1. What are street checks?
A street check is a discretionary police practice where police stop a person in public, question them outside the context of an arrest or detention or police investigation, and often record their personal information in a database.
Street checks are interchangeably referred to as carding or police stops. A street check can include recording of personal information upon observation of someone by the police, without any face-to-face contact between the person and officer. Street checks also take the form of wellness checks. Police officers in full uniform and carrying a gun often conduct wellness checks, thus introducing a hierarchy of authority and threat of force.
Street checks “evade” the Charter protections guaranteed to people under arrest or investigative detentions. Even if someone is theoretically free to leave during a street check (the police characterize street checks as “voluntary”), this is impractical. Due to the inherent power imbalance between a police officer and a member of the public, people frequently believe they have no choice but to obey the police—especially when the person stopped is vulnerable, relies on public space to live, is Indigenous, Black, racialized, or has experienced state violence.
2. What makes street checks illegal?
No law has been passed allowing street checks. This means that police officers don’t have the authority or power to conduct street checks. In a legal opinion to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, J. Michael MacDonald stated the following, “The common law does not empower the police to conduct street checks, because they are not reasonably necessary. They are therefore illegal.”
Additionally, in R v Le, the Supreme Court of Canada found an interaction involving a street check constituted arbitrary psychological detention.
3. Who gets street checked?
Indigenous and Black people are significantly over-represented in the numbers of street checks conducted by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD). In 2017, Indigenous people accounted for over 16% of street checks despite being 2% of the population, and Black people accounted for 5% of street checks despite making up 1% of the population. In 2016, Indigenous women, who comprise 2% of Vancouver’s women population, accounted for 21% of women who were street checked.
While there has been much emphasis on street checks in Vancouver, the same pattern emerges in municipal police departments across the province. Data from Abbotsford, Central Saanich, Nelson, New Westminster, Oak Bay, Port Moody, Saanich, and West Vancouver police departments reveal a decade of racial targeting, with Indigenous women over-represented in all departments’ data on street checks. In West Vancouver in 2018, Indigenous women represented 17.6 percent of women who were street checked, despite making up 0.6 percent of the population there. It’s clear that street checks are a harmful practice across BC.
The VPD says street checks can also occur “if a police officer checks on the well-being of an at-risk person.” “At-risk” has become a pretext to justify street checks in the form of wellness checks in over-policed neighbourhoods, such as the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Police wellness checks disproportionately affect people with inadequate housing, sex workers, people who use drugs, and people in mental health distress. Such checks are an inappropriate means of providing care for people living in poverty and/or vulnerable due to gendered, colonial, and racial violence.
Police wellness checks often have a tragically fatal impact, with a growing number of police killings across Canada of overwhelmingly Indigenous, Black, immigrant and/or racialized people in mental health distress, including Ejaz Ahmed Choudhry, Phuong Na (Tony) Du, Robert Dziekański, Chantel Moore, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Ian Pryce, O’Brien Christopher Reid, and Naverone Woods. A CBC investigation reveals that since the year 2000, around 70% of police-involved fatalities in Canada have been of people in mental health or substance use crisis, or both.
4. Who has jurisdiction to address street checks?
Both the Vancouver Police Board and the provincial Director of Police Services have the jurisdiction to end the police practice of street checks in Vancouver and BC, respectively
Under the Police Act, municipal police boards are required to “take into account the priorities, goals and objectives of the council of the municipality.” Section 26(4) of the Act also authorizes municipal police boards to “determine the priorities, goals and objectives of the municipal police department.” Banning street checks is a policy matter within the jurisdiction of the Vancouver Police Board. Even if this was an operational decision, the BC Supreme Court has held, “The [Vancouver Police] Board is ultimately responsible for all aspects of policing performed by the Vancouver Police Department, whether they are policy or operational matters.”
The provincial Police Act also authorizes the provincial Director of Police Services to establish mandatory standards respecting “the promotion of unbiased policing and law enforcement services delivery.” The BC government, thus, also has the jurisdiction to immediately prohibit the police practice of street checks across the province.
5. What needs to happen to address street checks?
Prohibiting street checks is only one part of the many actions needed to end police harm, but it is a necessary part. Therefore, the BC Government, City of Vancouver, and Vancouver Police Board must immediately ban street checks in Vancouver and across British Columbia.