B.C. Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender issues 29 recommendations to reduce racism in policing

In a major report to a legislative committee, she's created a road map for reducing the scope of policing and the discretion of individual officers

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      A new report by B.C.'s human rights commissioner, Kasari Govender, calls for sweeping reforms to policing to reduce racial discrimination.

      They include narrowing the scope of what officers respond to and requiring the collection of race-based and other demographic data. Govender also wants a policy created to reduce police racial bias in pulling motorists over to the side of the road.

      Equity is safer: Human rights considerations for policing reform in British Columbia includes 29 recommendations and was submitted to the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act.

      The report was produced after a comprehensive analysis of data from the Vancouver Police Department, Nelson Police Department, and RCMP detachments in Surrey, Prince George, and Duncan/North Cowichan.

      Under the subhead "Realizing B.C.'s obligations to Indigenous peoples", Govender calls for government-to-government work on legislative amendments to the Police Act. This section also recommends that the province "provide funding to enable Indigenous peoples to be partners in Police Act reform".

      Another set of recommendations is under the subhead "Disaggregated data".

      One of them urges the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General "to take steps to expressly authorize the police to collect race-based and other demographic data for the purpose of addressing systemic discrimination in policing".

      Moreover, the commissioner recommends expanding the capacity of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C. "to enable the investigation of complaints or concerns about the collection, use or disclosure of data covered by the provincial policing data standard".

      Under the subhead "Street checks", Govender includes a call for an "Unbiased Policing Standard specific to traffic stops".

      "This standard should expressly address conducting traffic stops without bias," Govender wrote, "by requiring all police services to have a policy that minimizes officer discretion in proactive policing practices like sobriety checkpoints."

      B.C. does not have an unbiased policing standard regarding traffic stops, but that would change if the cabinet accepts the commissioner's recommendations.
      Scott Rodgerson/Unsplash

      Narrowing scope of police responses

      There are six recommendations under the subhead "De-tasking the police".

      "The B.C. government should work with all levels of government including Indigenous, federal, provincial and municipal governments to establish a framework to redirect funding from police budgets," Govender wrote, "and to invest in civilian-led services for people experiencing mental health and substance us crises, homelessness and other challenges that could be satisfied through increased social service provision rather than a criminal justice response."

      In addition, Govender urges the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General to "adapt 9-1-1 services to ensure police are only involved in responding to people experiencing a mental health crisis as a last resort and not as the default first-responders".

      According to her report, school boards should end school-liaison officer programs "unless they can demonstrate an evidence-based need for them that cannot be met through other means".

      "In making this assessment, school boards must centre the impact of continuing SLO programs on Indigenous, Black and other student populations," Govender wrote.

      "The psychosocial and educational roles of SLOs should be re-assigned to civilians with experience in coaching and leading other extracurricular activities, child and youth counselling, trauma-informed practice, sexual assault prevention, substance use education and bullying prevention," she adds. "The funds and resources which would otherwise go to SLO programs should be redirected to civilians to fulfill these roles."

      Another recommendation is for the B.C. government to "address the intersection of policing, homelessness, mental health and substance use when developing the provincial homelessness strategy".

      The commissioner is calling for a plan and timeline to achieve the goal of complete civilianization of the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. as soon as possible
      Independent Investigations Office of B.C.

      Boosting police accountability

      There are 14 recommendations under the subhead "Police accountability".

      They include having the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General work with the RCMP in B.C. to establish local civilian police boards or councils in different areas of the province.

      In addition, there's a call for the government to create "a robust and well-funded Indigenous civilian police oversight body (or branches within established reputable civilian oversight bodies within a jurisdiction".

      That body "must include representation of Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ2SAI+ people, inclusive of diverse Indigenous cultural backgrounds, as called for in the final report of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls".

      Govender also states that the attorney general should amend the Human Rights Code "to include social condition and Indigenous identity as protected grounds".

      Plus, she would like the Police Act amended to require every police board to have Indigenous representation.

      "Until the provincial government establishes Indigenous civilian oversight bodies, a civilian monitor should be appointed for every investigation into an incident that results in death or serious harm to an Indigenous person," Govender stated in the report. "The government should remove any barriers to their effective participation."

      She's called for legal advocacy programs, including legal aid, for people who involved in complaints or investigations by Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP.

      In addition, Govender urges the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General to ensure that the RCMP is either brought under the jurisdiction of the provincial Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner or that there's harmonization between the OPCC and CRCC law and processes. 

      And she thinks that the OPCC, rather than police forces, "investigate complaints itself, assume the responsibility for any investigation or refer complaints to the IIO for investigation". 

      This would entail more training for OPCC staff if the office's mandate is expanded.

      Another recommendation is for a "plan and timeline to achieve the goal of complete civilianization" of the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. "as soon as possible".

      Govender also calls for an expansion of the IIO's mandate to include sexual-assault investigations.

      "If the IIO's authority is expanded, IIO investigators must build expertise on the dynamics of gender-based violence," she stated in the report.

      Retired B.C. Supreme Court justice Selwyn Romilly was arrested by Vancouver police when they mistook him for a much younger suspect.

      Report relies on extensive data

      Govender's report cited CBC research noting that B.C. has the highest rate of police-involved deaths in Canada.

      She also cited a B.C. Human Rights decision, Campbell v Vancouver Police Board, which found that officers "drew on subconscious stereotypes" to assess an Indigenous mother "as suspicious, possibly criminal and a threat to their mission". The mother, Deborah Campbell, was awarded $20,000 in 2019.

