Organizations advocating for the human rights of Indigenous and Black people are questioning why an independent consultant’s report on “street checks” omitted troubling allegations of racist and inappropriate comments made by two Vancouver police officers.
The officers allegedly made the comments during ride-alongs with researchers working for Pyxis Consulting Group Inc., which the Vancouver Police Board hired in January 2019 to conduct an independent review of the VPD’s practice of street checks.
The Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) and the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) first learned of the alleged behaviour of the two officers in a letter received June 5 from Clayton Pecknold, B.C.’s complaint commissioner.
“What good is a report reviewing police conduct if the very conduct under the review is being omitted, hidden or ignored?” said Chief Don Tom, UBCIC vice-president, at a news conference Thursday in releasing the letter to media.
In the letter, Pecknold said one officer allegedly made “a number of inappropriate, racially insensitive comments and another is alleged to have made inappropriate comments about vulnerable and marginalized people, had anger issues and was overly terse and extremely rude to a member of the public.”
He pointed out one of the Pyxis researchers on the ride-alongs was a member of a racialized community. Pecknold didn’t indicate which part of the city the ride-alongs were conducted.
The allegations came to light in a draft report of the street check review but didn’t make it into the final report. Pecknold said the concerns of researchers “did not provide sufficient specifics about the conduct of concern, or disclose the identity [of] the officers involved.”
It’s unclear whether Pyxis researchers later went directly to the police department’s internal affairs section because Pecknold indicates their field notes were destroyed and Pyxis has declined to provide evidence to investigators, who continue to investigate the case.
Harsha Walia, executive director of the BCCLA, said she was “incredibly troubled and alarmed” by the allegations, noting discriminatory behaviour was at the core of the organization’s call for an end to street checks.
“And this is exactly the conduct being raised in the commissioner’s letter,” Walia said. “So this raises a whole number of questions. Why was this information omitted from the final report? Why don’t we have this information in the final report? What else was omitted from the final report?”
Pecknold has since recommended the province’s director of police services conduct an analysis of the findings, conclusions and methodology of Pyxis, which is owned and operated by Ruth Montgomery, a former Edmonton police superintendent.
The recommendation comes after the police board released the Pyxis final report in February, with the review unable to conclude that any Vancouver officers were motivated by racism or bias when stopping a person on the street.
“This review of street checks, consistent with other [Canadian police department] reviews, found that the available data and information could neither confirm nor deny police racism or bias,” the report said. “Additionally, considering only the disproportionality of individuals in the street check data could not be used to confirm or deny the existence of bias.”
The UBCIC and the BCCLA have long called for an end to street checks and pressured the police board to order an independent study of the practice in Vancouver.
Their demands were based on police data released via a Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act request that showed an overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black people checked between 2008 and 2017.
Of 97,281 street checks between 2008 and 2017, 15% (14,536) were of Indigenous people and more than 4% (4,365) of Black people. Indigenous people make up just over 2% of the population in Vancouver, and Black people less than 1%.
Lama Mugabo of Hogan’s Alley Society reiterated the group’s call for an end to street checks, saying the statistics clearly show Black people are targeted by police.
“This is unacceptable,” he said. “We are tired and we want this radical change, and we want it now.”
Since that data was collected, the VPD has implemented a new street check policy that states an officer cannot stop someone based solely on “an identity factor” such as race, social or economic status, religion, ancestry and sexual orientation.
Random or arbitrary stops are not permitted. An officer must have a specific public safety purpose to ask a person for identification and must inform the person of that reason, and ensure the person is aware of their rights during a street check.
Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who doubles as chairperson of the police board, announced earlier this week that he wants to see an end to street checks, noting they were down 89% since January.
He told city council Tuesday that he will bring forward a formal motion in the next couple of weeks to push for that change. Coun. Jean Swanson also indicated she will bring forward a similar motion to ban the checks.
Const. Tania Visintin, a VPD media relations officer, said in an email Monday that street checks continue to be a “valuable proactive crime prevention tool” for police, even though they are used infrequently.
Visintin defined a street check as when an officer encounters someone believed to be involved in criminal activity or a suspicious circumstance, and documents the interaction.
“They are not random or arbitrary checks,” she said, noting the number of street checks decreased 91% when compared with the previous year. “If this trend continues throughout the year, it will equate to less than one street check per frontline officer in a calendar year. In comparison, for every street check conducted, there are 500 calls for service for police.”
Meanwhile, Pecknold said his recommendation to the province’s director of police services should also include an examination of the processes employed by the police board to conduct the street check study.
That, he said, should include “the selection and retention of the contractor with a view to improving the governance capabilities of police boards generally and the Vancouver Police Board specifically, when responding to service and policy complaints under the [Police] Act.”