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Civil rights groups amplify call to end police ‘street checks’ in B.C.

More than 70 organizations demand Vancouver mayor, B.C. premier end street checks
street check
Vancouver city council will debate a motion from Mayor Kennedy Stewart this week that calls for an end to street checks

More than 70 diverse organizations have joined civil rights groups in their call to end police “street checks” in Vancouver and across the province, saying the practice is racist and unfairly targets Indigenous and Black people.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Black Lives Matter-Vancouver, Hogan’s Alley Society, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and WISH Drop-In Society released an open letter Monday that is co-signed by groups such as Atira Women’s Resource Society, West Coast LEAF Association and the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

The letter is addressed to Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, Premier John Horgan, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth and Brenda Butterworth-Carr, the province’s director of police services.

“We are writing you to put actions to your words and take immediate action to address systemic discrimination in policing by ending all street checks in Vancouver and B.C.,” the letter said. “Street checks are harmful and discriminatory for Indigenous, Black and low-income communities. Street checks also have no basis in law, and you have the powers to ban them.”

A street check, as defined by the Vancouver Police Department, is when an officer encounters someone believed to be involved in criminal activity or a suspicious circumstance and documents the interaction.

The civil rights groups, led by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, have long argued the checks are arbitrary and disproportionately target Indigenous and Black people.

That argument is based on data posted on the VPD’s website in 2018 that showed police conducted 97,281 street checks between 2008 and 2017.

Of those checks, 15 per cent (14,536) were of Indigenous people and more than four per cent (4,365) of Black people.

Indigenous people make up just over two per cent of the population in Vancouver, and Black people less than one per cent.

The letter from the civil rights groups comes as the Vancouver mayor is set to introduce a motion Tuesday at city council that calls for an end to street checks. Stewart announced his intention last month to ban the practice.

“Black, Indigenous and other communities of colour have long called for an end to this practice, and that is what I hope to see happen at the [Vancouver] police board,” the mayor said in a June 22 news release.

The mayor also doubles as chairperson of the police board, which makes his call to ban street checks awkward and somewhat unprecedented in the recent history of the board’s relationship with city council over policy.

As chairperson, the mayor only votes when there is a tie on the eight-member board. Council will first have to pass the mayor’s motion before it goes before the board, which has a public meeting scheduled for July 23.

The mayor announced his intention to begin the process to ban street checks prior to news surfacing last week of allegations of racist and inappropriate comments made by two Vancouver officers during ride-alongs.

The officers allegedly made the comments in the company of researchers working for Pyxis Consulting Group Inc., which the police board hired in January 2019 to conduct a review of street checks.

Those allegations were omitted from the final report of the Pyxis review, which was released in February. The final report was inconclusive in saying whether officers were motivated by racism or bias when conducting a street check.

Since that news surfaced, the mayor said in an email June 29 that he believes “systemic racism” exists in “all our institutions, and that includes within the Vancouver Police Department.”

Police Chief Adam Palmer has denied systemic racism exists in his department, telling Glacier Media in an interview last month the VPD “is not a racist organization.”

Retired Vancouver police officer Wes Fung, who was one of the first Chinese officers hired by the department, said in a letter published Saturday in the Vancouver Sun that “to paint the entire Vancouver Police Department as being rife with systemic racism is highly inaccurate, completely unfair and bordering on slander.”

Added Fung: “As for allegations of racist conduct and police brutality, consider the source and wait until all the facts are disclosed before drawing conclusions.”

In September 2018, the VPD released its own review of street checks, concluding it was “unrealistic and overly simplistic to expect racial and gender populations to align uniformly with crime data.”

For example, the report said, women make up about half of the population and men make up the other half. However, men commit approximately 80 per cent of crime, the report said.

In addition, the overrepresentation of specific groups within street check data is “not unique to visible minority communities,” said the report, noting that Caucasians made up 46 per cent of Vancouver’s population in 2016, but accounted for 57 per cent of street checks.

The police data collected between 2008 and 2017 showed a total of 3,988 street checks of Indigenous females. Police said 53 per cent of those checks were of females reported missing.

The police department said in an email last month that street checks continue to be a “valuable proactive crime prevention tool.”

Const. Tania Visintin, a VPD media relations officer, said street checks are not random or arbitrary, and have decreased by 91 per cent this year when compared to 2019.

“If this trend continues throughout the year, it will equate to less than one street check per frontline officer in a calendar year,” Visintin said. “In comparison, for every street check conducted, there are 500 calls for service for police.”

The VPD adopted a new street check policy in January that complies with new standards legislated by the provincial government.

That policy states that an officer cannot stop someone based solely on “an identity factor” such as race, social or economic status, religion, ancestry and sexual orientation.

In addition, an officer must have a specific public safety purpose to ask a person for identification and must inform the person of that reason.

The provincial government, meanwhile, has since announced that it will review what Farnworth described as B.C.’s “outdated” Police Act.

“Everyone deserves to be treated fairly by the police, and our government acknowledges that for many Black, Indigenous and other people of colour, that hasn’t always been the case,” Farnworth said in an email June 11 to Glacier Media. “Ensuring the police are held accountable to the highest standards for fair and unbiased conduct is crucial to maintaining public trust.”