British Columbia

Handcuffing of retired Black judge mirrors brother's false imprisonment 46 years ago

When Vancouver’s police chief publicly apologized to retired B.C. Supreme Court Justice Selwyn Romilly this week, it wasn’t the first time his department has had to make amends for wrongfully detaining a Black member of B.C.’s legal community.

Records show Vancouver police repeatedly accused of racially stereotyping Black men in the 70s

Articles from the Vancouver Sun and Province chronicle Valmond Romilly's vindication in court after the police arrested him while looking for a Black suspect. The article above contains a picture of the suspect on the left. Romilly is on the right. (CBC)

Vancouver's police chief publicly apologized to retired B.C. Supreme Court Justice Selwyn Romilly this week after his officers detained and handcuffed the province's first Black judge while looking for another Black man half his age.

It wasn't the first time the department has had to make amends for wrongfully detaining a Black member of B.C.'s legal community.

It wasn't even the first time the VPD have had to apologize to a Romilly.

Nearly half a century ago, Selwyn Romilly's brother — Valmond — won a judgment against three Vancouver police officers who falsely imprisoned him by hauling him into custody while searching for a Black suspect who looked nothing like him.

Valmond Romilly, who went on to become a provincial court judge, told the officers he was a lawyer, and they laughed at him. He told the court at the time that the entire incident left him feeling "embarrassed, humiliated and upset."

Newspaper accounts of the trial suggest that while his testimony may have reflected the fashion of the day, its central truth still applies to the situation his brother faced 46 years later, when he was handcuffed by officers hunting a suspect with the same colour skin.

"Whites who grow long hair and moustaches look very similar too," Valmond Romilly told a judge in 1975.

"But they don't get arrested."

'Doesn't this look like you?'

The tale of Valmond Romilly's arrest and subsequent vindication is detailed through the archives of the Vancouver Sun and Province. 

It was a case publicized by legendary columnist Jack Wasserman — a story that, even then, kept repeating itself.

CBC News interviewed Valmond Romilly about racial stereotyping by police in 1995. Romilly went on to be a provincial court judge and has since retired. (CBC)

Romilly had left a restaurant on the evening of Oct. 12, 1974 and was walking on the Granville mall when he was approached by two officers looking for a Black man named Hughie Saunders, who was wanted for marijuana possession.

Saunders was five feet four inches tall and Romilly was five feet eight.

Romilly testified that he told the officers: "A lot of whites cannot distinguish between Blacks and you have made a mistake."

He told the officers his name, and attempted to walk away. When Romilly couldn't provide identification, he was placed in a police car and driven to police headquarters.

Once he was at the station, the officers showed him a picture of Hughie Saunders and said, "Doesn't this look like you?"

According to the Vancouver Sun, Romilly said he laughed at the comparison and handed the picture back.

"There was general disbelief and hilarity in the room at everything I said," he testified.

Romilly produced a business card and told the officers he was a lawyer. He also suggested they call his brother, Selwyn, who was by then a provincial court judge.

The judge who heard the lawsuit was B.C. Supreme Court Justice E.E. Hinkson — whose son Christopher is the court's current chief justice.

E.E. Hinkson found that the false imprisonment happened when Valmond Romilly attempted to leave and a third officer blocked the door and said: "If you are going to leave, you are going to have to go through me."

The officers finally let Romilly go when he called lawyer Don Rosenbloom.

'It's totally stunning'

Contacted this week, Rosenbloom couldn't recall serving as Valmond Romilly's lifeline. But he's a friend of both Romilly brothers. And if the papers say it happened, he says it must have.

As it happens, Rosenbloom says he spoke with Selwyn Romilly this week about his present-day encounter with police.

A Black man wearing glasses and a suit looks away from the camera.
Selwyn Romilly was the first Black judge appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court. The 81-year-old was handcuffed while walking the seawall by police who were looking for a Black suspect half his age. (Peter A. Allard School of Law/YouTube)

"It's totally stunning," says Rosenbloom, who went on to have a distinguished legal career of his own, perhaps most notably as the lawyer for the Polish government at the inquiry into the death of Robert Dziekanski at the hands of RCMP at Vancouver's airport in 2007.

It's that tragic experience that tells him how dangerous it can be when authorities get it wrong.

"An impropriety by police on something like this can get out of hand. Selwyn obviously kept his cool, but boy do I understand when he says he was humiliated," he said.

"And in terms of my background having been there and done that back 50 years ago, it's a pretty sad thing."

The situation reminded him of yet another case from the 70s — when Rosenbloom represented famed singer and civil rights activist Leon Bibb after Vancouver police officers took him into custody while looking for a Black burglary suspect.

The settlement in that case was supposed to solve the problem forever.

'And I suppose the suspect is also Black?'

Leon Bibb moved to Vancouver in 1969 after opening at the Pacific National Exhibition for Bill Cosby. He was born in Kentucky in 1922 and left at the age of 19 to escape racial segregation, moving to New York where he made a name for himself as an actor and singer.

Bibb was involved in the U.S. Civil Rights movement early on.

Leon Bibb seen here in 1960, nine years before he moved to Vancouver. The legendary actor and folk singer sued Vancouver police after he was arrested while they were looking for a Black suspect. (Getty Images)

He performed at the 1963 march on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech and sang alongside Joan Baez and Harry Belafonte at the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

On a Sunday afternoon near Kitsilano beach in 1971, a Vancouver police officer stopped Bibb and asked his name and address as he was walking to his apartment. Bibb asked him why he wanted to know and the officer said he was looking for a robbery suspect.

"And I suppose the suspect is also Black?" Bibb asked, according to columnist Jack Wasserman.

Bibb told the officer he'd rather speak to a lawyer and walked across the street to a store. The police then put him in a wagon and took him to jail. He was eventually released when a senior officer ordered him to be returned to the spot where he was first encountered.

A lawsuit followed.

'A classic study of the dangers of racial stereotyping'

Bibb died in 2015 at the age of 93. Rosenbloom said the singer often recounted with pride the unusual deal that ended the court case. 

The lawyer gave his copies of the legal documents to Bibb for his memoirs, but he found a fading copy of an old Wasserman column on the subject while digging through boxes this week.

Vancouver Police Department Chief Constable Adam Palmer offered a public apology this week to retired Justice Selywn Romilly for the way that his officers handcuffed the 81-year-old. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Bibb was already a celebrity and he didn't want money. Instead, he asked Dr. John Hogarth, chairman of the B.C. Police Commission if he could give a lecture on racism to recruits at the B.C. Police Academy as settlement for the dispute.

"Hogarth took the idea step further," Wasserman wrote.

"The entire incident involving Bibb and the police provided a classic study of the dangers of racial stereotyping, he said. He suggested that the evidence adduced in pre-trial testimony would provide the basis for a script."

Bibb would play himself and police officers could play the other roles.

"The episode would be filmed and become part of the academy's training material," Wasserman wrote.

The column ran on June 7, 1975, nearly 46 years before police handcuffed an 81-year-old judge who happened to share a skin colour with a wanted man.

It's uncertain if any copies of that old training video are still around.

Apparently, they're still needed.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.


Jason Proctor


Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and the justice system extensively.