When I was appointed to the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board in 2021, my hope was to improve public safety for everyone. I was excited to use my decades as a civil liberties, human rights and justice advocate to build trust between the Victoria Police Department and those who have been historically underserved and over-policed.
After two years, I came to the conclusion that the system of police governance in B.C. is not robust enough to fully protect the public interest and to correct glaring inequities.
Despite alarming revelations over the last few years, I don’t champion abolition of the police. I appreciate the abolitionists' arguments, but we don’t live in a utopian world. Serious wrongdoing exists now. Organized crime, sexual assaults, hate crimes and white-collar offences are among the major scourges that drain the resources of our communities and oppress everyone, especially the vulnerable. It takes specialized training, skill and organization to contain criminal conduct.
On the other hand, minor reforms will not solve the shortcomings of policing. The often-recited defence that the problem is just a few “bad apples” forgets that bad apples usually mean unhealthy trees.
Constructive structural reforms are possible. The Federation of Black Canadians prepared an excellent summary of proposals to improve accountability and transparency, align police activity with good governmental social policy, and increase diverse community representation.
Abolition makes sense in many places in the United States where policing was historically used to control enslaved people and continues essentially unchanged today to repress the Black population. The Broken Trust report on the Thunder Bay Police Service exposed places even here in Canada where starting fresh with diverse community control may be the only way forward.
Thankfully, I did not find this deep corruption of purpose in Victoria. The sworn and civilian members of VicPD have a tenacious dedication to public safety.
Still, individual officers’ devotion alone is not sufficient. Rapidly expanding police budgets are a major concern. The police board oversees an operations budget of roughly $65 million, but under the Police Act the board cannot shape operations, even at the highest level.
A lack of immediate accountability
Imagine the board of BC Hydro approving millions for a new generating plant, but not being able to direct whether the plant uses coal, LNG, diesel, nuclear or hydro. The public would be rightly outraged. But that’s the structure in place for governing the police. The board’s power is merely to hire the chief constable who then has a free hand to alone decide virtually every aspect of operations. That’s not effective governance or oversight. The lack of immediate accountability does our government a disservice.
Certainly, a civilian board without police training should not be in control of day-to-day law enforcement. However, through the use of outside consultants and improved provincial auditing, better regulation of high-level operations can be achieved.
When recommending a budget, a police board is supposed to consider what is needed to run an effective and efficient department. Effectiveness is not usually an issue. Department management always asks for increased personnel, equipment and funding.
An efficient budget is one that balances tax resources needed for good public safety with those needed for good public services. To determine whether a budget is efficient, police boards need to understand how the department’s use of funds improves public safety outcomes. My experience is that this evaluation is conspicuously absent.
What budgets should support
In my view, budgets should go towards fighting violence and preserving community safety rather than criminalizing the predominantly social problems of drugs, traffic, mental health and unhoused people.
Even the most dedicated police officer cannot begin to solve the social issues that are the determinants of poverty, exclusion and crime. Detaining people suspected of crime or mental instability is, at best, a stopgap measure that adds almost nothing to fixing the root causes.
Although very few people experience crime from strangers, the constant drumbeat that the streets are rife with danger makes people feel victimized and unsafe. Much of the buildup about pervasive crime comes from police media releases, while the constructive work that police officers do every day is under-recognized. This contributes to making people feel in peril and urges them to believe that they need more police to protect them, but there is little evidence that this is true.
And there are others whose experience is that additional police presence increases the risk of discriminatory over-policing.
No faith in an informed decision
After a couple of years of looking at police budgets and a ton of the information about crime and public safety, I had little faith that the police board or I possessed the necessary elements to make informed decisions.
Complicating the budget process is a sobering reality: police have been assigned many duties for which they are not the best responders. Mental health is the most obvious, but there are other commissions that the province has downloaded on municipal police departments.
De-tasking the police has obvious financial and safety benefits. There is evidence that civilian mental health intervention programs, such as Peer Assisted Care Teams, reduce crime. The same evidence does not exist for increasing the number of officers.
