Advocates hope for accountability as Nelson police officers investigated for alleged racist messages

·4 min read
Eight former and current officers from the Nelson, B.C. department are under investigation for alleged inappropriate conduct, including the use of racist language.  (Nelson Police Department - image credit)
Eight former and current officers from the Nelson, B.C. department are under investigation for alleged inappropriate conduct, including the use of racist language. (Nelson Police Department - image credit)

An advocate says he is hoping for systemic change within the Nelson Police Department after it emerged that a number of its officers were being investigated for allegedly exchanging inappropriate content, which includes the use of racist language.

The Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner (OPCC), the civilian body that oversees complaints against municipal police forces in B.C., said eight former and current officers from the Nelson, B.C., department are under investigation.

Andrea Spindler, deputy police complaint commissioner, said the investigation was ordered on Feb. 3 after a request from the department's chief constable. The department in the southern Interior community of around 10,000 people employs 20 full-time officers. No further details on the incident were released, and the investigation is ongoing.

The allegations being investigated concern the eight officers' participation "in a WhatsApp chat group and the sharing of inappropriate content and messages, including alleged racist comment."

Jesse Pineiro, a member of the West Kootenay People for Racial Justice advocacy group, said he was "saddened" when he heard the news.

"It's a kick in the pants for people and it's a bit demoralizing for the BIPOC community," he said. "I think that the trust [between police and the community] is something that … has been pretty tenuous in the past.

"If these allegations are true, then it's not going to help … it's not a surprise to anybody who has their eyes open."

The Vancouver Police Department is conducting the investigation into the eight officers, with the OPCC providing civilian oversight. It is standard practice for the OPCC to ask external police departments to review allegations of misconduct.

It is unclear how many officers are currently in the department and whether those being investigated continue to report to work.

In an emailed response to CBC News on Monday, Nelson police Chief Const. Donovan Fisher said no officers have been suspended and he has "confidence in the officers" of his department and their ability to serve the local community.

Systemic racism in arrest data

Pineiro said his group first had "alarm bells" about systemic racism in the force after a 2021 report by B.C.'s Office of the Human Rights Commissioner.

The report showed that Indigenous people in Nelson were almost twice as likely to be arrested as white people from 2019 to 2020. It also showed that from 2016 to 2020, Black men were 7.5 times more likely to be involved in a mental health incident compared to white men.

Pineiro said that Nelson police initially did not recognize the issues of racism within the force as a systemic one, but after meeting with the advocacy group, police had positive discussions around recommendations for reform.

He says he hopes the latest investigation is also a wake-up call for police, and that the department should make constructive efforts to address its culture.

Nelson PD arrest rates per 100,000 people — 2019-2020

 

"The motivation going forward should be to do something about it," he said. "Rather than, you know, the guilt and the hand-wringing and the, 'oh, my God, I never would have thought this could happen to us' stuff."

Kash Heed, former chief of the West Vancouver Police Department and solicitor general, said the investigation should be alarming for the community of Nelson as well as the province at large. He said "a lot of eyes" would be on Nelson from across the country.

"We've long held that there's been systemic racism in policing, but a lot of that has been historic," he said. "When you hear of something that may be more current, it should be very concerning."

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Heed says he thinks the credibility of the Nelson Police Department is at stake because of the number of officers involved in a tight-knit community.

"You've got to make sure that the consequences certainly balance out with correcting the behaviour," he said.

"We want to make sure that people are held [accountable] to what they did or what they said. And we certainly want to make sure that this does not continue within the Nelson police service."

Heed says elected officials — including the mayor, who sits on the police board — should ensure a more transparent investigation for the community's sake.

Nelson Mayor John Dooley declined to comment for this story, saying the investigation is still ongoing.

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