Calls for greater police accountability after Vancouver officers handcuff, detain retired Black judge

·2 min read
Selwyn Romilly was the first Black judge appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court. (Peter A. Allard School of Law/YouTube - image credit)
Selwyn Romilly was the first Black judge appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court. (Peter A. Allard School of Law/YouTube - image credit)

Members of B.C.'s legal community are calling for police forces to work harder to eliminate racial bias after Vancouver officers handcuffed and detained a retired Black judge Friday on the Stanley Park seawall.

Former British Columbia Supreme Court justice Selwyn Romilly, 81, was detained by five VPD officers searching for a suspect described as a "dark-skinned man" around 40 to 50 years old — decades younger than Romilly.

The officers involved, the mayor of Vancouver and the VPD's chief of police have since apologized for the error.

B.C.'s former attorney general Wally Oppal says the apologies are a positive sign that progress is being made in how police forces react to incidents of racial bias, but that more accountability is needed.

"The police have an enormous amount of power," Oppal told CBC radio's On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

"With that amount of responsibility, with that amount of trust, then there has to be some responsibility and some accountability. So if you make a mistake, you need to apologize and you have to take ownership of it."

Monday, VPD Chief Constable Adam Palmer apologized publicly for detaining Romilly.

'I'll acknowledge it's a terrible situation to go through when you're the person that is subject to that," he said. "Mr. Romilly did absolutely nothing wrong and we're very sorry that that happened to him."

He said he also reached out to the retired justice directly to offer an apology.

Vancouver Police Chief Constable Adam Palmer apologized for Justice Selwyn Romilly's wrongful detainment at a press conference on May 17, 2021.
Vancouver Police Chief Constable Adam Palmer apologized for Justice Selwyn Romilly's wrongful detainment at a press conference on May 17, 2021.(CBC News)

Palmer says in spite of the mistake, the officers who handcuffed Romilly acted "in good faith" under difficult circumstances.

"These types of calls are dynamic," he said "You're dealing with citizens of the public, calling in to us, giving us descriptions. So officers are taking in that information. We had multiple calls on this."

"The officers in this case were taking in the information they got and that officer thought this person was a possible suspect, determined quickly that they weren't and apologized."

More community-based policing needed, says Oppal

Oppal agrees that police officers have a difficult job and make mistakes. He says there has been backlash to the incident from lawyers on social media.

"Many of the lawyers have said, 'OK, so they made an apology. So what's going to change?'"

He says policing in multicultural communities needs to be more decentralized and take a more community-based approach where police forces build relationships with those communities.

"I think a lot of them are doing that now and I'm impressed with some of the proactive work that is being done," he said. "In Surrey, they're moving towards a more inclusive type of policing. So these things are taking place. But in the meantime, mistakes are being made."

Listen: Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal says police need to do more than apologize to eliminate racial bias.

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