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Rights + Justice
Municipal Politics

Right through Last Year, Vancouver Police ‘Carded’ a High Rate of Black and Indigenous People

The force says it’s sharply downscaled such checks in 2020, but critics raise rights concerns.

Bryan Carney 19 Sep 2020 |

Bryan Carney is director of web production at The Tyee and reports on technology and privacy issues. Follow him @bpcarney.

For two years, the Vancouver Police Department was taken to task for the fact that its officers subjected Black and Indigenous people to street checks at a far higher rate than the general population.

The next year, 2019, the ratios were no different, The Tyee has learned.

Street checks or “carding” involve police stopping individuals who are not part of a criminal investigation.

The VPD was criticized for the disproportionate stops in a Globe and Mail report in June 2018 for data ending in 2017 and faced further criticism when 2018 data was released in 2019 showing no change in the racial breakdown of those stopped.

Historical data shows the racial breakdown of those stopped by percentage has remained stable since the data was recorded in 2008.

Advocates have been pressuring the Vancouver Police Board to review the practice of street checks and are frustrated the decision has been put off for at least a year.

A report obtained by The Tyee through a freedom of information request shows that in 2019, as with previous years, 16 per cent of those stopped by police checks were Indigenous, though they make up only two per cent of Vancouver’s population.

Five per cent of those stopped were Black, though Black individuals represent less than one per cent of the population.

The overall number of street checks recorded by police decreased by nearly half between 2017 and 2018 but stayed stable from 2018 to 2019.

1200px version of Street check data 2019
Data obtained by The Tyee shows little change in who gets street checked.

The VPD report noted that the data provided counts the number of individuals — not the total number of street checks — to avoid “double counting.” This means that each individual counted could have been subjected to any number of checks in the course of the year.

“Problem-oriented policing” and “suspicious activity” accounted for over half the reasons cited by VPD for performing the checks.

Problem-oriented policing concerns Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, because it sounds a lot like the discredited model of “broken windows” policing used in the U.S., she said.

“You basically create crime,” said Walia. That happens, she explained, when police decide to target certain neighbourhoods, and the higher level of enforcement is in turn cited to name those locales “problem neighbourhoods.” Police spend much of their efforts targeting low-level crime — graffiti, for instance in the U.S under the model.

The approach is proven not to reduce to violent crime, said Walia, and it facilitates class-based surveillance that targets racialized and low-income neighbourhoods.

960px version of Street check reasons, VPD 2019

Individuals subjected to VPD street checks in 2019 — the latest data available from the force — had an average of 20 previous criminal investigations prior to the street check, the VPD report noted.

“Being known in a criminal investigation doesn’t mean you’ve actually done anything wrong. It just means you’re the most subject to state surveillance and policing,” Walia said.

Often an individual’s first interaction with police is through a street check, and it sets up a cycle where racialized and homeless individuals continue to be overrepresented and experience less favourable outcomes at each stage of the criminal justice system, Walia said.

In January, the VPD announced it was implementing a new street check policy to meet provincial policing standards. The changes have reduced 2020 police checks by 92 per cent compared to previous year, the VPD wrote in the report. The force has yet to release any data from this year.

Walia said the VPD figure does not match what she has heard from advocates of those subject to street checks. Wish Vancouver, a drop-in centre for sex workers, still gets weekly reports of street checks from its clients, Walia said.

The change in policy followed an independent review of street checks by the Vancouver Police Board in December 2019 that made sweeping recommendations.

Walia is concerned that the reduction in street checks may be more attributable to the pandemic and changes in how interactions are being recorded.

Social movements around North America right now are challenging the power of police, the historical foundations of state violence and the entire system of policing, Walia said.

“We need to have a very real discussion about the scale and scope of policing, both in actual police work and institutions where police are embedded such as wellness checks, health care, schools, where police are legally authorized to use violence against people. This is something that people have a right to have a say about, and drastically reduce.”

The Vancouver Police Board report noted that there was wide room for interpretation on what qualifies as a street check and police practices in recording them, flagging the need for clarity in policies.

Overall, officers interviewed by the report’s authors agreed it was largely up to an individual officer to decide, based on the “context and their perceived utility or value of information” resulting from an interaction “if and how” a police interaction should be documented.

“If I know the person by name and there’s no offence and I talk to them, that’s a street check. But there is no reason to put it in a report,” a VPD officer told the Vancouver Police Board.

“Ninety per cent of the interactions we have go unrecorded,” said another.  [Tyee]

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