British Columbia

Independent report inconclusive on whether VPD street checks amount to racial profiling

An independent review said it couldn't prove or disprove that Vancouver Police Board street checks are racially biased.

Mayor says showing identification to police is voluntary and people can refuse

A man in uniform with the words Vancouver Police on the back and a utility belt on his side listens to a device near his ear while walking down a lit sidewalk at night.
An independent report concluded the over-representation of Indigenous people in Vancouver Police Department street checks didn't prove or disprove racial bias. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The Vancouver Police Board endorsed an independent report Thursday that was inconclusive about whether Vancouver police officers engaged in biased policing and racial profiling during street checks.

The report was spurred by a complaint brought forward by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs following the release of data from a freedom of information request that showed Indigenous and black people are over-represented in street checks.

Police officers ask people for their identification during such checks, taking note of personal information.

That data, which captured street checks conducted between 2008 and 2017, showed 15 per cent of all street checks involved Indigenous people even though they only make up two per cent of the population. Four per cent of those stopped were black, despite the population in Vancouver making up less than one per cent of the total.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart said complaints of this nature would usually go through an internal police review, but the board thought it significant enough to hire an external independent reviewer.

"[It] went way beyond what we normally do as a board," Stewart said. "So just to say we took this complaint very, very seriously."

'Are we not experts in our own lives?'

The report was inconclusive on whether or not the practice of street checks was racist.

"An overrepresentation of Indigenous individuals in the street check data also does not confirm nor deny the existence of bias," it read in part.

Toronto-based journalist and activist Desmond Cole, who has been stopped and carded by Vancouver police officers himself, did not mince words in reaction to the report's conclusions. 

"I'm very bored of anyone other than black or Indigenous people speaking about how this issue is or is not racist or how it affects our lives," said Cole, who was in Vancouver to promote his new book on anti-black racism

"Are we not experts in our own lives? Are the people who are subject to this practice every day — are we not the experts?

"I thought I had a Charter of Rights and Freedoms right to walk down the street without being harassed by the police. But as long as people ... say that that is reasonable, we will continue fighting this practice."

Stewart said when people are asked to show identification to police they can refuse.

"Street checks are voluntary and police officers have all gone through the training where they have to tell folks that they're interacting with that these interviews are voluntary," said the mayor. 

Desmond Cole says a police officer stopped him while he was in Vancouver on his way to Stanley Park in November 2018. Cole was in the city to deliver a lecture. (CBC)

Harsha Walia, executive director of the BCCLA, said the premise of the report was flawed, adding the independent reviewer was supposed to investigate whether street checks were useful in the first place not operate under the presumption that they were. 

"We have zero evidence that street checks actually increase public safety and we have no evidence to support the claim that street checks are a useful tool at all in our cities and in our communities," Walia said.

Over 30 recommendations

The report made over 30 recommendations including implementing a consultation process with communities, creating a Street Check Advisory Committee with the board, making sure officers receive proper training and creating a public education campaign on the role of street checks. 

Stewart said the police have already adopted a new formal policy for police street checks to comply with new provincial standards that went into effect on Jan. 15.

Still, he says the board is eager to open the lines of communication. 

"[This] gives us the opportunity for folks to come in and address this, really, at every board meeting so we have an ongoing discussion rather than these kind of large one-off reports," he said.

With files from On The Coast