Vancouver Police Board orders independent study of VPD’s ‘street check’ practice

Chief Adam Palmer says he’s ‘open’ to independent look at department’s data

The Vancouver Police Board has ordered an independent study of the Vancouver Police Department’s practice of conducting “street checks” after data posted to the VPD’s website in May showed an overrepresentation of Indigenous and black people being stopped by officers.

The board unanimously approved a recommendation Wednesday to hire an organization to conduct and complete a study by July 2019. The board also approved other measures, including more training for officers, releasing street check data annually and assigning an officer to improve communication with the Indigenous community.

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The move came after the board heard from Police Chief Adam Palmer and Deputy Chief Howard Chow about the findings of a 62-page VPD report that concluded the department’s practice of street checks was not discriminatory, as suggested by the BC Civil Liberties Association and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

Palmer told reporters after the meeting that he was “open” to an independent study.

“I’m a strong believer that our officers are doing a great job every day out there and street checks are used very judiciously in this city,” he said from the VPD’s Cambie Street precinct. “I also recognize that some members of the public do have concerns about police, in general, doing street checks. We are an open and transparent organization, and if they want a third party to come in and look at the books, we’re fine with that.”

The BC Civil Liberties Association and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs requested in June that an independent analysis of the police’s data be conducted and that people stopped by police be interviewed about their experiences.

The request was prompted by data the VPD posted to its website in May on street checks. The data was posted after a Vancouver Island blogger requested the information under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

“It really makes it a difficult thing to rely strictly on the data,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin, vice-president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, after the police board meeting. “They’ve made the right step here in going to an independent review. We’ve had an organizational perspective on this today. So I think getting a communal perspective on this is going to be helpful.”

The data showed police conducted 97,281 street checks between 2008 and 2017.

Of those checks, 15 per cent (14,536) were of Indigenous people and more than four per cent (4,365) of black people. Indigenous people make up just over two per cent of the population in Vancouver, and black people less than one per cent.

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Vancouver police conducted 97,281 street checks between 2008 and 2017. Photo Dan Toulgoet

The VPD’s report said it was “unrealistic and overly simplistic to expect racial and gender population statistics to align uniformly with crime data.” For example, the report continued, women make up about half of the population and men make up the other half. However, men commit approximately 80 per cent of crime, the report said.

In addition, the overrepresentation of specific groups within street check data is “not unique to visible minority communities,” said the report, noting that white people made up 46 per cent of Vancouver’s population in 2016, but accounted for 57 per cent of street checks.

Chow noted at the meeting that Asians make up almost 40 per cent of the population in Vancouver, but were only “street checked” six per cent of the time.

According to the VPD’s 2017 guidelines, the definition of a street check is when an officer stops a person to conduct an interview or investigation in regards to suspicious activity or a suspected crime. The interactions take place in public, private or any place police have contact with the public.

In reading the VPD report, Chamberlin said he questioned the VPD’s rationale to check someone loitering in an alcove in front of a closed business. He pointed out the Downtown Eastside has many alcoves where people, some of them without homes, stand or sit.

“If anyone has walked through, or driven through Main and Hastings, virtually every business alcove is populated with people when a business is closed,” he said. “So I think that leaves the door pretty wide open for police to card anybody they want. I found that problematic. But you see someone shining a flashlight in a car—yes, card them.”

Chamberlin also questioned data that showed 53 per cent of 3,988 street checks of Indigenous females between 2008 and 2017 were done because they were the subject of a missing person report. It wasn’t clear to him, he said, whether the missing person rationale used by police was discovered after an initial, random check of a female.

Josh Paterson, executive director of the civil liberties association, said he appreciated the work the VPD put into its report but stressed the need for an independent study to provide the public with more confidence about the VPD’s use of street checks.

“What we really need to understand is what the impact of these practices are on these communities, and until we have that, we’re only going to have one piece of the puzzle with this report from the Vancouver Police Department today,” Paterson said.

Mayor Gregor Robertson, who doubles as chairperson of the police board, described the VPD report as “in-depth” but said an independent study was an important next step and will benefit the board’s work on policy.

“This creates an opportunity to take this to a much better place,” he said. “It’s been a challenge for cities all over North America, and I’m thankful that the VPD is very welcoming of a more open and transparent approach, and having an independent third party work on this and bring back reports to the board for next steps.”

Meanwhile, the provincial government continues to work on a province-wide policy on street checks. Robertson and Palmer said they expect that policy could be completed before the end of the year, which will help guide the VPD’s policy on street checks.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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