Why Did the Vancouver Police Board Hide Racism in VPD ranks?
By Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and Harsha Walia
A shorter version of this op-ed was published in the Vancouver Sun on November 26, 2020.
The Vancouver Police Board is tasked with providing civilian governance and oversight over one of the most powerful institutions in our city. When any Vancouverite wants to complain about the policies of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), the Police Board is responsible for addressing these complaints. Our organizations made such a complaint regarding racist police street checks. After revelations in this paper last week, we are outraged at the conduct of the Police Board in handling our complaint and we demand a complete ban on street checks.
Street checks are the police practice of stopping a person outside of an investigation and often recording their personal information. According to the VPD’s own data, Black and Indigenous people, and especially Indigenous women, are over-represented in the numbers of VPD street checks. Street checks are a pipeline into the criminal legal system; a street check can lead to private information entering into a police database, which can snowball into the life-shattering cycle of surveillance, intimidation and arrest. In an era of reconciliation and BC’s legislated commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, this is inexcusable. Further, in a case called R v Le, the Supreme Court of Canada found that a street check interaction constituted arbitrary psychological detention. Street checks are both racist and illegal, and their prohibition is overdue.
Earlier this year, the Board concluded our 2018 complaint after citing their own Street Check Review. Authored by a consulting company run by a former police officer, it concluded that “the available data and information could neither confirm nor deny police racism.” In June 2020, we received a shocking letter from the Police Complaint Commissioner informing us that a critical section from a draft version of the report was omitted from the final public report. This deleted text exposed disturbing conduct and comments about racialized and vulnerable people from two officers, as witnessed by researchers during two of the twelve VPD ride-alongs.
For months, we have been trying to understand how this extremely relevant section — detailing racist and inappropriate comments by the VPD even as they were under observation — was removed from the final report. Dan Fumano’s intrepid journalism revealed that a subcommittee of the Police Board released an interim draft of the report to the VPD. Deputy Chief Howard Chow then had “lengthy discussions” with a researcher about the section in question. This section was subsequently removed from the final public report, and the Board subcommittee was informed of the significant erasure. The Police Board’s deference and loyalty to the VPD is alarming; their mandate is to transparently serve the public and remain independent of the VPD’s administration and management.
The Board’s vice-chair Bharj Dhahan “doesn’t see anything wrong” with the chain of events and does not think this publicly-funded review was compromised. It is a barefaced insult to our intelligence to maintain the Board’s street check review was independent when the very police department under scrutiny accessed and provided substantive input into the draft report — before it was finalized and presented to the public or to us, the actual complainants. The Board cannot claim to have independence from the VPD when their own members turned over the draft report to the VPD. Dhahan’s statements are even more preposterous given that the section censored from the final report literally exemplifies our complaint regarding racism in police street checks. The discrepancy in versions of the report and the interference of the VPD seriously challenges the methodology, findings and independence of the Board’s street check review as well as the ability and willingness of the Board to hold the VPD accountable.
What happened with the Vancouver Police Board’s street check review forces a reckoning about the power of police and whether bodies tasked with police oversight are truly independent. Last week, the explosive final report on sexual harassment of women in the RCMP described that agency as “a hierarchical para-military police organization” and emphatically concluded that it cannot be trusted to change from within. With civilian police governance bodies like the Police Board seemingly averse to the minimum norms of democratic governance and independent oversight, it appears policing cannot be reformed from the outside either. This begs the question: can police even be reformed?
This is no trite question. While police are invested in their own power, lives are on the line. Perhaps the Vancouver Police Board was okay with the cover up of racism because racial violence is so normalized and weaved into the fabric of policing. The contemporary scars of police brutality are inseparable from the lineage of police as enforcers of settler-colonialism, slavery and genocide. Police also sustain many forms of inequality – from the suppression of land defenders and labour strikes to criminalizing poverty and mental health. The mantra of “to serve and protect” is more accurately described as “to under-protect and over-police.”
This is why, at a bare minimum, we are calling for a complete ban on police street checks. While the provincial Director of Police Services has ordered a review into this whole scandal, no one needs another bureaucratic review-of-a-review. We need immediate action. The provincial Director has the jurisdiction to end the arbitrary, racist and illegal practice of street checks. Over 8,900 individuals and 92 organizations have signed petitions and letters calling for her to do so. Vancouver and Victoria city councils have also passed motions calling for a ban. It is unconscionable that the provincial government condones street checks. We urgently need to strengthen independent governance bodies, put teeth into civilian oversight mechanisms, and, most importantly, radically transform the colonial disaster of policing.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs and a member of the Syilx Nation.
Harsha Walia is Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association.