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Advocacy groups question Vancouver street check review, call for ban

VANCOUVER — Advocacy groups are questioning the validity of a Vancouver police board review of street checks after an incident reported by its authors didn't make it into the final copy.

VANCOUVER — Advocacy groups are questioning the validity of a Vancouver police board review of street checks after an incident reported by its authors didn't make it into the final copy.

The BC Civil Liberties Association, Union of BC Indian Chiefs and Hogan's Alley Society said street checks should be banned completely because they are an example of systemic racism.

Street checks involve officers stopping a person and recording their information, regardless of whether an offence has been committed. Studies suggest Black people, as well as other people of colour, were more often stopped by police.

Chief Don Tom, vice-president of the union, said the practice criminalizes people who are stopped.

"It looks like a person with a gun in a uniform making demands of you. The very nature of the street check is threatening, nothing is casual when there's a gun involved," Tom said.

The groups shared a letter from the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner that says a professional standards investigation is underway into the conduct of two officers alleged to have made insensitive comments while they were being observed for the police board's review.

One officer is alleged to have made inappropriate and racially insensitive remarks. Another was alleged to have made inappropriate comments about vulnerable and marginalized people, had anger issues and was extremely rude to a member of the public, the letter says.

Commissioner Clayton Pecknold says he ordered the investigation on Dec. 19, 2019, after receiving a request from the police department. The concerns appeared in a draft of the review by Pyxis Consulting Group but they did not provide specifics or disclose the identity of the officers involved, Pecknold says.

The Vancouver Police Department brought its street checks policy in line with new policing standards issued by the province in mid-January.

"Street checks are a valuable proactive crime prevention tool for police, even though they are used infrequently," Sgt. Aaron Roed said in an email.

The new policy describes street checks as "voluntary" and says officers should not stop someone simply because they share an "identity factor," such as race or economic status, with a person being sought by police.  

"A street check only occurs when a police officer encounters someone believed to be involved in criminal activity or a suspicious circumstance, and documents the interaction. They are not random or arbitrary," Roed said.

So far this year, Roed said the number of street checks has dropped by 91 per cent compared with last year. He did not respond directly to a question on whether the COVID-19 pandemic has played a role in fewer street checks being performed.

If the trend continues, Roed said it would equate to less than one street check done by a frontline officer per year.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who also chairs the police board, recently announced he would bring a motion to council calling on the police department to stop the practice.

Alvin Singh, a spokesman for Stewart's office, said the mayor and council have no authority over the policies and procedures of the police department. Those decisions are made at the police board and provincial levels, he said.

"That said, the board does need to take into account the wishes of local government when it sets policy, and that is why he will be introducing his motion," Singh said.

"If it passes, it will provide the board with further instructions, but it will be up to them to take action."

Vancouver police data obtained through a freedom of information request showed 15 per cent of people stopped in street checks between 2008 and 2017 were Indigenous, yet they made up just two per cent of the population. Five per cent of people stopped were Black when they represented less than one per cent of the population.

Lama Mugabo, director of the Hogan's Alley Society, which advocates for Black people in the city, said he's encouraged the mayor is talking about banning street checks but he wants change.

A long history of discrimination has led many Black people to distrust police, he said.

"It's a troubled history that has developed over the course of history starting with the need to capture runaway slaves. For all those years, we have been mistreated by the police to the extent that when you have a crisis it's very difficult to actually bring yourself to call police," Mugabo said.

The advocacy groups also want all versions of the report publicly released.

"What good is a report reviewing police conduct if the very conduct under review is being omitted, hidden and ignored," Tom said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2020.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press