Review of street check policies arises out of B.C. police commissioner's report

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VANCOUVER — A man's complaint about being stopped and asked if he was "Abdul" by two officers in New Westminster, B.C., has prompted a call for provincewide consistency on street checks from the city's police board.

The officers' alleged actions in July 2020 and the New Westminster Police Board's followup to the case were featured as part of a key recommendation in the recent annual report from the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.

Street checks should be consistent with cultural safety best practices and address the needs of Indigenous and racialized persons who may come into contact with the New Westminster police, said commissioner Clayton Pecknold in his report, which was tabled in the legislature.

Street checks are defined as any voluntary interaction between a police officer and a person that is more than a casual conversation, and which impedes the person’s movement.

"The complainant felt that they were racially profiled and believed the police stopped them because of race," Pecknold's report said.

The New Westminster Police Board, which initially reviewed the complaint, found it to be an "unfortunate incident," which didn't constitute a street check under the policy, "but rather an investigative detention, based on an honest, but mistaken belief that the complainant was a person arrestable for criminal offences," it said.

The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner said a retired provincial court judge was appointed to review the case and he found the officers did not commit any misconduct.

The police department's street check policies were revised in December 2019 in keeping with the provincial policing standard and all front-line officers were given mandatory training before those came into effect in January 2020, the report said.

After the man requested that the complaint commissioner review the decision of the police board, the commissioner said the board would benefit from a review of its street check policies by "a consultant, expert or organization independent of the New Westminster police department and police more generally."

In its reply to Pecknold, the board said it would prefer that the Public Safety Ministry take the lead on street checks given its involvement in the matter and the need for provincewide consistency.

The New Westminster Police Department said it was "aligned" with the police board's position on the need for provincewide consistency on street checks.

B.C.'s police complaint commission is a civilian, independent office of the legislature that oversees and monitors complaints and investigations involving municipal police. The office is responsible for administering discipline and proceedings under the Police Act.

Veronica Martisius of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association helped the man file the complaint against the New Westminster department.

Statistics have shown that street checks disproportionately affect those who are Indigenous, Black or people of colour, Martisius said.

"We've been calling on a ban on street checks for quite some time now."

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, who was not available for an interview, said in a statement that ensuring police deliver services in a manner that is fair and unbiased is crucial to maintaining public trust.

"A recent review regarding street check activities highlights the need for a broader look into police policies and practices related to street checks, and in response to this, my ministry will evaluate compliance with standards governing police stops across the province," Farnworth said.

"While undertaking this audit, my ministry will also work to identify and inform whether further amendments to police standards are needed."

Pecknold said each police department is required to have a policy that is consistent with the provincial standard of street checks.

"So, what I'm interested in learning is what comes out of the Ministry of Public Safety's review and compliance evaluation of that provincial policing standard," he said in an interview.

The recommendations made by his office are not binding, he noted.

"I will say that, by and large, they do listen, and they do respond. But they don't always necessarily agree with our recommendations," Pecknold said.

"The provincial government generally is quite responsive to our recommendations and will act upon them."

One of the largest recommendations his office made over the past few years was for the Vancouver Police Department to review its street check policy, Pecknold said.

An audit conducted by a consulting firm and sent to Vancouver's board earlier this year found the number of street checks had decreased by 94 per cent between January and December last year compared with the same time frame in 2019.

The department's new policy, which came into effect in January 2020, says street checks cannot be "random, arbitrary, biased, or based solely on identity factors such as — but not limited to — race or ethnicity," the police audit said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2021.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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