Two Vancouver police officers acted recklessly and used unnecessary force in the high-profile arrest of a Heiltsuk First Nations man and his 12-year-old granddaughter at a downtown Bank of Montreal branch, according to a disciplinary ruling by the British Columbia watchdog for municipal forces.
Brian Neal, a retired Provincial Court judge who reviewed the December, 2019, incident for the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, found the evidence did not prove the two constables discriminated against Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter when the officers responded to a call from the branch manager alleging their Indigenous status card was a fake.
But Mr. Neal stated in a Jan. 28 decision released Wednesday by the Heiltsuk that the arrest and handcuffing of the girl was “inexcusable” and that the officers showed indifference to the pair’s Indigeneity and didn’t consider how that would have an impact on their dealings with police.
“No effort was made to consider the apparent age of this child, nor the effect a public, swift arrest and handcuffing would have on that person,” the ruling stated.
Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter had just arrived in Vancouver from their small coastal community of Bella Coola and were visiting the downtown bank branch to add her to his account just before Christmas. Bank staff called police saying they could not identify the clients because of an allegedly altered or fraudulent card, a false claim Mr. Johnson has said was based on a federal bookkeeping error.
The two officers arrived and soon arrested and handcuffed the pair, before concluding there was no fraud and releasing them within an hour. Both constables then apologized for their actions and said they were simply “following procedure,” according to Mr. Neal’s ruling.
After their detention on the busy downtown street drew widespread condemnation, Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer said his officers were following the appropriate procedure. The incident was later cited by Mayor Kennedy Stewart during his push to reform the oversight of the city’s police force, which he has said was lacking in its response to the systemic racism in Canadian policing.
Mr. Johnson, 58, told The Globe and Mail Wednesday that he and his family are happy with the watchdog’s ruling and hopes it spreads more awareness about the systemic discrimination First Nations people face and that it leads to the Vancouver police better educating its members on Indigenous issues. He said his granddaughter, now 14, is still grappling with mental-health issues as the disciplinary process drags on years later.
“She still gets nervous and scared when she sees officers,” Mr. Johnson said.
In his March 17 decision on punishment, Mr. Neal ordered Constable Canon Wong, the officer who took the lead at the scene, to be suspended without pay for three days whilst his partner that day, Constable Mitchel Tong, be barred from working for two days without pay. Both officers must attend police training courses on Indigenous issues as well as write and deliver apologies to Mr. Johnson and his granddaughter within 60 days, he ruled.
Mr. Johnson and his Heiltsuk First Nation are still hoping the pair of constables can travel north to their community for a face-to-face apology.
Mr. Neal, who was appointed by the OPCC to review Victoria Police Chief Del Manak’s findings that no discipline was needed, disagreed with the submissions from the lawyers of the two officers that this case “does not sit high on the spectrum of seriousness.” The OPCC confirmed Wednesday that it has not received an application from the officers to appeal the disciplinary findings, but they still have just over a week to do so.
Sergeant Steve Addison, a spokesperson for the Vancouver police, said his agency would not comment on this case because a hearing of the BC Human Rights Tribunal into the matter still looms this November. (Mr. Johnson has also filed a Canadian Human Rights Commission complaint alleging racial discrimination on the part of BMO, which has since apologized for his treatment that day.)
In his ruling, Mr. Neal noted that the VPD has stated that it is in the process of revising its handcuffing policy, including adding more details to better explain when young people may be detained in this way.
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