Stakes are high for Chief Adam Palmer as he defends Vancouver police street checks

Over a 10-year period, 15 percent involved Indigenous people even though they make up just two percent of the city's population

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      The numbers tell a shocking story.

      The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association have filed a complaint to the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner about a "significant racial disparity" in the use of a Vancouver police investigative techique.

      Data over a 10-year period shows that of 97,281 street checks, around 15 percent involved Indigenous people. They comprise just two percent of the city's population.

      About four percent of street checks over the decade-long period were conducted on people of African ancestry. Over this time, they comprised less than one percent of the population.

      “The statistics on racial disparity in street carding demonstrate the lived reality of institutional racism that our people face despite the public rhetoric and celebrations around reconciliation," UBCIC vice president Chief Bob Chamberlin said in a news release. "We can’t be any clearer—this must be investigated, the VPD must publicly apologize and make an immediate commitment to change their terribly discriminatory practices.”

      BCCLA executive director Josh Paterson said that it is "indisputable that Indigenous and black people are shockingly over-represented in police stops in Vancouver".

      Similar criticisms were levelled by the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre board member Elaine Durocher, Black Lives Matter Vancouver, and Hogan's Alley Society cochair June Francis.

      Police chief rejects groups' assertions

      Chief Adam Palmer, however has defended the VPD's enforcement methods and insisted that they are not based on ethnicity.

      "If our officers see potential criminal activity or a threat to public safety, they are bound by law, including the Police Act, to address it," Palmer said in a statement. "The police have a legal obligation to preserve peace, prevent crime, and keep citizens safe. A person’s race does not factor into an officer’s decision to take action to prevent a crime.

      "There is a strong association between street checks and criminal charges," the chief continued. "The numbers show that the percentage of street checks by ethnicity is comparable to percentages by ethnicity for charges and recommended charges."

      Then he raised the issue of gender differences and the overall number of street checks of white people. 

      "For example, women make up about half of the population and men make up the other half," Palmer stated. "However, more than 80 percent of crime is committed by men.

      "It’s important to note that the majority of our street checks involve Caucasians," he added. "in 2016, Caucasian people made up 46 per cent of the population and 57 per cent of total street checks."

      Those comments stand in sharp contrast to the views of Durocher, a Métis grandmother.

      “We experience the racist practice of VPD street checks every day in the Downtown Eastside," she claimed. "As Indigenous people and and people of colour living in poverty, we are routinely stopped by the police on every block—from our home, to the food lineup, to our volunteer work—for no reason other than to question and intimidate us."

      Complaint raises serious legal issues

      The stakes are high for the VPD and the City of Vancouver.

      That's because if the complaint is found to have merit, it could clear the way for litigation. That could possibly entail a class-action suit by those who feel that the VPD discriminated against them on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

      It also opens the door for complaints to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal by those who feel they've been targeted because they are Indigenous or of African heritage.

      This is an election year, which means there will be a new chair of the Vancouver police board after Mayor Gregor Robertson leaves office.

      Under the Police Act, city council names one member to a municipal police board in addition to the mayor. The provincial government can appoint up to seven members.

      The Vancouver police board is the police chief's employer.

      The B.C. NDP government has not replaced six members appointed by the B.C. Liberal government. But that's likely to occur before the next provincial election.

      Recently, the Vancouver police board, with the blessing of its B.C. Liberal government appointees, extended Palmer's contract by three years until 2023.

      The police-friendly B.C. police complaint commissioner, Stan Lowe, also recently received another term from the legislature.

      But there's nothing stopping a future Vancouver police board from buying out Palmer's contract or firing him should the police complaint commissioner, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, the courts, or even a public inquiry determine that the police force was engaged in systemic racism.

      This has the potential to become an election issue, particularly if it's taken up by Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate Ian Campbell, who's a hereditary chief of the Squamish Nation.

      It's also hard to imagine that COPE candidates would remain silent over this issue.

      Palmer had a choice today. He could have acknowledged the numbers are troubling and suggested that this is worthy of an independent evaluation.

      Or he could have made a flat-out statement to the media that street checks are not based on ethnicity.

      He went with the latter option, siding with his officers before anyone independent has even looked at it.

      That may not sit well with a future police board, particularly if an independent evaluator or the courts substantiate the complaint by the UBCIC and BCCLA.

      As the VPD deals with a discrimination complaint, it's also facing a prolonged investigation into the role of six officers in the death of landscaper Myles Gray in 2015.

      Myles Gray case hangs over department

      This isn't Palmer's only concern.

      For a while, he also stonewalled the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. as it was probing the death of Squamish landscaper Myles Gray at the hands of six Vancouver police officers in 2015.

      Gray's injuries were quite devastating: lacerations to his face, a broken nose, a dislocated jaw, hemorrhaged testicles, a broken right orbital bone, bruising and cartilage damage across the throat, a fractured sternum, a fractured rib, and ankle and wrist bruising.

      Nearly three years after Gray's death, it's still unclear if anyone will face criminal charges.

      Robertson and the mostly B.C. Liberal government-appointed police board didn't voice any public concerns about Palmer's standoff with the IIOBC (which has since been resolved).

      A future board, however, might not be nearly as smitten with the chief's actions in this regard.

      Ultimately, the ball is in the court of Attorney General David Eby.

      He's the person who will decide if there's a need for new Vancouver police board members to take a serious look at the governance of the department.

      If Campbell wins the election, the board will be chaired by a tough-minded Indigenous mayor.

      That wouldn't be good news for the chief's job security if it's ever proven that he oversaw a department that practised systemic discrimination against Indigenous people in Vancouver.