A Toronto activist and journalist who is in Vancouver to give a keynote address on racial equity was stopped by police near Stanley Park on Tuesday in what he alleges was a racially based street check by police.
The Vancouver Police Department is disputing Desmond Cole’s account, saying a street check was not conducted and no information was collected.
Mr. Cole, however, says the only reason no information was collected was that he refused to provide it.
“They [VPD] say they didn’t collect any information - they didn’t say they didn’t try to collect information. They attempted to collect my information and I refused, which I have done many times in the past,” Mr. Cole said Wednesday in a telephone interview, referring to police interactions in other cities.
The incident, which Mr. Cole described in a video he posted on social media, comes amid controversy over Vancouver Police data that show the department’s use of street checks in 2017 disproportionately involved individuals who were Indigenous or black. The department has said street checks are a valuable public safety tool and not driven by ethnicity.
In a recent report, the VPD described street checks as a “type of interaction arising from non-random contact between members of the public and police” and said they typically occur when a police officer “views suspicious or potentially criminal behaviour.”
The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs and the BC Civil Liberties Association in June filed a complaint over the street checks, arguing the disproportionate number of stops were discriminatory. In September, the city’s police board ordered an independent review of the issue.
Mr. Cole said he was stopped while walking on a sidewalk, on his way to Stanley Park, and smoking a cigarette. An officer in a police cruiser passed him, turned around and then stopped to address him.
Mr. Cole said the officer told him he was breaking a city bylaw by smoking in a park, though Mr. Cole disputes that he was within the park boundaries. He said the officer then asked Mr. Cole to provide his name and other information.
The VPD said Mr. Cole’s claims in the video are inaccurate.
“A street check was not conducted and no information was recorded. The officer did approach Mr. Cole about a bylaw infraction. In this case, our officer used his discretion and chose not to serve a bylaw offence ticket,” VPD spokesman Constable Jason Doucette said in an e-mail.
That response misses the point, said Josh Paterson, executive director of the civil liberties association.
“Whether it’s a street check or not, it’s a police stop - and from what [Mr. Cole] says, it sounds like an arbitrary stop,” Mr. Paterson said. “Our complaint is about more than just street checks; it’s about arbitrary and discriminatory police stops, and that’s what this looks like to us.”
Mr. Cole is in Vancouver at the invitation of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a left-leaning think tank that focuses on issues including climate change, labour laws and income inequality.
He is scheduled to speak Thursday at an annual fundraising gala with a keynote speech billed as, “Are We There Yet? The Struggle for Racial Equity in Canada”.
Mr. Cole wrote a regular freelance column for the Toronto Star, but stopped in 2017 after the paper told him his actions at a Toronto Police Services Board meeting in April, 2017, crossed the publication’s line between activism and journalism.