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Vancouver Police Strip Searches Challenged

Adding a voice to mounting criticism, 'punk riot' onlooker claims Vancouver police subjected her to degrading ordeal.

Dorothy Bartoszewski 12 Oct
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A bike ride home for Malcolm van Delst  turned into a 16-hour ordeal with Vancouver police that included a strip search – a practice used far too often without probable cause, say critics pressing the department to change its policies.

Van Delst claims that her mistake was to stop near her Mount Pleasant apartment near a blockade set up by police. Police were cordoning off a so-called “punk riot” by angry evictees of two old houses slated for demolition. The houses eventually were torched by the protesters. A slight, spectacled 40-year old researcher, van Delst was cycling down 10th Avenue approaching Main Street near midnight on September 25 when her route was blocked by a fire truck and police vehicles. “I could see some smoke in the distance, but not enough to explain why all the cops were there,” says van Delst. “So I went toward the blockade to see what was going on.”

‘I don’t have to’ Van Delst estimates she was still 20 feet from the blockade when one of a group of police officers yelled at her to leave the area. “He was really belligerent about it. I said I was in a public street and if he wanted me to leave, he’d have to give me a reason,” van Delst explains. “He told me, ‘If a law enforcement officer tells you to go, you go.’ I said, no, I don’t have to unless you give me a reason.”  At that point, van Delst says she was approached by at least four officers. “One grabbed my bike and threw it so it smashed behind me; another guy held a can of pepper spray right to my face and threatened to spray unless I left immediately. Then this other woman approached with a camera and started taking pictures, so a couple of the cops left to deal with her.”  The photographer, health care worker Valerie Edelman, was pepper-sprayed and her camera equipment damaged. Van Delst’s bike lock was taken from her and she ended up in jail, charged with unlawful assembly.  “I only found out about the ‘punk riot’ when they were taking me to the paddy wagon. I hadn’t done anything wrong, and other cops knew it,” says van Delst. “At the station, cops were making jokes, like ‘Wrong place at the wrong time, eh?’”

Stripped, hungry, thirsty Nevertheless, van Delst was stripped searched. “I even had to spread my ass cheeks and cough, in case I had a weapon up there,” she says.

Van Delst spent much of the night in a small, windowless room shared with another woman with no place to lie down. She says she was repeatedly pressured to sign legal documents regarding her possessions while not being allowed to verify them. Officers, she says, told her they “didn’t have time” for her to go through her backpack to check its contents. Van Delst says she was punished for her refusal to sign by having her release delayed.

Van Delst claims she wasn’t given anything to drink or eat for the first 12 hours after her arrest, and was finally released from jail at 4:30 pm on Sunday September 26. Thirteen others were charged as a result of being at the “riot”; five others were arrested but released without charges.

Class action suit filed

The strip searching of short-term detainees at the jail has been a matter of ongoing concern for the BC Civil Liberties Association. The group has urged the Solicitor General to bring policies in line with the December 2001 Supreme Court of Canada, which states that strip searches should only be conducted if authorities had reasonable grounds to believe that the subject was hiding a weapon or evidence related to the commission of the offence that resulted in detention. A class action suit has been filed seeking damages on behalf of everyone who had their constitutional rights violated since December of 2001.

Solicitor General Rich Coleman offered assurances earlier this year that “there will no longer be a blanket policy of strip searching everyone” at the Vancouver jail and that “officers will have to justify their decisions.”

The questionable treatment of van Delst is only the latest problematic “crowd control” event involving the Vancouver Police Department. The 1998 “Riot at the Hyatt,” where protesters and police came to blows outside at a Liberal fundraising dinner, has led to two separate investigations of police conduct. A 6,000-page report on the incident completed this year by New Westminster’s deputy police chief exonerated the VPD. In 2002, protesters at the Britannia Community Centre clashed with police after a visit by Gordon Campbell was called off. According to lawyer Cameron Ward, a man dressed as a clown was strip-searched and jailed for about 30 hours. Another man photographing the incident was taken to a parking lot where a group of up to 40 uniformed VPD police officers threatened him; he was later strip-searched and was held in jail for over 26 hours. Neither man was ultimately convicted of the charges the police brought against them.

Treatment ‘not unusual’

The Pivot Legal Society is pressing the VPD to change its approach to policing crowds. On September 28, Pivot presented a 28-page report called “Towards More Effective Police Oversight” to Vancouver City Council’s peace and justice committee, which features six recommendations: integrity testing, sensitivity training, an elected police board, and independent civilian investigations into alleged police misconduct.

Integrity tests present police with simulated situations to evaluate their conduct, much like mystery shoppers are used to evaluate customer service in stores. In New York City, integrity tests are used both randomly and to test police against whom there have been complaints. Of the latter category, 20 percent fail the tests and are fired.

“What van Delst and Edelson experienced is not unusual—it’s completely consistent with what we’ve documented,” says Pivot’s Executive Director John Richardson. “There are chronic problems in the VPD—that’s why we are recommending structural changes, especially the elected police board and external complaints process.

“These changes would definitely make what van Delst and Edelson experienced less likely,” Richardson says. “Police would be trained to know it was inappropriate, and would know there was a chance of being caught in an integrity test. And if it did happen, the complaints process would have teeth, and these women could also go to their elected police board representative and who would be accountable to them.”

Call for de-escalation training

Pivot’s recommendations make sense to Valerie Edelman, the woman who was pepper-sprayed for taking photos of van Delst’s encounter with the police, but she also has additional suggestions. Edelman, who works for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, observed a wide range of police behaviour at the “punk riot”—and a wide range of outcomes.

“I’m not saying a cop’s job is easy, but some make it harder than it has to be. There was one cop that was guarding one of the blockades who was really nice and empathetic. He joked and smiled, and so people didn’t push back. But the behaviour of the cops that threw that woman’s bike around and pepper-sprayed me—they were actually creating problems.

“The scene had really calmed down, in terms of the whole ‘punk riot,’ but these guys hadn’t,” says Edelman. “Integrity tests and sensitivity training would be great, but what cops really need is de-escalation training—their jobs would be so much easier if just knew how to talk to people.”

‘Real eye-opener’

As for van Delst, the experience “. . . has been a real eye-opener. These cops were actually inciting violence. They were just like the people I thought cops were supposed to protect me from . . . They attacked my bike, which is my vehicle. They took my bike lock, and it hasn’t been returned. They confined me for 16 hours on a bogus charge, they stripsearched me, and tried to get me to sign documents I couldn’t responsibly sign . . . It was clearly not just “one cop having a bad day”—the system itself is rotten.”   Given a week to respond, the VPD did not answer questions relating to this article, nor did they provide a timeframe in which they would do so. Dorothy Bartoszewski is a Vancouver journalist.  [Tyee]

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