To hear Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer tell it, every time his officers conduct a street check, there are compelling reasons to do so.
Street checks, where police question and demand identification from someone in a public place, are always a response to suspicious behaviour, he told CBC radio. He proffered the following examples: kids drinking in a park, a man harassing a woman in public or someone lurking in a back alley shining a flashlight into vehicles. These, of course, are offences in the making that everyone agrees deserve police intervention.
The kind of harassment known in Ontario as carding, where police were found to be questioning First Nations and people of colour to such a high degree the province stepped in to ban the practice, doesn’t happen here in Vancouver, Chief Palmer insists.
“Sometimes, the things you hear that are going on in other parts of the world or other parts of the country don’t translate to our city,” he told CBC.
Chief Palmer rose to defend his officers this week after The Globe and Mail reported data released by the force suggest street checks done by the VPD disproportionately involve Indigenous people. The numbers show that 16 per cent of street checks involve Indigenous people, who comprise only 2 per cent of Vancouver’s population. Five per cent of street checks involved black people, who make up only 1 per cent of the city’s population.
Civil rights groups, including the BC Civil Liberties Association and Union of BC Indian Chiefs, have launched a formal complaint to the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.
But Chief Palmer argues the numbers mirror the breakdown of crime by ethnicity and therefore are not out of whack.
That brings us to the chicken-and-egg problem with policing statistics: The more assiduously you police any population, the greater the chance that crimes committed by its people will be uncovered, followed by charges and often jail.
Conversely, the more crime members of any given group commit, the more prone police become to profiling that group.
There is a human propensity for bias -- we all have it to some degree, despite the VPD’s protestations. When police are biased, they dig deeper to find wrongdoing and are less inclined to give an offender a break. We need only look at the dismal preponderance of Indigenous people in our jails to see how this plays out.
Today, although Indigenous people make up less than 5 per cent of the population, they comprise 26.5 per cent of the total federal inmate population.
In the face of all these statistics, Chief Palmer’s insistence that Vancouver Police have managed to miraculously shed all bias where their counterparts in other provinces have not, simply doesn’t ring true.
It could be he is sensitive because the VPD has worked hard to improve relations with the city’s Indigenous population. Norm Leech, executive director of the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre, says efforts by the force have been “pretty positive.” He sees laws that work to prosecute and jail Indigenous people as the bigger problem. But that brings us back around to what comes first.
If the Vancouver Police truly believed their street check data were irreproachable, then why was former Pivot Legal Society lawyer Doug King told breakdowns by ethnicity did not exist when he filed a Freedom of Information request more than four years ago? Mr. King requested the information in response to the Ontario debacle; he wanted to find out if street checks done by Vancouver police would show similar bias.
Yet even in the absence of any statistical proof, the VPD soon after co-operated with the BCCLA to draft a new street check policy to help avoid Ontario’s mistakes. That was either an admission the VPD suspected it too had a problem or at the very least believed clearer guidelines were needed. The policy was completed but never adopted.
When street check data were released this week pointing to ethnic profiling, Chief Palmer missed the mark with his response. Even if he believes most of his officers treat everyone fairly, he should have acknowledged the obvious. Some do not. He should have admitted that and recommitted to doing better. Doing so would have further strengthened relations with Indigenous residents and come closer to the truth.