British Columbia

Vancouver police adopt new 'street checks' policy

The Vancouver Police Department has formalized its street checks and police stops policy to be in line with new provincial standards to promote unbiased policing.

Policy prompted by new provincial standards, following complaints of racial bias

A cop with a jacket that reads 'Vancouver Police'.
Vancouver police say approved policy gives direction to officers when they conduct police stops and street checks. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

The Vancouver Police Department has approved a new formal policy for police street checks and stops to comply with new provincial standards that went into effect on Jan. 15.

During a street check or police stop, a person is asked for their identification and their personal information is recorded. Police consider it an important, proactive tool, but the practice has also  been under scrutiny across Canada and the United States due to allegations of racial bias.

A report outlining the new policy is on the agenda at a Vancouver Police Board at a public meeting on Thursday. 

Data leads to racial bias complaint

A formal complaint led the Vancouver Police Department to improve its procedures by adding more training, furthering community relationships, adding an Indigenous Liaison Protocol Officer, and release street check data annually.

In 2018, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association asked the province's police complaints commissioner to investigate a racial disparity in the VPD's use of street checks.

The groups said Indigenous and black people were over-represented in the police practice and pointed to data released under a Freedom of Information request.

That data showed 15 per cent of all police checks between 2008 and 2017 were on Indigenous people, who make up just two per cent of the Vancouver population. Likewise, four per cent of people carded were black even though that population in Vancouver makes up less than one per cent.

VPD Chief Constable Adam Palmer defended the force's record at the time and said checks are often the result of a member of the public calling to report suspicious activity, or a police officer coming across something suspicious during a patrol.

'Street checks' policy to provide direction and clarity

The formalized policy which was approved on Jan. 7 addresses areas of concern including bias and a person's rights during a street check.

Officers cannot make random stops, or stop someone on the sole basis of an identity factor, and officers need a "justifiable reason" to demand or request identifying information.  Also an officer must take steps to ensure a person is aware of their rights during a street check and have a specific public safety purpose to ask for identifying information and tell the person of that reason.

Even so, Vancouver police said in a statement that "street checks are a valuable proactive tool for police" and play an important role in crime prevention and ensuring public safety.

For example, in its policy report, an incident is described during which police officers asked a man if he lived at a nearby home after they observed him looking into vehicles at 5 a.m. in the Kitsilano neighbourhood.  It turned out there was a warrant for his arrest and he had an extensive criminal record.

According to VPD, a front-line officer uses an average of one street check per month.