In 2014, a string of police shootings of unarmed black men raised questions about why the U.S. government doesn’t track those deaths via a centralized database.
In B.C., relevant agencies informed the Straight there is similarly no official requirement to report the race of someone who dies or is seriously injured during an incident involving police. But data is being collected.
Vancouver Police Department Const. Brian Montague told the Straight that whether or not the race of an individual is recorded is a decision made at the discretion of officers. He said VPD reports include a field marked "ethnicity", but it's a blank box (as opposed to a drop-down menu) and there is no requirement it be filled out.
The RCMP did not respond to a request for an interview on the subject of race.
The most serious of encounters involving police use of force are almost always investigated by the B.C. Coroners Service. Spokesperson Barb McLintock said her office technically does not track race. However, it does record whether or not a deceased person is aboriginal, because that information is clearly marked on all B.C. registrations of death.
McLintock added a deceased person’s aboriginal status is not always information that’s made public. Asked if she’s ever noticed an over-representation of aboriginals in police-involved deaths, McLintock claimed the sample size is too small for a pattern to have become apparent.
Kellie Kilpatrick, executive director of public accountability for the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. (IIOBC), said her agency doesn’t explicitly track the race of “affected persons” in its investigations.
“It’s just something that we haven’t developed yet in terms of the variables that we collect on our data,” she explained. Kilpatrick added she is open to seeing that change.
The IIOBC’s 2013-14 annual report nevertheless includes some information on race. Of the 58 deaths or cases of serious injury reviewed during that reporting period, seven (12 percent) involved an aboriginal person. In 2012–13, three of 18 incidents (16.5 percent) investigated by the IIOBC involved an aboriginal person.
According to Statistics Canada data collected in 2011, that year 5.4 percent of B.C.’s population identified as aboriginal.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said he was aware of a lack of official reporting requirements. He added that it’s important to track race in cases of in-custody deaths and police-involved shootings because aboriginal people are overrepresented in the justice system.
But Phillip said an informal understanding seems to be getting the job done. The First Nations Leadership Council has a “safety protocol” in place, he explained, and that facilitates regular meetings with the RCMP and municipal police forces in B.C.
“It’s to monitor these issues,” Phillip said, “of missing and murdered women, deaths in custody, and all police matters between First Nations people and those police agencies.”
A December 2014 report by the Legal Services Society illustrates the extent to which aboriginal people comprise a disproportionate number of B.C. citizens who require legal aid. It states that in 2013/14, aboriginal people accounted for 42 percent of LSS child protection cases, 31 percent of criminal cases, and 21 percent of family cases.
In a telephone interview, LSS executive director Mark Benton said he was "surprised" there's no centralized database that tracks the race or ethnicity of people who die while in the custody or otherwise engaged with B.C. law enforcement. At the same time, he questioned to what extent race is the primary factor in such incidents.
"Legal problems—particularly criminal and child protection matters—often arise out of social settings and are typically driven by social considerations," he explained. "The reality is, in a post-colonial culture, we still have a legacy of colonialism to deal with....So it is not new, it is long term, it is really a complex problem, and one that I have no doubt we can improve.”