Written by Harsha Walia
The BCCLA took on the issue of police street checks in 2018. A police street check is a discretionary police practice where police stop a person in public, question them outside the context of an arrest or detention, and often record their personal information in a database. No provincial or federal statute authorizes street checks in BC, nor are they authorized by common law developed by courts. Data from Abbotsford, Central Saanich, Nelson, New Westminster, Oak Bay, Port Moody, Saanich, Vancouver, and West Vancouver police departments reveal a decade of police street checks in BC targeting Indigenous, Black and racialized communities, with Indigenous women particularly over-represented in all departments’ data. Over 9050 people and 92 organizations, have been demanding an immediate ban on police street checks.
Over the past three years, we have gone deep down the rabbit hole of police governance in Vancouver. Our deeply frustrating experience is a crucial window into the complete institutional failure of police governance bodies, like the Vancouver Police Board, as well as the provincial government who is responsible for ensuring civilian and independent oversight over all police forces operating in the province. We share our experience so people are informed about the number of hurdles we faced, to imagine how much more inaccessible this process would be for the average person, and to understand how deeply ingrained policing culture is and how police governance acts as an appendage to – rather than counter to – the harms of policing.
Making a Policy Complaint
On May 24, 2018, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) released data on street checks from 2008 to 2017 based on a Freedom of Information request. According to the data, 15% of all street checks conducted were of Indigenous people, despite representing approximately 2% of the population of Vancouver. Furthermore, over 4% of street checks conducted were of Black people, despite representing less than 1% of the population.
The data strongly suggested that street checks are conducted in a racist and discriminatory manner, contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and B.C.’s Human Rights Code. In June 2018, the BCCLA and UBCIC launched a joint Policy Complaint with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner based on the VPD data. The complaint called for an immediate investigation of the significant racial disparity revealed in the VPD’s practice of street checks. The complaint also called for the Vancouver Police Board to initiate an independent study that would analyze the released VPD street check data, the efficacy of street checks as a policing tool, the impact of street checks on Indigenous, Black and racialized people, as well as policy development on the collection of personal information resulting from police checks. A month later and after newly released data, we filed an amendment to our complaint calling for the investigation and study of the over-representation of Indigenous women in VPD police street checks.
Advocating Against Police Self-Investigation
In July 2018, the Vancouver Police Board informed the BCCLA and UBCIC that the VPD would be conducting the investigation into the complaint and that “the Department investigates all Service and Policy complaints.” The VPD brought forward their report “Understanding Street Checks” which contained six recommendations that were adopted by the Vancouver Police Board. One of these recommendations was to “formalize the existing VPD street check standards into policy.”
The BCCLA and UBCIC wrote to the Vancouver Police Board explaining why, in our view, VPD self-investigation in relation to our street checks complaint is problematic: “[W]e are highly troubled by the lack of independence, and the lack of the appearance of independence, of the VPD’s investigation and reporting on its own practices in this case. Given the public interest in a review of this matter that appears independent and is independent in fact, it is clear to us that the VPD must not be the only body to conduct an investigation in relation to this Complaint.”
Challenging an External Review Run by Former Police Officer
The Vancouver Police Board then hired Pyxis Consulting, run by a former Edmonton police superintendent, to conduct an external review of police street checks in Vancouver. The Pyxis-authored Vancouver Police Board Street Check Review Report was released to the public in February 2020. The Vancouver Police Board accepted the findings of the Report, which concluded, “the available data and information could neither confirm nor deny police racism.”
The BCCLA, UBCIC, and Black Lives Matter-Vancouver issued a statement expressing strong concerns with the methodology and findings of the Pyxis-authored Street Check Review Report. The report assumed and concluded that street checks are valuable and non-discriminatory, despite the lack of any evidence in the review to support the claim. The review itself provided clear evidence that police are arbitrarily stopping people without lawful authority, including people who were “walking in the rain,” “walking a dog on a church lawn,” “standing on a street corner,” or simply “a clean couple in a poor hotel.” The review also referenced the use of police street checks to document and collect information about the whereabouts of individuals “known” to police outside of an active investigation. This is not a legally justifiable reason to stop and question an individual and collect or record their personal information. It also suggests that over-policing and pretext policing are occurring.
In January 2020, despite our concerns, the Vancouver Police Board concluded BCCLA’s and UBICIC’s policy complaint, citing recommendations from the Pyxis-authored Street Check Review Report and a new VPD street check policy.
The BCCLA and UBCIC asserted that there were serious problems with both the Pyxis Report and the new VPD street check policy, and then asked the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner to review the Vancouver Police Board’s decision. We argued that the Vancouver Police Board relied on the Pyxis-authored Vancouver Police Board Street Check Review Report’s recommendations, VPD’s implementation of a purportedly compliant street check policy, and its continued oversight function to monitor the annual audit of street check data as reasons for concluding the complaint. We argued that these actions were insufficient and did not get at the core of our original policy complaint.
