Vancouver police are defending their new policy for street identity checks following criticism by a civil-rights organization before a Thursday police board meeting.
At the board’s public meeting, members sought clarification about the police department’s policy, implemented on Jan. 15. New provincial policing standards came into effect that day requiring all B.C. police forces to introduce internal guidelines that direct how and when such checks are conducted.
Under the new guidelines, police cannot make a decision on whether to conduct a street check based on “identity factors.” Those include economic or social status, race, colour, ancestry, place or origin, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression/identity, or age.
Officers also cannot decide to conduct a street check simply because a person shares an identity factor with a person being sought by police. They must ensure that the person subject to a street check understands the interaction is voluntary, that they are not required to provide any identifying information or answer questions, and are free to leave at any time.
Before the meeting, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association held a news conference where Latoya Farrell, policy council for the association, said they believe the new police policy “misses the mark” and has left civil-rights watchers concerned.
“The idea that any sort of interaction with the police is voluntary doesn’t really understand the meaningful effect of being over-policed and under-protected in certain communities,” Farrell said.
“We’re taught from early childhood that you respect the police, you comply with their requests and you answer their questions. So the idea that I could just walk away from a certain circumstance with police doesn’t seem to really address the systemic issues that these communities are facing on a daily basis.”
Farrell said it’s also unclear how police will be held accountable should they breach the policy, and what recourse there is for people affected by street checks.
Meghan McDermott, policy director for the association, said they will pressure the B.C. government to respect human rights as it updates the provincial standard.
“That, in theory, should flow down to all the policies in B.C.,” McDermott said.
Chief Constable Adam Palmer said he anticipated criticism about the policy but believes it will allow police to use street checks fairly.
“I understand, of course, it’s like with any contentious issue, you will have people come down on the side that you should never do any, under any circumstances whatsoever, you will have other people that will think, well, police should do them all the time,” Palmer said.
“I think these guidelines kind of find a sweet spot that respects human rights, civil rights, that idea, but also still allows the police the ability to use their common-law authority to prevent crime and protect the public.”
Palmer said Vancouver police had already been working on street check policy for two years, implementing training and education recommendations in September 2018, and drafting policy in anticipation of the provincial standard.
In response to a complaint about Vancouver police street checks in 2018, the board also contracted a consulting group to conduct an additional independent review. The board reviewed its recommendations in camera on Thursday and will release the report next month, Palmer said.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who chairs the police board, said those recommendations will help the board understand what additional work on street checks it must do.
“It’s something that we’ll continue to look at because it is an issue, but I do think that these provincial guidelines are a very, very good first step,” Stewart said.
Drazen Manojlovic, director of the planning research and audit section for Vancouver police, told the board that all front line officers have been trained on the policy and will also complete an additional one-hour online course.
New board member Allan Black, who was sworn in Thursday, asked for clarification about a person’s right to walk away from a street check, and whether they would be advised of possible consequences for doing so.
“There are no consequences, they’re free to walk away,” Manojlovic said.
The formal policy is one of six recommendations the Vancouver force agreed to implement after a 2018 internal report. Those findings came after the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association released freedom-of-information documents that showed police stops in Vancouver disproportionately involved people who were Indigenous or black.
Data previously released by Vancouver police also showed that 16 per cent of street checks in 2017 were of Indigenous people, who make up about two per cent of the city’s population. A total of five per cent of checks that year were of people who were black, which are just one per cent of Vancouver’s population.
Vancouver police had said the majority of its police stops are linked to repeat offenders or in areas where crime is more frequent, while other checks are to ensure an individual was OK, though no separate data was available to distinguish those checks.
In addition to the formalized policy, Vancouver police had previously vowed to add additional training, release street check data annually, appoint an Indigenous liaison officer, work on building links with the community and record data that distinguishes checks on an individual’s well-being.
The Vancouver police regulations and procedures manual is available to read online.
— With files from Stephanie Ip