly admit they or a family member has been in contact with the law, in most cases the public will never know who applies to a police commission and is rejected.
“You may not want to [speak out] publicly because you may feel embarrassed by that, or you don’t want to put your family member in that situation.
“We don’t hear about this as often as we should. I suspect that it does happen more often than we know.”
Some municipal police commissions, Boudreau said, are “essentially rubber stamps for everything the police do and say — and that is not their role. Their role should be to look more carefully and critically at what the police do.”
Most important, “we are a changing, diverse society, which is a very positive thing,” he said. “Policing and police oversight needs to reflect that diversity, and currently neither are really doing that properly.”
Privilege versus poverty
Martin said his situation is about “privilege versus poverty,” not race.
“I have a clean criminal record, so why is it fair, because of my upbringing and the family I was born into, that I’m being punished for their choices?”
Jones said the security clearance requirement for the police commission will remain in place for the time being — but individuals like Martin are welcome to contribute in other ways.
“There are certain criteria you have to meet to be on the commission, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not open to hearing those perspectives and voices. There are different ways to share that and take advantage of the people who want to contribute, and we are more than happy to do so.”
Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon, who chairs the nominating committee for city agencies, boards, and commissions declined to comment on Martin’s situation, but said it would “make sense for the requirements for appointments to the police commission to be clarified, which would require the nominating committee to direct the general counsel’s office to conduct a review.”
“We have emerging community interest in policing, and it would be appropriate to update this,” she said.
‘What is this system being designed to do?’
Martin said he doesn’t feel heard in this process.
“The city continues to talk about being diverse, equitable, and inclusive — but their policies and their actions are not showing it, and it’s clear in this situation.
“Every system is designed to get the results that it gets,” he said. “So my question is: what is this system being designed to do?
“Right now, it looks like it is designed to keep those with privilege on these boards, and those individuals who live in priority neighbourhoods, who could really bring the perspective to the table, are not being invited to the table.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.