Police discrimination probe builds on Indigenous families’ calls for justice

“British Columbia’s” human rights commissioner has launched an inquiry into police discrimination when it comes to use of force.

The province-wide investigation was announced in late January in response to public concerns about disproportionate violence from officers against racialized people and people with mental health issues.

While systemic racism in policing is a known issue, there is still a lack of comprehensive data about these impacts which is what Kasari Govender’s office hopes to uncover.

“This inquiry aims to better understand who is at the receiving end of use of force by police, whether any disproportionate impact revealed amounts to systemic discrimination and what can be done to address any equity issues that emerge,’” Govender said in a news release.

Govender said she hopes this investigation will enable communities to have greater involvement in the province’s approach to policing and ownership over their information.

According to Govender, the inquiry builds on previous work done by her office. In particular, a 2021 report which found racial disparities in the province’s policing system.

The “Equity is Safer: Human Rights Considerations for Policing in British Columbia” report analyzed data from the “Vancouver” and “Nelson” police departments and the “Surrey,” “Duncan” and “Prince George” RCMP.

It found that Indigenous people are overrepresented in arrests, chargeable incidents and mental health-related incidents. Indigenous women are also overrepresented in arrests compared to white women or women from all other racial backgrounds.

The data also found a great deal of police activity involves people experiencing mental health issues, with Indigenous, Black, Arab and West Asian people significantly overrepresented in these types of police interactions in many jurisdictions.

While the 2021 report focused on five police jurisdictions in “B.C.,” the inquiry will use data on police interactions across the province. Policing bodies are legally obligated to provide this data to the government, according to Govender, which she said will also help her office “produce some results and move towards recommendations.”

The 29 recommendations made in the 2021 report include asking the provincial government to provide funding to enable Indigenous peoples to be partners in Police Act reform, that the “B.C.” government should make significant investments in civilian-led mental health and substance use services, and establish a robust and well-funded Indigenous civilian police oversight body.

Govender said these recommendations would be revisited, and new recommendations would be made through collecting, storing and using data per the Grandmother’s Perspective, which centres on relationships with affected communities grounded in the concept of data sovereignty.

“The recommendations in that last report were aimed at the legislative committee tasked with looking into reforming the Police Act … so they were quite far ranging — we made recommendations about school liaison officers, about de-tasking the police, how to overcome bias and stereotyping [in police checks],” Govender said.

“This inquiry is going to be much more narrow in scope in the sense that we’re only looking at the use of force data rather than a broader range of information, and we’ll be making recommendations about how to address any disproportionate impacts we see there.”

The inquiry into the police use of force by Govender’s office follows concerns raised by Indigenous families who are living with violence perpetrated by police forces across the country, along with efforts by policing bodies to improve accountability for their actions.

An example of this is Chantel Moore’s family and friends, who have participated in an inquiry into her death at the hands of a “New Brunswick” police officer and travelled across the country to share their community’s experience with the police.

Moore, a Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation woman, was fatally shot by Const. Jeremy Son, who had been dispatched to check on her wellbeing in June 2020.

Since then, Moore’s mother Martha Martin has been seeking police reform through greater accountability and transparency in investigations against police behaviour.

Martin said the inquest into her daughter’s killing relied heavily on testimonies and evidence presented by the Edmundston Police Force. She noted that investigative bodies lack Indigenous representation.

“The second something happens, the police set the narrative,” Martin said.

“I found the inquiry was such a one-sided story because it was the police officers and the paramedics — the [inquest] didn’t bring any other person to come and say what they had seen.”

For Martin, the lack of Indigenous representation in the investigation process leads to limited transparency by the police and a lack of accountability for officer behaviour.

“It’s an ongoing problem that goes across the country where Indigenous people and the BIPOC community have been feeling like they’ve been a target,” Martin said.

“The transparency part is always one-sided because it’s an officer’s word against [ours].”

Meanwhile, on Jan. 9, the RCMP announced the launch of its own initiative to respond to concerns about racism and discrimination by its frontline officers.

Created following two years of consultations, the Race-Based Data Collection Initiative will involve researching race-base data in order to understand the extent of systemic racism within the force.

The data will be based on “officer perception,” wherein the officers will observe and determine the identity of the people they interact with,” according to Mai Phan, the RCMP’s acting director of its anti-racism unit.

“Officer perception is an important metric to identify whether perceived race and perceived Indigenous identity influence outcomes for different groups of people,” Phan said during a virtual media briefing in January.

“We will be using that data to analyze our impacts and outcomes for community groups in the pilot locations.”

The initiative will begin in three communities — “Whitehorse” in the “Yukon,” “Fort McMurray” in “Alberta,” and “Thompson” in “Manitoba.” Two additional pilot sites — one in “British Columbia” and one in “Nova Scotia” — are set to follow later this year.

Phan said piloting the initiative will allow the RCMP to test processes and make improvements and adjustments before an anticipated future national rollout.

Hard data is critical for understanding interactions between police forces and Indigenous and racialized people, according to Govender. Yet she said it is not always accessible, as is the case in B.C., which has no public body tasked with providing comprehensive, publicly accessible data on the police’s interactions with racialized people.

Govender said she hopes to fill this gap by analyzing data currently available to the provincial government. For the inquiry, her office has submitted an information request to the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, which receives annual reports on the use of force from police departments across the province.

Her office will review this data to determine whether it shows any disproportionate impacts on racialized persons or persons with mental health issues.

She will also meet with community organizations during the inquiry to ensure they have a say in deciding how the data about their lives will be used to create positive change.

This goes hand-in-hand with the Grandmother Perspective, released in 2020, which “answers and echoes the calls to collect disaggregated data to advance human rights.”

The Grandmother Perspective asks that instead of monitoring citizens, we collect and use disaggregated data to emphasize care for communities through “informing law, policy and an institutional practice that is in service of — and developed in collaboration with — those who are systemically discriminated against,” writes Govender in the report.

“We cannot act on what we do not know. This is a call for knowledge. We cannot make change without first building the foundations of a respectful relationship. This is a call to work alongside community in meaningful partnership. This is the time for commitments to address systemic racism and oppression across British Columbia and to move from words to real change.”

Meral Jamal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, IndigiNews