The call to defund the police has brought attention to the need to allocate our tax money to address social needs. But to some, the meaning of the call to defund is confusing. Social media wars using dramatized crime portrayals and catchphrases too often promote an environment that produces decisions based on raw emotions rather than examined facts.
There is a better way. Police boards need full information, open discussion and a careful balancing of the consequence of proposed solutions to make an evidence-based judgment on whether to maintain, increase or decrease the funding of our police departments.
One of the main jobs of a police board member is to assure the public that each year’s proposed budget will improve public safety. Since I could not do that under the current system, I felt I was not giving the community what they had a right to expect.
A problematic paradox
The paradox of police budgets is only one of the challenges I encountered. The Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board’s role in setting and reviewing top-level policy is also problematic.
The case last June of a 64-year-old Black immigrant from Grenada is revealing. The police said they received a report of a man experiencing a mental health crisis who was “reported to be at risk of becoming violent.” According to neighbours, the intervention started with four police vehicles, soon augmented by several additional squad cars and the department’s armoured vehicle.
An estimated dozen officers broke the man’s windows and used tear gas and/or pepper spray, “less lethal” Arwen bullets and a stun grenade before forcibly taking him into custody about five and a half hours later.
Was this necessary? I can’t say, although it happened during my watch on the police board. The officers involved may have violated no law or policy. They are, after all, required to detain people in certain mental health crises and bring them to the hospital.
On the other hand, having multiple police and vehicles approach a person in distress will often initiate escalation. The upward spiral of force from that point was pretty much predictable.
Although they may investigate whenever the police use a weapon, the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner would not reveal whether an investigation of this incident is underway.
In any event any OPCC investigation will focus on whether the police acted unlawfully, but not on whether there is a better way to get a better result.
That should be within the dominion of the governing board, but there is no way we would be allowed to investigate and enact improved policies even to support future non-escalation and de-escalation.
I was deeply moved when VicPD Chief Const. Del Manak supported the family of Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation member Chantel Moore after she was killed by police in a situation that might have been avoided by de-escalation. I had hopes that the chief would ask the police board to review the policy and procedures in the 64-year-old immigrant’s case. That was not to be. Departments are unwilling to submit to board scrutiny on those issues.
Structural, cultural deficiencies
Raising these hard questions may sound like I am being super critical of police officers, but I really do support their concerned and committed approach to their exceedingly difficult jobs. The main deficiencies are structural and cultural.
There are features of police culture that I admire. The loyalty to each other, the willingness to face risks and the devotion to public safety are exceptional qualities. But there are also toxic parts of the culture, like cliquishness, male ethos, an “us versus them” mentality and disparagement of colleagues who admit stress or psychological work problems.
Dealing with people in crisis and facing endless safety risks take a huge toll on the mental and physical health of officers. Yet, the fear of disclosing mental health issues and the lack of mental health support have led to reports of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in as high as 20 per cent of police officers. Their well-being is in crisis and needs urgent attention. This trauma could also bring adverse consequences to any one of us. PTSD symptoms include a heightened and unrealistic fear of threat from stressful interactions. That’s not a recipe for good results when police need to intervene.
There are other troublesome culture issues. In September 2020, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth directed police boards to tackle "racism in policing.” Surveys show that a significant percentage of police employees don’t believe there is systemic racism. Fair and impartial policing policies cannot offset conscious and unconscious bias among those who deny racism’s existence.
Police culture often includes an unfortunate aversion to admitting mistakes and accepting the need for change. We saw that when two Vancouver constables refused to apologize to the 12-year-old Heiltsuk girl they placed in handcuffs at a BMO branch even after the OPCC found fault.
I advocated that VicPD take a step toward mending relations with communities that historically experienced discrimination and over-policing by addressing policies that breed racism or have been customarily used in a biased way. Although senior police officials listened respectfully, virtually every suggestion was met with resistance.
