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Municipal Politics

The Conflict Between Vancouver’s Mayor and the Police Explained

Lack of action on racism and two troubling incidents led Kennedy Stewart to step down as police board spokesperson.

Jen St. Denis 22 Jun

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

A critic of policing in Vancouver says Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s recent decision to refuse to speak on behalf of the Vancouver Police Board highlights the opaque role of the unelected board and the souring relationship between the mayor and the police force and the police board.

“As we’re moving through discussions of systemic racism, as well as the policing of people who use drugs, the policing of poverty in the city, that’s really important for people to figure out — what is this thing called the Vancouver Police Board, who is on it? Whose interest do they represent?” said Meenakshi Mannoe, a policing and criminalization campaigner for Pivot Legal Society. “They claim to represent the public, but the public doesn’t choose them.”

Stewart recently said he would no longer act as the spokesperson for the police board, which he chairs, because of its inaction on systemic racism.

Because the provincial Police Act requires that mayors chair municipal police boards, Stewart believes refusing to speak for the board is the strongest action he can take, according to staff in the mayor’s office.

It’s the latest development in a divide that has been growing for nearly a year between city hall and the Vancouver Police Department, centred around racism and movements that call for police departments to be defunded and the money diverted to social services instead.

Last week, security camera footage was released showing Heiltsuk grandfather Maxwell Johnson and his 12-year-old granddaughter being handcuffed by Vancouver police officers after Johnson attempted to open a bank account in 2019. The incident has been widely decried as an egregious example of racial profiling, although the VPD has denied officers acted improperly when they responded to a bank employee who had called police to report a suspected fraud.

The same week, the Vancouver Sun reported that a complaint from Vancouver police officer Blair Canning had been submitted to the Vancouver Police Board. In the complaint, Canning said the mayor’s comment that systemic racism is present in Canadian policing — after police Chief Adam Palmer called the idea “offensive” — had created a toxic workplace inside the force.

Canning complained that the mayor had spread “misinformation” when he said systemic racism is present in the VPD and other Canadian institutions. Canning also complained about comments Stewart made in May after Vancouver police officers handcuffed Selwyn Romilly, an 81-year-old retired BC Supreme Court judge who is Black, as they were searching for a dark skinned-man in his 40s.

Stewart’s comments about systemic racism in relation to the incident made it “a racially-charged incident,” Canning complained.

Stewart said the rift isn’t between him and Palmer and described the problem as the relationship between “the board and the chief.” He said it’s unacceptable that there has been “complete silence” from the board on the two handcuffing incidents — one involving a 12-year-old Indigenous child. “I have stepped down as the spokesperson for the board, because I find their positions indefensible,” Stewart said.

Vancouver city council wasn’t the only government body to take a hard look at the role of police in 2021. The Vancouver School Board voted to cancel the 49-year-old school liaison program, which placed police officers in public schools, after hearing that a majority of Indigenous and Black students had negative views of the program. The VPD strongly opposed that decision.

The rift between the mayor and the police department has been growing ever since last summer, when city council passed two motions. One called for police to stop the practice of street checks, while the other targeted the criminalization of poverty.

Then, in the fall, council also voted to freeze the VPD’s budget.

The three decisions happened in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer, and after several high-profile deaths of Indigenous or other racialized people in Canada at the hands of police during wellness checks in the spring of 2020. In response to political pressure, the provincial government also started a review of the Police Act, which is still ongoing.

The Vancouver Police Board did not accept city council’s budget freeze, choosing to appeal it and send the budget to the province for review. Wayne Rideout, a former Mountie who is the province’s director of police services, will have final say over the city police budget.

Mannoe said the B.C. process means an unelected provincial bureaucrat, usually a retired police officer, can override a budgetary decision made by an elected city council. “These are folks who are senior level bureaucrats, but they’re not elected,” she said.

