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Police Board Dismisses Complaint Media Were Denied Access to Camp Clearing

VPD denies watchdog’s finding officers set up an ‘exclusion zone’ when it cleared East Hastings camp in April.

Jen St. Denis 27 Nov 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

The Vancouver Police Board has closed a complaint about media access during the removal of an East Hastings Street homeless camp on April 5 after police denied they created an “exclusion zone.”

The large operation, carried out by dozens of city staff and police officers, was a departure from the city’s treatment of previous tent encampments. The decision to remove all the tents, mostly in one day, came after the city had spent months trying to control the sidewalk encampment on several blocks of East Hastings.

The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner received a complaint about an exclusion zone preventing journalists from covering the clearing.

The independent complaints office told the police board that it appeared the Vancouver Police Department had set up an exclusion zone. Exclusion zones have been extensively used by the RCMP to control media and activists in Wet’suwet’en territory and at Fairy Creek, the site of a logging protest.

In a 2021 B.C. Supreme Court ruling, Justice Douglas Thompson rebuked the RCMP for the use of exclusion zones to control the movement of journalists, calling the tactic “unlawful.”

The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner said that after reviewing the complaint and public statements made by the Vancouver Police Department, “it appears that an ‘exclusion zone’ was created by the VPD for the purpose of excluding the public and the media from a specific section of the city for a defined period of time. It is unclear what lawful authority was relied upon in the creation and enforcement of this ‘exclusion zone.’”

The Canadian Association of Journalists had earlier expressed concern “about the lack of access for journalists and media covering the encampment in Vancouver. Journalists need to be able to do their jobs and hold the police and the city accountable.”

The office asked the police board to review the complaint and decide whether to initiate a study, start an investigation or dismiss the complaint. Clayton Pecknold, the commissioner, told the police board that it was his recommendation “that the Vancouver Police Board obtain independent advice in addressing this complaint distinct from the VPD.”

But at a police board meeting Thursday, the board decided to close the complaint after hearing from VPD Supt. Don Chapman. Chapman told the board that while the VPD had closed the street for one block between Columbia and Main on the morning of April 5, that did not constitute an exclusion zone.

“The VPD did not prevent any journalists or media from entering the street decampment zone on April 5, and no exclusion zone was ever set up,” Chapman told the board at the Thursday meeting. He said the VPD had requested that media go to a specific staging point at 9 a.m. on April 5.

“We also provided a police liaison officer at that staging point for the media, and that was to facilitate media queries,” he said.

“At any time if the media were temporarily denied any unfettered access to a specific portion of the zone during decampment, that decision was made purely for safety reasons, as there were numerous large vehicles, garbage trucks, moving trucks, moving back and forth.”

Chapman said the city or police could have erected “very high” fencing “and put some curtains up to try to prevent people from seeing what was happening.”

That didn’t happen, Chapman said.

Board member Allan Black said he was satisfied with that explanation. With no other discussion, the board voted to close the complaint and send a letter to the OPCC and the complainant.

In a followup email to The Tyee, a board spokesperson confirmed that neither the VPD nor the board had sought external advice, as recommended by Pecknold, because the board had determined the VPD had not used an exclusion zone.

What did media experience on April 5?

The Tyee arrived at Hastings and Columbia at around 10:30 a.m. on April 5. A line of police officers stretched across Hastings Street, blocking media and the public from accessing the street. This reporter was told reporters would have to wait for an indefinite amount of time for a police officer to arrive who could lead journalists past the police barricade.

The Tyee walked up Pender Street to the second police barricade at Main and Hastings and observed police officers questioning health workers and checking their identification before the workers were allowed to get in to go to work. The Tyee was told by officers at that barricade that media could not access the street.

The Tyee was then able to access the closed block by walking through an alley that runs perpendicular to Hastings. In the meantime, other journalists had been let in at Hastings and Columbia.

The Tyee went back to the area at 5 p.m. and observed police and city workers attempting to remove one tent on Main Street between Hastings and Cordova. Police were holding the public back at Main and Cordova. The Tyee was briefly able to get access through the police line but almost immediately was told to go all the way back to Cordova because of the privacy of the woman who was refusing to leave her tent.

Police tell media to move back shortly after allowing access. Video for The Tyee by Jen St. Denis.

The Tyee was able to stay in position to be able to observe and report what was happening.

Actions were for safety and privacy, says chief

During a press conference following the police board meeting, VPD Chief Adam Palmer said no exclusion zone had been created and any barriers to access media experienced were temporary and for safety or privacy reasons.

“In any police operation, no matter what it is, we have to have an area that’s safe for our officers and the people that we’re working with,” Palmer said.

“If you have a car accident, if you have road construction going on, there will be an area where people cannot go.”

Palmer said the extensive media reporting, photography and video from April 5 shows that journalists were given enough access to the street to be able to report what was going on.

Faye Wightman, vice-chair of the Vancouver Police Board, told reporters that the OPCC can come back to the board with “a suggestion” that the board send the complaint to an external investigation but does not have the power to order an external investigation after the board’s decision to close the complaint.  [Tyee]

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