A complaint against Vancouver police that was initially determined to be “unsubstantiated” has now been referred to the RCMP for a criminal investigation.
The investigation was reopened a year after the incident occurred, and after video showing the violent encounter between a group of officers and a witness was posted online.
Meenakshi Mannoe, a criminalization and policy campaigner for Pivot Legal Society, said the year-long delay and the role of the video raises questions about the police complaints process and the behaviour of the police officers involved.
“It’s really disturbing that this kind of conduct happened, first of all, and that it was witnessed by fellow officers, and their accounts either weren’t sought or didn’t substantiate the investigation,” Mannoe said.
The video shows a group of police officers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood interacting with a woman, when a man starts questioning their plan to take her home using a police wagon and asking why they can’t transport her in a police car instead.
After telling the man to go away, the video shows one of the officers suddenly shoving the man, who falls backwards onto the ground. Several officers then move to restrain and handcuff the man.
The video shows the man verbally disagreeing with the officers, but it doesn’t appear to show him making any physical contact or threats towards the police before the officer pushes him.
The incident happened in September 2020. The Vancouver Police Department’s professional standards section and the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner both investigated the incident last fall but closed the file as “unsubstantiated.”
It wasn’t until August, when the video was posted to social media, that the office of the Police Complaint Commissioner reopened its investigation.
A spokesperson for the OPCC said commissioner Clayton Pecknold had “a reasonable basis to believe that the actions depicted in the video may constitute an offence contrary to the Criminal Code of Canada” and has referred the incident to the RCMP. The statement to The Tyee said that only one of the officers shown in the video was being investigated.
Tyler Nielsen shot the video as he was walking to work. As he was filming the incident on East Hastings Street outside the Grand Union Hotel, a police officer approached Nielsen and told him he needed to take his phone for “evidence,” an interaction that is also captured in the video footage.
He refused to relinquish his phone, and says the officer who approached him was aggressive, going so far as to grab him by the arm.
Nielsen, who has previously experienced homelessness and now works at two overdose prevention sites downtown, said he didn’t submit a complaint at the time of the incident because he already mistrusts the police and fears retaliation. The officer’s attempt to take his phone only deepened those concerns.
“I did not feel comfortable dealing with the police any further,” Nielsen said.
Lyndsay Watson, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, wants people to know that they have the legal right to film or photograph the police, as long as they stay back and don’t obstruct the work. She said it’s not necessary for police to confiscate a person’s phone to get evidence like a video.
Nielsen questioned why the complaint didn’t go anywhere when it was first submitted.
“It’s upsetting it had to take this, because there was the initial complaint,” he said. “They knew the video existed — why wasn’t there any followup with me?”
Mannoe said the police complaints process is difficult for people to navigate, especially for people who are unhoused or living in poverty.
Pivot has been advocating for more resources to be offered to people who are submitting a complaint, including legal help.
“The person who was shoved to the ground, he doesn’t have any access to legal aid funding or representation throughout this process,” Mannoe said. “But we know that VPD officers do have those kinds of resources available.”
Two other recent police complaints involving people who live or work in the Downtown Eastside are still working their way through the police complaints process.
A complaint about the behaviour of Const. Deepak Sood is still under investigation, according to the OPCC. In mid-April, Sood was filmed saying he would “smack” Sarah Blyth, the executive director of the Overdose Prevention Society at 390 Columbia St.
Complaints from 17 Downtown Eastside residents and frontline workers who say they were harassed by two officers are now being investigated by the New Westminster Police Department. Those two officers, Bradley Chichak and Adam Hohmann, are not allowed to work together or in a specific part of the Downtown Eastside after they were filmed making mocking comments toward a woman who had filed a complaint against them.
Nielsen said there’s often a heavy police presence around overdose prevention sites. He said there needs to be fewer police and more community workers dealing with situations in the Downtown Eastside.