      In addition, Govender pointed out that Vancouver police wrongfully detained and handcuffed retired justice Selwyn Romilly, a Black man, while he was out for a morning walk along the Stanley Park seawall earlier this year.

      Despite the fact that Vancouver police were seeking a suspect 30 to 40 years younger than Romilly, Chief Adam Palmer insisted that systemic racism wasn't evident in Canadian policing. (Antiracism and education activist Markiel Simpson characterized this as "dangerous" in a commentary on Straight.com).

      Govender contrasted Palmer's declaration with those of Kennedy Stewart and Peel Regional Police Chief Nishan Duraiappah, who have each insisted that systemic racism does exist in policing.

      The human rights commissioner has concluded that there's a "disturbing patterns of discrimination in policing in our province".

      "Systemic racism in policing undermines community trust and safety," Govender said in a news release accompanying the release of her report.

      In coming to this conclusion, she relied on research by Professor Scot Wortley at the University of Toronto's Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies.

      He wrote a 295-page report, "Racial disparities in British Columbia police statistics: A preliminary examination of a complex issue". It was funded by the B.C. Office of the Human Rights Commissioner and was included as an appendix in Govender's report to the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act.

      "The bulk of the report explores race-based data from five police jurisdictions: Vancouver Surrey, Prince George, Duncan/North Cowichan, and Nelson," Wortley noted.

      He found that Indigenous men were 17.3 times more likely to be arrested in Vancouver than their presence in the general population would have predicted between 2011 and 2020.

      Over the same period, Black males were 9.6 times more likely to be arrested in Vancouver than their presence in the general population would have predicted.

      "The average annual arrest rate for Black males (15,979 per 100,000) is 4.7 times greater than the rate for White males (3,397 per 100,000) and 8.9 times greater than the city average (1,805 per 100,000)," Wortley wrote.

      Grand Chief Stewart Phillip strongly agrees with the commissioner's recommendation for nation-to-nation discussions on reforming the Police Act.

      Third parties praise commissioner's conclusions

      The news release accompanying Govender's report included quotes from four people.

      “It’s going to take incredibly strong commitment, leadership and decisive action to fully eradicate the racist attitudes inherent in all police forces within B.C. and right across Canada," Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said. "First Nations must be true partners in changing policing in B.C. The Commissioner’s recommendations give us a basis for badly needed action.

      "Importantly, those recommendations start with a government-to-government relationship with First Nations on changes to the Police Act," he continued. "That’s the first step to addressing the vast racial disparities that these submissions point out.”

      The CEO of the B.C. division of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Jonny Morris, stated that Govender's submission to the committee "clearly articulates the presence and impacts of systemic racism across structures and the steps needed to achieve a more equitable society".

      "CMHA BC supports the recommendations to reduce reliance on police as the first and only response to 9-1-1 calls related to mental health and substance use," Morris added.

      Alicia Williams of the B.C. Community Alliance called the numbers in the submissions "devastating, especially for the communities grappling with this discriminatory treatment and for people who have experienced or witnessed negative interactions with police"

      "With bravery and commitment on the part of our leaders, we can reimagine policing in this province to create safer and more equitable communities,” she stated.

      Raphael Tachie, president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, stated that Govender's report "uses data to illustrate what Black people in this province have long been saying—namely, that anti-Black racism is pervasive in our policing and justice systems".

      "But these numbers don’t tell the full story about what these disparities mean," Tachie noted. "Many people will remember the incident from earlier this year when former Justice Selwyn Romilly, a man in his 80s and the first Black person appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court, was mistakenly handcuffed and detained while walking on the Vancouver seawall. Behind each of these numbers are people and communities who experience real harm as a result of discriminatory policing.

      "We cannot forget how deeply individuals and communities feel this harm and the ensuing and enduring intergenerational trauma. Our families and communities deserve better. The time for action is now.”

      Many of Kasari Govender's recommendations are directed to the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, which is headed by Deputy Premier Mike Farnworth.

      Committee members and mandate

      The committee has 10 members and is chaired by NDP MLA Doug Routley.

      The other NDP MLAs on the committee are former senior RCMP officer Garry Begg, parliamentary secretary for anti-racism initiatives Rachna Singh, Rick Glumac, Grace Lore, and Harwinder Sandhu.

      This gives the NDP a majority, though ultimately, it will be up to the provincial cabinet whether any of Govender's recommendations are enshrined in law.

      The B.C. Liberal members on the committee are Dan Davies (deputy chair), Karin Kirkpatrick, and Trevor Halford.

      Adam Olsen is the only Green MLA on the committee.

      Its terms of reference involve examining, inquiring into, and making recommendations to the legislature in the following areas:

      1. Reforms related to independent oversight, transparency, governance, structure, service delivery, standards, funding, training and education, and any other considerations which may apply respecting the modernization and sustainability of policing under the Police Act (R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 367) and all related agreements.

      2. The role of police with respect to complex social issues including mental health and wellness, addictions, and harm reduction; and in consideration of any appropriate changes to relevant sections of the Mental Health Act (R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 288).

      3. The scope of systemic racism within British Columbia's police agencies, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, independent municipal police and designated policing units, and its impact on public safety and public trust in policing.

      4. Whether there are measures necessary to ensure a modernized Police Act is consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), as required by section 3 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act (S.B.C. 2019, c. 44).

      Other submissions to the committee are available here.