Vancouver's police chief says the force wants to find three men seen taking photos and video inside a downtown mall, but only went public because an internal bulletin was leaked to the media.

Chief Adam Palmer said the activities of the "Middle-Eastern looking" men raised the suspicions of security at Pacific Centre Mall on Tuesday night, and police have been trying to find them since that time.

'These people have not committed a crime'

Photographs of the men, circulated internally among police forces as part of that investigation, have now gone viral while Palmer says the VPD didn't believe the situation was serious enough to warrant a public alert.

Vancouver Police Chief Constable Adam Palmer

Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer says police had not intended to go public with their search for men connected to suspicious photographing of Pacific Centre mall.

"These people have not committed a crime. There's been no offence committed. These people are not arrestable. We just want to talk to them," Palmer said.

"We have no way of knowing if these people were just tourists in town taking photographs. They could be contractors. They could have been taking them for legitimate reasons. Or it could be something more serious: maybe they were casing the place."

Palmer said police still want to speak with the men and view their activities as suspicious. But while their photographs may be online, the VPD will not be officially releasing them.

He said the force is mindful of security concerns related to events in other parts of the world.

Attacks in Paris last November left 130 people dead, and last month, media reports cited Ottawa and Vancouver as possible targets for an ISIS-linked terror plot. But Canada did not raise its security level.

Palmer said police receive numerous tips about suspicious behaviour, the vast majority of which turn out to be baseless.

Not racial profiling

"Most often on these investigations, the reason we don't go public with them is because they're so frequent," he said.

"And when we fan these things out to police, around the province, almost on every occasion somebody will know who this is. And that was still the process we were going through."

Palmer also denied suggestions that the men were being racially profiled.

"We release that all the time," he said. "We always say if they're white, if they're South Asian, if they're Middle-Eastern — and these folks look Middle-Eastern. It's as simple as that."

Palmer invited the men in question to "come in and talk to us and let us know what you were doing down in the mall that day."

Anyone with information is asked to contact the Vancouver Police Department at 604-717-3235.