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Vancouver mayor ‘pleased’ with cop board’s move to combat systemic racism within VPD

Anti-racism, decolonization initiatives to be included in VPD’s strategic plan
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Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who doubles as chairperson of the Vancouver Police Board, said he was pleased the board is moving to address systemic racism within the VPD. File photo Dan Toulgoet
Mayor Kennedy Stewart welcomed the Vancouver Police Board’s announcement Wednesday that it has passed a multi-pronged resolution to address systemic racism within the Vancouver Police Department.

The resolution comes as the mayor’s long-held opinion that systemic racism exists within the VPD continues to be at odds with that of Police Chief Adam Palmer, who has defended his department as a non-racist organization.

“I’m really pleased the police board listened to the community for whom the fact that systemic racism is a daily reality,” said the mayor, who recently stepped aside as spokesperson for the board, saying he could no longer speak for a board that wasn’t taking action to address systemic racism within the VPD.

At a news conference Wednesday, Stewart said he was also pleased the board committed to have anti-racism and decolonization efforts at the forefront of its priorities and to ensure they are embedded in the VPD’s strategic plan.

“However, follow-through is key,” the mayor said. “For the resolution to be meaningful, it needs to initiate significant changes as to how the Vancouver Police Department delivers policing services, including abolishing street checks and eliminating the unnecessary use of handcuffs and other restraints — actions that disproportionately and negatively affect people of colour.”

The resolution was passed June 24 after the public portion of the board’s meeting. Stewart did not attend the private meeting because of previously scheduled council duties.

The mayor did not commit Wednesday to return as spokesperson for the board. That duty still falls on vice-chairperson Faye Wightman, who issued a statement Wednesday that was contrary to Stewart’s concerns about the board’s lack of action on addressing systemic racism.

Wightman said the board “has a long history of working to address systemic racism, and in engaging with the VPD leadership on this important topic.” She said in an interview that “structural racism” was also on the agenda of the previous board.

“This isn’t anything new,” Wightman told Glacier Media. “But because it’s of such community interest, we’ve been wanting to make sure that we have all the facts and all the information before we actually publicly said something. That’s sort of why it’s coming out now.”

Deputy Chief Steve Rai announced last week that the VPD has begun an evaluation of the department’s policies and practices “to ensure systemic biases are not embedded in our operations.”

The department has also had an “inclusive workplace committee” in place since 2019 and is reviewing its Indigenous cultural competency training.

Wightman acknowledged the board could have done a better job of publicly articulating its position on systemic racism to avoid the perception that it wasn’t addressing concerns raised in the community.

“I think the mistake that we’ve made is we have not been as public in our communication about all the things that are going on as we could have been,” she said.

Stewart’s comment on CBC radio June 16 that the board’s position on systemic racism was “indefensible” — and one he continued to express to other media — was done despite the board’s acknowledgement in the VPD’s 2020 annual report that “systemic racism exists in all police agencies.”

In a June 22 public statement, the board also said it “shares the views of the community that it is time to end the racism that exists in all facets of our society, including the justice system and police services.”

Asked Wednesday about the board’s documented positions on combatting systemic racism, Stewart said, “words are one thing, but actions are another.”

He added that he found it “very tough” to speak for the board at a time when the VPD was involved in two high-profile cases of officers handcuffing a Heiltsuk Nation man and his granddaughter, and another involving retired B.C. Supreme Court Justice Selwyn Romilly, who is Black.

“I didn’t think the responses there were swift enough, or appropriate enough, and action on street checks and reviews of other policies just haven’t been forthcoming,” the mayor said.

A conduct investigation continues into the actions of the officers in the handcuffing of Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter outside a Vancouver BMO branch in 2019.

The board said in its resolution that it will not oppose the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs’ application to intervene in Johnson’s human rights case against the VPD; Palmer is on record of saying his officers acted in good faith in the case.

No investigation is being conducted into the conduct of the officers who handcuffed Romilly in May on the seawall, although the board instructed the VPD June 24 to implement an interim handcuffing policy to address concerns raised in the two cases.

The resolution includes:

• Hiring a consultant to determine how best to apply “an anti-racism and decolonization lens” to the police board’s work and that of the Vancouver Police Department.

• The consultant’s role will be to advise the board on “concrete actions” it can take, including but not limited to the potential creation of an anti-racism and decolonization committee of the board.

• Such actions would also extend to the board’s existing community and advisory committees to help identify systemic barriers to accessing police programs and services.

• A consultant would also assist the board and department develop an anti-racism, equity, diversity and inclusion strategy that is consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

• Direct the department to include anti-racism and decolonization as one of the “strategic imperatives” in the VPD’s 2022-2026 strategic plan, which is currently being developed.

• Continue to work with the VPD, City of Vancouver and B.C. government on police reform and reviewing and improving the effectiveness of police governance bodies.

• Continue to urge the City of Vancouver and the B.C. government to dedicate more resources to social agencies so responses to people in crisis can be shifted away from policing.

mhowell@glaciermedia.ca

@Howellings