Exposé of Disturbing VPD Conduct during Street Checks Review
In response to our request that the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner review the Vancouver Police Board’s decision to conclude our complaint, the BCCLA and UBCIC received two shocking letters from Police Complaint Commissioner Clayton Pecknold.
In June 2020, Commissioner Pecknold revealed to us that a Vancouver Police Professional Standards (VPD-PSS) investigation was ordered into disturbing and inappropriate conduct and comments about racialized and vulnerable people by two VPD officers. Pyxis contractors, while conducting research for the Vancouver Police Board Street Check Review Report, witnessed these two officers. Pyxis researchers stated that during two separate VPD ride-along excursions, one officer made a number of “inappropriate, racially insensitive comments” and another made “inappropriate comments about vulnerable and marginalized people, had anger issues, and was overly terse and extremely rude to a member of the public.” One of the Pyxis researchers self-identified as a member of a racialized community. The Commissioner asserted that if the conduct was substantiated, it would constitute misconduct.
Even more shocking, these allegations were included in a draft of the Pyxis-authored Vancouver Police Board Street Check Review, but were missing from the final public report; the report that the Vancouver Police Board had accepted. It was deeply troubling to us that this extremely relevant section — detailing racist and inappropriate comments and conduct by VPD officers even as they were under observation — had been removed. The deleted paragraph was directly relevant to the Pyxis Street Check Review Report and were at the very core of the concerns in BCCLA and UBCIC’s original policy complaint.
In July 2020, Commissioner Pecknold issued a follow-up letter outlining the conclusion of the investigation. VPD-PSS interviewed VPD officers and Police Board members and attempted to interview eight Pyxis researchers. All Pyxis researchers declined to be interviewed or provide documentation and claimed that all field notes had been destroyed. As a result, a Notice of Discontinuance was issued since the investigator was unable to identify the two VPD officers. It was unbelievable to us that two VPD officers, who were part of two out of twelve VPD ride-along excursions as part of a formal street check review, could not be identified or held accountable.
The BCCLA and UBCIC wrote to the Vancouver Police Board requesting further information regarding the deletion of this information about VPD officer conduct from the final Pyxis-authored Vancouver Police Board Street Check Review Report.
Shocking Revelations of VPD Interference in External Review of Street Checks
In November 2020, we found out—through media reports and not the Vancouver Police Board—how the relevant paragraph about VPD officers’ racist and inappropriate conduct and comments came to be censored from the final report of the Pyxis-authored Vancouver Police Board Street Check Review.
We found out that the Vancouver Police Board Street Checks Review Committee had released an interim draft of the Street Check Review report to the VPD. Deputy Chief Howard Chow then had “lengthy discussions” with a Pyxis researcher about the section in question, and Chow spoke to the Vancouver Police Board Street Checks Review Committee about the “variety of reasons” for the removal of the paragraph. This paragraph was subsequently removed from the final public report, and the Vancouver Police Board subcommittee was informed of the significant erasure.
The substance of the deleted paragraph, the involvement of at least one senior VPD officer in discussions regarding editing out a paragraph relating to officers’ racist and inappropriate comments, as well as the discrepancy in the draft and final report versions all raised alarming concerns about the objectivity, methodology, and findings of the Pyxis-authored Vancouver Police Board Street Check Review. We were also shocked that the Vancouver Police Board’s vice-chairman, Barj Dhahan, told media “I don’t see anything wrong” with the chain of events and didn’t think the publicly funded Vancouver Police Board Street Check Review was compromised.
Provincial ‘Review of the Review’
In December 2020, the provincial Director of Police Services appointed David Loukidelis, BC’s former Privacy Commissioner, to conduct a review under section 42 of the Police Act. The review is currently investigating the Vancouver Police Board’s response to BCCLA and UBCIC’s original complaint, the Vancouver Police Board’s role in complaints generally, and the Vancouver Police Board Board’s level of independence from the VPD. The provincial Director of Police Services also initiated a second study pursuant to conduct an analysis of the processes employed by the Vancouver Police Board to conduct the Street Checks Review, including the selection and retention of the contractor, Pyxis. These investigations have just been completed and we are eagerly awaiting the public findings.
In February 2021, the BCCLA and UBCIC again wrote to the Vancouver Police Board. We highlighted the public trust at stake in light of the information about the deleted paragraph that contained information that is directly relevant to the nature of the Pyxis-authored Vancouver Police Board Street Checks Review report. We called on the Vancouver Police Board to review its prior decision to accept the findings of the Pyxis-authored Vancouver Police Board Street Checks Review report, and to re-assess its decision to conclude our original street checks complaint.
Our three-year saga into the rabbit hole of police governance sheds a critical light on the failures of police board governance and raises serious concerns about the Vancouver Police Board’s lack of independence from the VPD. The actions of the Vancouver Police Board violated their obligation to provide impartial civilian oversight of the Vancouver Police Department and to govern with independence, integrity, and be accountable to the community. Indeed, what has happened with the Vancouver Police Board Street Check Review forces a reckoning about the power of police, even over those governance bodies tasked with holding them accountable.