We must change the methods that promote discrimination
A simple change I suggested in 2021 was to stop using generic labels to identify potential suspects. Tagging someone as Indigenous, Black, Asian or Middle Eastern triggers both the police and the public to call on racial and ethnic stereotypes rather than accurate detailed descriptions.
The harm was documented after the arrest of famous Black folk singer Leon Bibb in 1972. Bibb was detained not because he looked like the crime suspect, but because he was Black. Fast forward to 2020. Retired B.C. Supreme Court Justice Selwyn Romilly was on a stroll in Stanley Park when he was handcuffed although he was about 30 years older than the suspect and did not fit the suspect’s description, except that both were Black.
No surprise. The same practice yields the same result. As 2023 starts, generic labels are still being used. If the police are to disrupt the pattern of systemic racism, they must be willing to change methods that promote discrimination.
I also questioned policies on street checks, strangleholds and intervention to stop police misconduct.
In July 2020, Victoria city council passed a motion asking VicPD to stop street checks because of the pattern of discrimination against Black, Indigenous, racialized and unhoused people disclosed by expert reports in other cities in Canada. VicPD did not comply.
Chief Manak has asserted that street checks are "a major, major part of effective police work." Yet, in all of 2020 VicPD recorded only 15 street checks in the PRIME police database. Either street checks are no longer a major tool of police work, or they are flying under the radar. VicPD did work with me to get a better handle on the issue, but the actual extent of street check use remains baffling.
Neck restraints came under scrutiny after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Chokeholds are forbidden in B.C., but strangleholds are still permitted. Strangleholds, also called vascular neck restraints, cut off the flow of blood to the brain. The American Academy of Neurology, the world’s largest professional association in that specialty, recommended a ban on strangleholds, finding that “there is no amount of training or method of application of neck restraints that can mitigate the risk of death or permanent profound neurologic damage with this maneuver.”
In May, federal Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino issued an updated mandate letter to the RCMP that included a commitment on “prohibiting the use of neck restraints in any circumstance.”
The duty to intervene is another policy that addresses identified injustices. The policy imposes an affirmative duty on police officers to intercede if they safely can when they observe conduct by another officer that is unethical or clearly violates the law or where force is unreasonably applied or no longer required.
Police officers have a legal duty to act when they see an individual commit a crime, but when that person is another officer, VicPD policy requires that they only report the conduct to a supervisor. What happens after that is often unclear, but it is exceptionally rare to hear anything further. This is a major source of mistrust. The general belief is that the police cover up bad behaviour by their own.
Police agencies everywhere would be advised to modernize their intervention policy. A few have. The London Police Service in Ontario announced adoption of a new policy in 2020. In May 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice updated its use-of-force policy to require federal agents to intervene if they see other officers using excessive force.
A call for reforms
The Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board did not challenge VicPD’s inaction on these issues of community concern. The policies I questioned were considered beyond the scope of the board’s authority. That created an ethical conflict for me.
The police board is responsible to ensure the department engages in fair, unbiased and impartial policing. But how can it do that without the power to require that effective policies are operationalized?
Every governing board should be duty bound to take full responsibility for approving and assuring implementation of high-level policies. Pros and cons can be worked out through internal discussions with expert and public engagement.
Resolving the policy and budget challenges would go a long way to creating more confidence in municipal policing and building positive support for patrol and community officers. We have to move forward with other structural reforms, as well.
I agree with most of the legislature’s Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act’s proposals. Their recommendations to establish a continuum of funding for mental health and complex social needs, and to create different categories of responders, is a good place to start right now.
Other promising recommendations include a shared funding model for municipal departments, regionalization of forces and creation of a new provincial police force. These improvements would help de-task the municipal police and enable right-funding according to each municipality’s true needs.
Hopefully, the government will have the political will to move ahead with faster than typical speed. Until that happens, police board members must be vigilant to give the public the best police governance despite the extensive limitations on their authority.
For me, as much as I wanted to be part of overseeing community safety, I could not, in good faith, serve on the police board without the much-needed reforms being in place.