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Vancouver police board to consider case of handcuffed retired judge

Police still reviewing case of mistaken arrest of Indigenous man and granddaughter
The Vancouver Police Board meets Thursday to decide what action it will take on a public complaint regarding the wrongful handcuffing in May of a retired B.C. Supreme Court judge. File photo Dan Toulgoet
The Vancouver Police Board is scheduled to decide Thursday what action it will take on a public complaint that concerns the handcuffing of a retired B.C. Supreme Court judge on the seawall in May.

Retired Justice Selywn 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.

A public complaint regarding the incident was emailed the next day to the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, with the complainant writing “the fact there was an arrest and handcuffs applied prior to any proper investigation whatsoever is shocking.”

The complainant’s name was redacted in her report but not her comments, which are included in the police board’s agenda package for its meeting Thursday. The woman said her complaint was based on media reports of Romilly’s arrest.

“These actions bring the administration of justice into disrepute,” she said. “These officers need to account for their actions, and disciplinary action should be taken.”

Police have since apologized to Romilly, who hasn’t filed a formal complaint with the department. The board will decide Thursday whether it needs to take action on the complaint, which could include requesting an investigation, or dismissing it; the board does not rule on actions or conduct of individual officers, but on policies or processes regarding a specific incident.

Simultaneous to the woman’s complaint, lawyer Joven Narwal wrote an open letter to the City of Vancouver and VPD that was published in the Vancouver Sun and Georgia Straight that expressed his concerns over Romilly’s arrest.

“I do not represent Mr. Romilly but rather chose to take the initiative as I believed this travesty to be a matter of great public importance that warranted a public response and that it had the potential to be a catalyst and opportunity for meaningful change, which I attempted to express in the letter,” said Narwal in an email to Glacier Media Wednesday, in which he included a copy of his letter. “I am grateful for the support of the legal organizations who endorsed my message and to the media for carrying it into the public discourse by publishing it.”

The police board’s vice-chairperson Faye Wightman responded to Narwal in a letter June 4, saying it was not within the board’s jurisdiction to comment on officer conduct or speak to operational details behind an incident.

Wightman said the department is among the most diverse in Canada and that more than 30 per cent of VPD employees are visible minorities and speak a combined 51 different languages. The board itself, she added, is undergoing bias-free and cultural sensitivity training.

“As a board, we are committed to continuing the important work being done to increase diversity and inclusion at the VPD, and to combat structural racism,” Wightman said.

The complaints regarding the handcuffing of Romilly come as the department continues to investigate why and how an Indigenous man — Maxwell Johnson — and his 12-year-old granddaughter of the Heiltsuk Nation were detained and handcuffed outside a downtown BMO branch in December 2019.

Police were called by a bank employee who suggested the pair was trying to open a bank account with fake identification. In fact, Johnson, who had an existing account at the branch, was there with his Indian status card to open a joint chequing account with his granddaughter.

The bank has since apologized for the arrest and Police Chief Adam Palmer has said officers were working in good faith. The case triggered the police board to authorize an extensive policy and training review, including but not limited to the department’s Indigenous cultural competency training.

A complete review of the VPD’s use-of-force restraint devices policy and notification process with respect to “inadvertent arrests” is also a result of the same case, and has yet to go before the board for consideration and approval.

Police Complaint Commissioner Clayton Pecknold wrote a letter May 27, 2021 to the police board connecting the arrests of Romilly and Johnson and his granddaughter, expressing his concern about the pattern.

“It is apparent that both these matters raise similar questions concerning discriminatory policing, the appropriate application of legal authorities and the use of restraining devices,” Pecknold said.

“While these two incidents are presently before the board, you should be aware that they are not the only matters before my office where similar or analogous circumstances have arisen.”

Last week, the Heiltsuk Nation released a security video clip to media that showed officers escorting Johnson and his granddaughter out of the BMO branch on Burrard Streeet and then handcuffing them on a sidewalk in front of pedestrians and motorists.

Former judge Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, on behalf of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, is applying to intervene in the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal case against the VPD regarding the arrests. Turpel-Lafond said in a news release that “this case embodies the systemic racism that we must all work together to eliminate.”

The police board meeting begins at 1 p.m. Thursday and can be viewed via livestream on its website.

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