Vancouver police report they dramatically reduced the number of street checks in 2020. Photo by Jen St. Denis.
By Jen St. Denis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/The Tyee
VANCOUVER – Vancouver police say they cut the number of street checks by 94 per cent in 2020, but their data still shows a disproportionate number of Indigenous and Black people being stopped by police without evidence of a crime.
The Vancouver Police Board appeared satisfied with the analysis presented at its meeting Thursday. But a group that filed a complaint about the practice in 2018 says it doesn’t matter how few street checks are done by police — the fact that they are still happening continues to be a problem.
“The issue isn’t whether there are more or less street checks, the issue is that street checks are illegal and they shouldn’t happen,” said Harsha Walia, the director of the BC Civil Liberties Association.
“The entire framework of the Vancouver Police Department around street checks is really troubling, because it avoids the core questions that were at the core of our complaint, which is that there is no utility to street checks, that there is no basis for them in the law.”
A street check is when police stop someone who is not part of a criminal investigation and question them about their activities or ask to see identification. Sometimes the information is entered into a police database.
The department’s data shows that police conducted 261 street checks in 2020, down from 3,672 in 2019.
But Black and Indigenous people continue to be over-represented in the checks. From 2012 to 2020, 14 to 16 per cent of the people street-checked in Vancouver every year have been Indigenous, although Indigenous people make up just 2.2 per cent of the overall population.
From 2012 to 2020, between four and 5.9 per cent of people street checked have been Black, despite making up just one per cent of the total population.
Drazen Manojlovic, a data analyst for the VPD, told the police board Thursday that the 2020 numbers are overstated, as 186 of reported street checks were misclassified and only 75 interactions should be recorded as street checks.
He said the racial disparity reflects the disproportionate involvement of racialized people in the criminal justice system, as victims of crime and people who are charged and incarcerated.
Manojlovic believes the drop in street checks happened because of a more restrictive provincial policy on street checks that came into effect in January 2020.
VPD managers are adamant that street checks are an important policing tool, and say the practice is legal.
“Street checks are legal, they’re not banned anywhere else in Canada, and they play an important role in public safety,” said Howard Chow, a deputy chief.
The BCCLA disagrees, saying the practice is unlawful. It cites the department’s street checks policy: “When members are operating without lawful authority to detain or arrest, this policy provides direction to members with regards to the completion of a Street Check.”
Walia said the confusion within the department about what is and isn’t a street check is concerning.
“The whole thing just further points to the fact that if they don’t know what a street check is, they continue to be confused about the voluntariness of it,” Walia said.
“It just reinforces how arbitrary the whole thing is.”
Vancouver city council voted in July to approve a motion that said ending street checks was a priority.
But Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who chairs the police board, did not raise the council’s position during the board meeting.
In September, the police board made a motion to review the practice, but board members voted to delay that decision to this month, when the statistics for 2020 would be released.
There was no mention of a review of street checks during the Thursday board meeting. But Barj Dhahan, a board member, said he’d like to invite the BCCLA and Union of BC Indian Chiefs to a meeting with the police board and the department. Stewart suggested the board widen that invitation to other interested groups.
Examples of street checks in the department’s 2020 report included police stopping a group of “at-risk” young women coming off the SkyTrain, verifying they didn’t need help and allowing them to go on their way. In another example, police stopped a man who appeared to be unconscious on the street to make sure he hadn’t overdosed. Police say street checks are useful when vulnerable people go missing, because police can pinpoint the last location and date officers saw them.
But Walia said another reason to ban street checks is to stop the police from doing so-called wellness checks. Several people, many of them Black or Indigenous, have been killed by police officers during wellness checks, including Chantel Moore, an Indigenous woman from B.C. who was killed in New Brunswick in 2020.
“We’ve known for a long time… that police are not well-suited for wellness checks,” Walia said.
“That is not their mandate, that is not what they are trained in. And it is completely intimidating and an oxymoron to think an officer can de-escalate a situation when they represent armed violence.”
Chow said the police are the only agency equipped to handle complex calls, such as someone acting erratically and aggressively because of mental illness.
“We’ve gone to these calls multiple times and they flip on a dime, and then all of a sudden instead of the person screaming and yelling, it goes violent,” he said.
When responding to a call from someone who’s worried they haven’t seen their neighbour for a week, officers have the ability to break down a door and later secure it, Chow said. For someone on a bridge who appears to be suicidal, officers have the ability to close roads.
Adam Palmer, the chief of police, said officers can’t just ignore people who appear to be in distress, and other agencies could take a long time to arrive.
Walia said she would have to think about whether she or other BCCLA representatives would meet with the VPD.
She said she is still troubled by revelations that a consultant hired by the department to review street checks deleted a paragraph about officers making inappropriate racial comments from its report.
The cut was made after a police board committee decided to share the report with the VPD before publication, and after the report author discussed the paragraphs in question with Chow, the Vancouver Sun reported.
The incident is now under investigation by David Loukidelis, a former deputy B.C. attorney general.
“The lack of independence and the lack of governance of the Vancouver Police Board are clearly in question, because they continue to take everything the VPD says at face value,” Walia said.