Anti-racism advocate, officials weigh in on new Hamilton police services board member

Hamilton’s police services board has a new member that Mayor Fred Eisenberger hopes will provide the board with “valuable insight and experience.”

Mel Athulathmudali is one of three provincially appointed board members and replaces Don MacVicar, whose five-year term ended last month.

In a release from the board, Athulathmudali is described as a longtime resident of Hamilton who was born in Sri Lanka and moved here with his family when he was a child.

He is a member of the LGBTQ2 community — which is notable in light of the tension between police and the city’s LGBTQ2 residents following police response to violence at last year’s Hamilton Pride festival.

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The city’s police services board has also been criticized in the past for a lack of diversity.

Kojo Damptey, interim executive director for the Hamilton Centre of Civic Inclusion, said Athulathmudali’s appointment is a good starting point, but it’s not a magical “fix” to a bigger problem.

“When we talk about representation, we’re not just talking about the presence of marginalized identities or communities,” said Damptey. “We’re also talking about an understanding of policing on those communities.”

He pointed to the fact that there are already two people on the board — Pat Mandy and Tom Jackson — who are members of racialized communities. Mandy is a member of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, and Jackson is Armenian-Canadian.

“Our expectation is that yes, there should be representation, but they should also understand some of the things that we’re asking the board to address.”

Damptey also said it’s not realistic to assume that appointing one person is going to make a difference.

“I think people are going to now say ‘Hey look, our board is very diverse’, but again — when decisions are being made and when things need to be changed — when he speaks up, are they going to listen?”

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In a written statement, Eisenberger — who is chair of the board — said he’s confident that Athulathmudali will be a “welcomed voice” to the board and will provide “invaluable insight and experience.”

Athulathmudali spoke briefly during Thursday’s meeting, saying he’s pleased to have been appointed.

“I hope that I can live up to the honour of being appointed to the board,” he said.

During the same meeting, Fred Bennink was elected vice-chair of the board. MacVicar had previously filled that seat.

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The board also authorized Hamilton Police to “immediately” begin recruiting for a full-time equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) specialist.

That was among the recommendations in an independent review of how police responded to Hamilton Pride 2019.

Anna Filice, chief administrative officer for the Hamilton Police Service, said the EDI specialist would address those recommendations, but would also fulfill a broader purpose.

“We do intend to take a very broad look at EDI, so we want to be inclusive of all communities,” said Filice.

“We recognize that there are recommendations specific to the Pride report for the LGBTQ community. However, the EDI specialist will be looking at all of our internal policies from a language and diversity perspective, any programs we decide to launch, any community engagement on things like recruitment or even policy development.”

Chief Eric Girt highlighted the need to get the hiring process started sooner rather than later due to the increased demand for this type of position.

“This is very competitive, as you might expect right now, and if we wait until next year, many of the positions are being established in other policing organizations and beyond,” said Girt.

“We’re just trying to give a heads up, be proactive, and get on with it, particularly so we have a competitive field.”

It’s expected that costs for the position would be covered by “gapping” for the remainder of 2020 and long-term funding will be addressed during 2021 budget discussion.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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