Good morning. Wendy Cox in Vancouver here.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart launched a scathing public attack on the city’s police force last week, calling out what he said was a lack of will on the part of the police department to address systemic racism.
Mr. Stewart is the chair of the board that oversees the police department, but he’s got little power to decide the department’s direction. The mayor acts as the board’s spokesman, but he can’t make motions, nor can he vote.
The mayor’s frustration with his inability to get the kind of action he wants on policing reform has bubbled over in a most public way this month.
Last week, Mr. Stewart announced that he would no longer be the Vancouver Police Board’s public representative – a move he had actually made privately a month before.
“I have stepped down as the spokesperson for the board because I find their positions indefensible,” he said.
Not surprisingly, members of the police department are not happy, as Frances Bula reports this weekend.
Mr. Stewart is now the subject of an official complaint to the Vancouver Police Board, filed by a police sergeant who claims the mayor has created a toxic work environment for officers.
In his letter of complaint, Sergeant Blair Canning writes that the mayor “actively participates in eroding the public confidence and perception of the VPD by making generalized, often misinformed political statements, which contribute to an overall negative view of policing and police officers.”
The current conflict has its roots in June, 2020, when Mr. Stewart began trying to persuade the police board to make a motion to abolish police street checks. Data obtained in 2018 from police records showed that Black and Indigenous people were being stopped for checks at disproportionately high rates.
Mr. Stewart didn’t have the power to table the motion on his own – and, he said, no board members offered to help. Instead, he took a motion on the same topic to Vancouver’s city council. Councillors supported it unanimously, but the police board didn’t act.
In December, 2019, an Indigenous man and his granddaughter were handcuffed by police following a baseless allegation at a downtown BMO branch. Earlier this year, police stopped and handcuffed retired British Columbia Supreme Court justice Selwyn Romilly, an 81-year-old Black man, in an apparent case of mistaken identity.
Mr. Stewart publicly criticized the VPD over these incidents. In December, he supported a motion to limit an increase to the police budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, a move strongly opposed by police. After council narrowly voted in favour of that limitation, the police board filed a request with the province to have the council decision reviewed.
Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer has said that although there might be some officers with racist views, the force does not have a systemwide problem with racism.
Former mayor Sam Sullivan has said this kind of open conflict is not a good look.
“It’s such a corrosive thing to do,” said Mr. Sullivan, who had his own conflicts with police at times when he was mayor between 2005 and 2008. “His job is to defend and bring confidence to the institution.”
In other major Canadian cities, police boards have recently made steps toward tackling systemic racism.
Calgary Police Chief Mark Neufeld was outspoken last fall in talking about what he planned to do to tackle racism. He made his statements after city council organized public sessions for people to talk about systemic racism.
In September, Chief Neufeld co-signed a report from the Calgary Police Service commission on anti-racism, equity and inclusion that started its introduction by saying: “We know that the very foundation by which policing was created was inherently racist, and yet, our vision today is to lead a police service that is committed to dismantling systems of inequity by working to become anti-racist and relentless in our pursuit of equity, diversity and inclusion.”
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here. This is a new project and we’ll be experimenting as we go, so let us know what you think.