After refusing to even review street checks, Vancouver Police Board members said in February that they were satisfied by a report that showed the number of street checks had dropped by 94 per cent after new provincial guidelines came into place.

However, police data still showed a disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people being stopped. (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.)

And in the fall of 2020, in response to fears about crime in the city’s downtown core, the VPD created a new team of officers to respond to lower-priority calls and check on homeless people — a move that appeared to undercut council’s decriminalize poverty motion, advocates said. Pivot Legal, the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users filed a complaint about the Neighbourhood Response Team in November, and the team is no longer active.

In response to an interview request for this story, Faye Wightman, the vice-chair of the police board, sent a statement. “It is important that the Board takes the time to discuss our response to ensure that due diligence has been given, that the facts are known and discussed, and that there is consensus in the response,” it said.

“Acting as a buffer from political interference, a police board must not conflate disparate topics such as the important discussion around systemic racism in police services, or the work that is being done at the Board and VPD, with the Mayor’s opinions regarding his role as Chair and spokesperson of the Vancouver Police Board, and the need to reform the B.C. Police Act.”

Wightman went on to write that the board wants to “listen, learn and do better” when it comes to addressing systemic racism, and said that “like all police services, the VPD is built on a foundation of structural racism and colonization.”

Mannoe said it’s not easy for members of the public to speak to the Vancouver Police Board. Community members have to apply to be accepted as a delegation at meetings, and board members don’t ask questions of speakers or respond to their presentations or issues, as city councils do.

Under B.C.’s Police Act, the province appoints up to seven board members, the municipal council appoints one person and the mayor sits on the board as chair. (Vancouver’s board includes six members appointed by the province, one appointed by council and the mayor.) Police boards have the power to hire the chief of police, set priorities for the force and approve the budget.

The purpose is to insulate municipal police forces from the political whims of local governments and put public safety first. But Mannoe said the system as it’s set up in B.C. seems to have “been designed in a way that systematically removes local power and influence.” In contrast, Mannoe said, the board seems to have an open ear to the VPD, the police union, or the BC Association of Chiefs of Police.

Mannoe said high-profile incidents like the handcuffing of Johnson and his granddaughter and Selwyn Romilly have attracted a lot of media and political attention, but it’s important to remember that marginalized people are frequently harried by police in the city.

The Tyee has previously reported on the concerns of Dave Dickson, a retired police officer who was troubled about the way some police officers have been treating homeless people on East Hastings Street during daily “street sweeps,” when unhoused people are ordered to move their belongings off the street.

In an unusual group complaint to the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, 17 Downtown Eastside residents and workers recently spoke out about two police officers they say regularly harassed and bullied them. While the officers have been banned from working in one area of the neighbourhood, the complainants withdrew from a mediation process because they felt the officers weren’t engaging in the process in good faith.

Mannoe said police violence is happening “hourly in low-income communities,” and that it’s disappointing that Palmer continues to deny the existence of systemic racism in the VPD, which continues to erode trust among Black and Indigenous people.

“It’s shocking that one of the most powerful people in the city, someone who is in like a senior management role that’s ostensibly linked to the city, is able to make these comments continually without any public rebuke,” Mannoe said. “And I do in that sense appreciate that Kennedy Stewart said he would no longer defend indefensible positions.”

The Tyee reached out to the Vancouver Police Department and the Vancouver Police Union for this story. Ralph Kaisers, president of the union, said the union can’t comment on Canning’s unresolved complaint.

VPD spokesperson Simi Heer sent a statement saying the force can’t comment on the detention of Johnson and his granddaughter because a complaint about the incident has been made to the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner. She said the force also cannot comment on Canning’s complaint.

“This is a unique time in policing as it also presents an opportunity for police agencies to listen and grow,” Heer wrote in a statement. “Although policing has already changed significantly in the past few decades, we remain committed to ongoing dialogue with the community and to continue to evolve as a public safety organization.”  [Tyee]

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