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BC’s Police Act Needs Urgent Reform, but the Election Halted It

The need for change is pressing, say advocates. We asked political parties what they promise to do.

Jen St. Denis 14 Oct

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Advocates who have been lobbying for years for changes to British Columbia’s policing practices that disproportionately affect people of colour hope the provincial election won’t bring a complete halt to efforts for change.

This July, solicitor general Mike Farnworth announced a review of the Police Act, the provincial legislation that regulates the powers of police.

The review came following worldwide protests against racism and violent policing in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police.

But this September, Premier John Horgan decided to call a snap election. Horgan’s minority NDP government had previously been supported by two Green MLAs. Now, the NDP is attempting to win a majority government.

The election call meant that the all-party committee that had been struck to review the Police Act was dissolved. It will be up to whoever forms government to decide whether or not to reform that committee, said Adam Olsen, a BC Greens candidate who was a member of the committee.

“One of the great fears that I have is that the attention that was being put on this — that actually got the review of the Police Act underway earlier this summer — that there’s going to be very different conditions when this legislature gets called back,” Olsen told The Tyee.

Farnworth says it is absolutely the BC NDP’s intention to call the committee back under the same terms of reference if the NDP forms government.

“There’s no question that we will be reconstituting the committee and having it do its work, to bring back recommendations around modernizing and updating the Police Act,” Farnworth promised.

The Tyee contacted the BC Liberal Party multiple times for comment on this story but did not receive a response. In their election platform, the BC Liberals say that if elected, they would “work to eliminate systemic racism in our institutions” and would require police services to adopt anti-racism and anti-discriminatory conduct policies.

The BC Liberals say they would also establish provincewide standards to eliminate arbitrary racial profiling practices and would increase the use of “non-armed community policing patrols.”

The party is also committing to “fund the hiring of 200 additional police officers across the province and 100 more psychiatric social workers/nurses.” Over the course of the campaign, BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson has heavily emphasized concerns about community safety in connection with rising homelessness, public drug use and aggressive behaviour.

For Mebrat Beyene, the need to reform policing and completely end the practice of street checks is pressing. Beyene is the executive director of WISH Drop-In Centre Society, an organization that supports sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and across the city.

A street check is when police stop someone who is not part of a criminal investigation and question them about their activities or ask to see identification. Sometimes the information is entered into a police database.

Data from 2016 through to 2019 shows that the Vancouver Police Department disproportionately stops Indigenous and Black people.

Beyene said the women who use WISH’s services are routinely surveilled, followed and stopped by police, and it makes life more dangerous for them. People who live in the Downtown Eastside are over-policed, advocates say, and many people are targeted by police because they are drug users or sex workers.

“Women will report that cops will come up to them just repeatedly throughout the night, presumably to check on them,” Beyene said.

“But of course, what that’s doing is very intimidating for (sex) workers. And it’s also driving any possible business away, or worse, further underground, because then the Johns, the potential dates, don’t want to be seen or surveilled. So it’s literally moving into darker streets, darker alleyways.”

Other examples include police cars following a John’s car until the man makes the woman get out of the car miles away from where she lives, Beyene said. Wellness checks — where police are checking on a person’s mental health or their safety — also put women in more danger, Beyene said.

“If people see that police are showing up at the door, there’s always fear that they’re going to be labelled as a rat. There’s always a lot of fear of being outed (as a sex worker) as well,” Beyene said.

“A lot of the sex workers we see want a different type of support or a different type of wellness check, and certainly one that’s not delivered or administered by police.”

From the province, Beyene said she’d like to see an immediate ban of street checks. Beyene argued a review isn’t needed to end the practice, which has been shown in study after study to disproportionately target Indigenous and Black people.

Farnworth said he does not agree that street checks should be banned across the province. The province has already brought in new regulations around the practice, which came into effect in January 2020.

In response, the Vancouver Police Department changed its policy: street checks must be voluntary, cannot be based on “identity factors” such as race or gender, and officers cannot street check people just because they share an identifying factor with a suspect.

The VPD reported in January that street checks fell by 90 per cent after the new regulation came into place.

If cities want to go further, they can, Farnworth said. In July, the City of Vancouver unanimously passed a motion to end street checks. One member of the Vancouver police board suggested a review of the practice, not an outright ban.

But the police board has decided to punt the decision of whether to even review the practice to February 2021, when statistics for 2020 will be ready.

After being appointed to the all-party committee reviewing the Police Act, Olsen said he visited many of the communities in his riding of Saanich North and the Islands, including the four First Nations in the riding.

He heard that many communities’ frustrations stem from the RCMP practice of moving officers from post to post, he said. That disrupts the relationship community members may have formed with a trusted police officer.

“The First Nations communities want to be able to have a say on who it is that’s policing their communities,” said Olsen, who is a member of the Tsartlip First Nation.

“The communities have had in the past and enjoyed a really exceptional relationship with specific officers and then, of course, the RCMP have policies where they move people around.”

When it comes to the RCMP, Olsen said he believes the problems start at the top, and with the workplace culture of the force. In June, RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki said she “struggled” with the definition of systemic racism, before backtracking and acknowledging the long history of racism in the national police force.

“There are some very serious structural issues that need to be addressed, and we as a society and the institution of government, the institution of the police needs to be honest about the challenges of the culture of the organization,” Olsen said. “The culture drives behaviour.”

Olsen said before the election was called, the provincial committee had started to work through the witness testimony list, and Olsen had started to meet with communities in his riding. He said he assumes other committee members were undertaking similar research. The work had just begun, Olsen said.

“I’m very worried that this Police Act reform committee is scrapped and it’s kind of seen as, ‘That was when the meltdown was happening in our cities, we don’t need to do that anymore — we’re focused on this other agenda,’” Olsen said. “I think that would be tragic.”  [Tyee]

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