Police have too much discretion over Restaurant Watch ban list, complainant says

Vancouver police have too much discretion in determining how long former gang associates remain barred from restaurants and bars, claims a man who says he severed all gang ties years ago.

Former associate says he was "repeatedly harassed and ejected" from venues despite no longer having gang ties

Police attend the scene of a targeted shooting outside a Vancouver restaurant in January. The Restaurant Watch and Bar Watch programs were introduced in 2008 to tackle a spate of gang crimes in Vancouver's restaurants and bars. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

Vancouver police have too much discretion in determining how long former gang associates remain barred from restaurants and bars, claims a man who says he severed all gang ties years ago.

The man filed a complaint against police last November claiming he has been "repeatedly harassed and ejected" from venues that are part of the city's Bar Watch and Restaurant Watch programs, despite having had no connection with gangs for seven years.

After he was "violently ejected" from an unnamed Vancouver restaurant in April, police told him he would have to wait another three years before he would no longer be flagged as an "inadmissable patron" in both anti-gang programs.

"I was devastated," said the man, whose name has been redacted, in the complaint.

He admitted he had once been "associated with the wrong crowd" but had made a "concerted effort" to change his life around since then.

A report into the complaint will be discussed at a police board meeting Thursday. The VPD is recommending that the complaint be dismissed because the complainant has since been removed from the force's list of banned customers.

Anti-gang programs

​The venue the complainant was ejected from in April was part of Restaurant Watch, a partnership between the VPD, the restaurant industry and the B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association that includes more than 150 participating businesses.

Bar Watch is a separate partnership between the VPD and about 30 businesses, which maintains its own list of inadmissable patrons, some of whom can be barred for life. 

Police and industry representatives say Bar Watch and Restaurant Watch, which both launched in 2008 after a string of violent crimes in restaurants and bars, provide a safe environment for patrons. 

With Restaurant Watch, staff can contact police if they suspect a customer may be part of a gang or engaged in criminal behaviour. Officers can check a customer's background and kick them out if they have any record of gang activity.

"It's really been effective and it's really provided a sense of confidence to the dining public," said Ian Tostenson of the B.C. Restaurant and Food Services Association.

'Too much discretion'

The VPD has no set protocol on how long people continue to be flagged after they cut ties with gangs.

"I feel that there must be some guidelines to provide a reasonable timeline for determining when a former gang associate who denounced the lifestyle will be permitted to attend these venues," the complainant said.

"The program affords too much discretion to the officers on the ground."

The Jan. 31 report to the police board regarding the complaint says each individual is reviewed "on a case-by-case basis," with the chief consideration being how much risk that person may pose to the public.

Other factors include how long that person was involved with gangs, what their role was and how long it has been since they cleaned up their act. 

The report says it would be "inadvisable to develop guidelines that attempt to codify such considerations."

Programs deemed problematic

But the B.C. Civil Liberties Association says the Restaurant Watch and Bar Watch programs have been problematic since they were first implemented. 

"They give such wide scope for discretion to the police," said program director Micheal Vonn. "They sit as police, judge and jury."

Vonn says there is little information about the programs, including how effective they might be. 

"We know very little about any evidence that it demonstrably does improve public safety and does not disproportionately impact the rights of individuals," she said. 

Complainant cleared 

The report to the police board says that officers invite inadmissible patrons to review their file with a gang unit member at any time, and people are sometimes removed from the list of barred customers when they do. 

According to the report, the man was removed from the list of barred customers after he met with a gang unit officer in December. 

Police gave him a "gang desistance file" letter to present to officers, but told him he could be reinstated on the list if he associates with "individuals active in the gang lifestyle." 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.