Civil liberties group pleased with investigation into police drug crackdown: Calls for greater scrutiny of police use of force and detention powers

Last November, in response to public pressure, New Westminster police cracked down on suspected street drug dealers. Video clips of the police operation that were broadcast on local TV news prompted the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) to lodge a complaint about police tactics. The investigation into the conduct and policies of the police was critical of some aspects of the police operations and makes suggestions for changes to police policy. The New Westminster Police Board has accepted the investigator’s recommendations to change policy.

The BCCLA is generally satisfied with the recommendations but believe that important issues regarding use of force and police authority to detain and remove suspects remain unresolved. “The investigation report recommends changes to policies and procedures of the New Westminster Police Service (NWPS). These changes, if fully implemented and followed, should prevent a recurrence of many of the problems documented by the cameras. However, there remain issues that need to be further addressed,” said BCCLA Policy Director Murray Mollard.

Mollard added, “Police were under tremendous public pressure to clean up the streets. Citizens need to be reassured that police respect the law while enforcing it. This report sends a strong message that police are not free to act outside the law, no matter how much public support they have to deal with a particular problem.”

The rights group listed the following concerns in its complaint:

  1. Invasion of PrivacyThe investigators found that in allowing video footage of their operation, police failed to protect the privacy of suspects by not requiring that faces and identities be obscured in the news broadcasts. “There was no excuse for this,” Mollard said. “The obligation of police to protect the privacy of individuals was made clear several years ago by both the B.C. Police Commission and the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC).” The report recommends that guidelines to protect the privacy of individuals be incorporated into NWPS policy.
  2. Use of ForceVideo footage appeared to show police using dangerous choke holds on suspected dealers. The report concludes that in fact the manoeuvre used was a “throat hold”—a procedure used to prevent suspects from swallowing evidence rather than one that restricts breathing or blood flow. The report also concludes that, on the basis of case law, the technique has been found to be lawful in B.C..

    The BCCLA is disappointed that the investigators did not examine the issues more thoroughly. “Many police forces have reconsidered the use of choke holds due to the inherent risks yet the New West Police are silent on choke holds,” said Mollard. “We would have liked to see the investigation team gather more information about the risks of the throat hold so that the Police Board could have had a more thorough debate about this technique.”

    Nevertheless, the report recommends that a province-wide use of force policy be put in place. “The BCCLA welcomes this recommendation,” said Mollard. “Citizens have given police the power to use force against us. We need to be certain that police are adequately trained and adhere to the same standards throughout the province.”

  3. Access to Private DwellingsThe BCCLA was concerned that police may have entered suspects’ dwellings without warrants and without adequate consent from the occupants. The investigators concluded that police had warrants to arrest occupants but there was not conclusive evidence that they had obtained sufficiently informed consent to conduct their own warrantless searches. The BCCLA supports the report’s recommendation that the NWPS create a policy requiring informed consent for warrantless searches. According to Mollard, “citizens are often uncertain of their right to refuse a police request to search and fear reprisals if they do not consent. Police may take advantage of their perceived authority and conduct searches even when they know the consent they receive is not given freely. I have examined the new policy and believe that the policy, if followed, will ensure that consent when given is truly voluntary. It is an excellent policy and the BCCLA would like to see all municipal forces adopt the same policy.”
  4. Detention and Removal of Suspected TraffickersVideo footage suggested that police were detaining suspects on the basis of breach of the peace authority in the Criminal Code. In addition, the video indicated that the police used cabs and police vehicles to remove suspects from New Westminster even though there were no grounds for an arrest. The investigation found that the video was misleading and that the police did not use, as a general practice, breach authority to detain and remove suspects. A model breach of the peace policy has been adopted by the NWPS.

    However, the BCCLA remains concerned that the new policy does not clarify that it is inappropriate for the police to use their breach of peace authority to detain and remove suspected drug traffickers. According to Mollard, “We continue to believe that the use of the breach power to deal with drug traffickers would be inappropriate. We are worried that, in the face of great public pressure to get rid of the problem, police will be tempted to unreasonably stretch their authority. Unless, they have clear authority to detain, they should not be facilitating removal of “undesirables”.

  5. Attribution of Drug Problem to “Hondurans”The BCCLA had expressed concern that the police’s attribution of the drug trafficking problem to Hondurans perpetuated negative stereotypes and served no useful law enforcement purpose. Regrettably, the report made no recommendations on this issue though the BCCLA understands that the NWPS and the Latin American Community Council are working to avoid misunderstandings.

    “Police must be careful not to attribute crime to people of a particular race or country of origin unless it furthers a proper law enforcement objective such as assisting in identifying a suspect,” said Mollard. “We are fortunate in greater Vancouver to have avoided deep tensions between police and ethnic or racial groups that have occurred elsewhere in North America. The police need to choose their words carefully to ensure that we continue to avoid those tensions.”

    The BCCLA expresses appreciation to Chief Constable Jim Cessford of the Delta Police Department and the rest of his investigation team for their work. Despite our outstanding concerns, the BCCLA was impressed by the professionalism and impartiality with which they pursued their responsibility to investigate our concerns. “Having a department independent of the New Westminster Police Service examine our complaint was the right way to go and this report gives us confidence in the complaint process generally,” according to Mollard.