N.S. justice minister orders police to close street checks loophole
Advocate for Black Nova Scotians says new directive is 'an improvement'
The Nova Scotia government has issued a directive to police to close a potential loophole in the ban on street checks, a process where officers document the race, gender and other details of people they encounter.
A report released in 2019 on racial profiling by Halifax-area police found Black people were street checked at a rate six times higher than white people in Halifax, and a subsequent independent legal review found street checks were illegal and not necessary for police to execute their duties.
In the wake of those findings, the previous Liberal government issued a provincewide ban on the practice, but many in the Black community said it was incomplete because it allowed police to conduct street checks on people involved in "suspicious activity."
In a news release Thursday, the province said a directive from Brad Johns, attorney general and minister of justice, removes the term "suspicious activity" and replaces it with "reasonable suspicion."
According to the news release, "reasonable suspicion" is a standard legal term be used by police to detain individuals suspected of unlawful activity.
"The new wording is actually based in case law and should be much more understandable, easily understandable by police agencies across the province," Johns said in an interview.
Police leaders to provide training, report annually to minister
The minister's new directive also says senior police leaders are required to ensure all officers, particularly front-line officers, "receive all information and direction necessary to adhere to this directive," as soon as possible after joining the force, with annual refreshers.
Police forces are required to report to the minister annually on the training they provide to officers about the street checks ban.
Street checking is a process where police officers document information about a person they believe could be of significance to a future investigation, and record details such as their ethnicity, gender, age and location.
In his 2019 report on street checks in Halifax, criminologist Scot Wortley recommended the practice be banned or regulated. He made a total of 53 recommendations related to banning and regulation, collecting data on all forms of police stops and improving police-community relations.
The Department of Justice released an update on the Wortley recommendations in July that said a total of 28 recommendations have been addressed and eight are in progress.
Seventeen of the recommendations are being led by Halifax Regional Police. According to a report from HRP to the Board of Police Commissioners in September, four of the recommendations are outstanding.
Johns pledged to close the street checks loophole shortly after taking his cabinet post earlier this year. His mandate letter from Premier Tim Houston included a direction to fully implement the recommendations of the Wortley report to ensure the end of street checks.
Vanessa Fells, director of operations for the African Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent, said the new directive is "a relief" after repeated meetings with the Department of Justice to discuss the issue.
"It has given more clear direction on when police can interact with community," Fells said in an interview.
She said the justice minister still has work to do on completing Wortley's recommendations, but she acknowledged Johns is still in the early days of his role.
"The proof will really be in the pudding. We'll have to wait and see exactly how those recommendations are implemented. For us, we would like to see a lot of collaboration with community as they are implemented."
Fells said her group has proposed the creation of an African Nova Scotian policing strategy to find additional ways policing practices in Nova Scotia might change to eliminate racial discrimination.
Johns said his department is looking at that proposal.
Robert Walsh, president of the Nova Scotia Chiefs of Police Association, said police leaders are committed to making the necessary changes "to address concerns about systemic racism and build trust with the community."
"Gathering information is an essential part of our duty to public safety, and the new directive will ensure fair and consistent policing across the province while allowing police to carry out required duties to ensure public safety," Walsh said in the province's news release.
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- This is a corrected story. An earlier version stated that a July update from the Justice Department indicated there were 17 outstanding recommendations. In fact, 17 recommendations are being led by Halifax Regional Police, with four outstanding as of a September report.Dec 02, 2021 8:24 PM AT