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Indigenous grandfather not likely to learn officers’ fate in Vancouver BMO arrest until 2022

Maxwell Johnson, granddaughter also filed complaints with B.C. Human Rights Tribunal and Canadian Human Rights Commission
Security video of the arrest of Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter on Dec. 20, 2019 outside the BMO branch on Burrard Street. Screenshot courtesy Heiltsuk Nation
A retired judge is not expected to rule until next year on whether discipline should be meted out to two Vancouver police officers who handcuffed an Indigenous man and his granddaughter outside a downtown BMO branch in December 2019 after the pair attempted to open a bank account.

B.C. deputy police complaint commissioner Andrea Spindler said Monday that retired judge Brian Neal continues to conduct a “discipline proceeding” involving the officers who arrested Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter, both of the Heiltsuk Nation.

“This process occurs at arms-length from the [Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner],” Spindler said in an email.

“Once Mr. Neal concludes the discipline proceeding he will be required to make a finding as to whether misconduct has been proven and if so, any disciplinary or corrective measures to be imposed. After that, the OPCC will review the disciplinary process to determine whether a further review is required [public hearing or review on the record).”

In an interview, Spindler said Neal is not likely to deliver his decision until early next year, noting “these things seem to take a little bit of time to go through from beginning to end.”

Neal was appointed after Police Complaint Commissioner Clayton Pecknold disagreed with Victoria Police Chief Del Manak’s finding of his investigation that no disciplinary action was warranted against the officers.

“We really do want to be able to move these things forward more quickly,” said Spindler, when asked when a final decision will be reached in the case. “But we are so tied to our legislation, and the courts have said that we cannot leapfrog over any of these processes. So we have to follow them. And unfortunately, they do take time.”

BC Human Rights Tribunal

Meanwhile, a complaint lodged by Johnson and his granddaughter with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has yet to be scheduled to be heard, according to an email from registrar Steven Adamson.

“To obtain complaint information from the Tribunal about cases it is considering, please continue to monitor to the hearing schedule should such a case be scheduled for a hearing and access to limited information then be available to the public,” Adamson said.

Johnson and his granddaughter also filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The commission said in an email that the Canadian Human Rights Act “prohibits us from acknowledging whether a complaint has been received or any details related to the complaint.”

The Heiltsuk Nation provided a brief emailed response Tuesday regarding the status of all three proceedings involving Johnson and his granddaughter, saying that "in terms of scheduling unfortunately we have no control over the complaint commissioner's process.” 

“The BC human rights hearing will hopefully be scheduled by fall next year, and we are awaiting the respondent filing their response in the Canadian human rights commission,” the statement said. “All these processes are very slow.”

Copies of the pair’s human rights complaints were released to media in November 2020. They detailed the incident at the bank, where Johnson and his granddaughter say they were racially profiled, unlawfully detained and handcuffed by two officers.

Johnson, who had an existing account at the bank, was with his granddaughter at the BMO branch at 595 Burrard St. to open a joint chequing account. Johnson had recently deposited $30,000 in the account after receiving a settlement.

The branch manager didn’t believe the pair’s purpose at the bank.

In a 911 call, which was released by the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the branch manager initially described Johnson as a “white gentleman.” The transcript then jumps to Johnson and his granddaughter described as South Asian, with the young girl believed to be a teenager.

The manager then told the 911 call taker the bank contacted the “Indian government” to verify the pair’s Indian status cards and was told they were fake.

Based on this information, the officers who arrived at the bank believed Johnson and his granddaughter were attempting to commit fraud and handcuffed them on the sidewalk outside the bank.

Police released the pair after they contacted Margaret Brown, the justice coordinator of the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella, who confirmed the validity of the Indian status cards and the reason for Johnson and his granddaughter to be at the bank.

“Despite the suspicious circumstances, [officers] determined that no criminal offence occurred and the cards likely presented as fraudulent due to clerical errors from Indian Affairs [department],” said a police report of the incident released to media. “Johnson and [his granddaughter] were allowed to proceed. Both were very cooperative.”

Officers acted 'in good faith'

BMO has since apologized for the arrest, and Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer has said officers were acting in good faith. He described it as “a very unfortunate situation and we’re very sorry the way that this all played out.”

The Vancouver Police Board, meanwhile, is expected to approve Thursday a revised handcuffing policy for the Vancouver Police Department — a moved triggered by the arrest of Johnson and his granddaughter, and the separate wrongful handcuffing this year of retired B.C. Supreme Court Justice Selwyn Romilly.

Romilly was handcuffed by police May 14 while walking along the seawall in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. Romilly, who is in his 80s, is Black and police were looking for an assault suspect described as dark-skinned and 40 to 50 years old.

Romilly never filed a complaint but a complaint from a citizen, whose name was not released, about the incident prompted the police board in June to consider an interim handcuffing policy, with the option to add more requirements once the proceedings related to the BMO arrest conclude.

“In summary,” said a report that goes before the police board Thursday, “the most notable changes in the revised interim policy as proposed by the VPD, are that it provides direction on documentation and the safe applications on handcuffs, it specifies that officers must have the lawful authority to use a restraint, it provides legal considerations that would result in that lawful authority and it entrenches an officer’s ability to exercise discretion.”

Thursday’s police board meeting begins at 1 p.m. and can be viewed on the board’s website.

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