Joven Narwal: Open letter to the VPD and City of Vancouver regarding the wrongful arrest of the Hon. Selwyn Romilly

A Vancouver lawyer says that the Romilly brothers deserve our sincere gratitude for their service as respected jurists and for their resiliency in the face of systemic racism

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      (This open letter to the Vancouver Police Department and City of Vancouver was written by Vancouver lawyer Joven Narwal.)

      History repeated itself last Friday, with the wrongful arrest of the Honourable Selwyn Romilly (“Hon. S. Romilly”).

      In 1974, Valmond Romilly, the younger brother of Hon. S. Romilly, who also later became a provincial court judge (“Hon. V. Romilly”), was wrongfully arrested in Downtown Vancouver as a young lawyer. Hon. V. Romilly successfully sued and was awarded $100 from each of the arresting officers plus costs. In Hon. V. Romilly’s case, officers believed him to be Hugh Saunders, a man with an outstanding warrant who was described as Black and four and a half inches shorter than Hon. V. Romilly. After his arrest, Hon. V. Romilly told the officers he was a lawyer and endured laughter and humiliation. After the officers confirmed he was not Hugh Saunders, they detained him to conduct an immigration investigation.

      In the cases of both brothers, the arrests were made only because they were Black—they matched no other part of the suspect descriptions. Fortunately, these brothers were also legally trained, knew their rights and did not face long-term detention. But what about the people of colour who do not have the same legal background?

      It is shocking and unacceptable that, in downtown Vancouver, 47 years later, the same police force has made the same inexcusable mistake—arresting an individual only because of the colour of their skin.

      However, there is reason to believe in hope for the future.

      Between the two incidents, there is a remarkable difference in the response of the VPD and the Mayor. With Hon. V. Romilly, the VPD and officers refused to apologize, which is what prompted the lawsuit. In the aftermath of the judgment, VPD issued a memo advising all members to be guided by the comments of the court, and also said Hon. V. Romilly was entitled to an apology.

      Now, with Hon. S. Romilly, both the VPD and Mayor have issued public apologies, likely motivated in part by Hon. S. Romilly’s status as a retired judge and the more practical reality that the institutions are now protected from civil liability that might flow from an apology by operation of the B.C. Apology Act. But nevertheless, I believe it is a positive sign, and I hope this becomes a meaningful teaching moment and an opportunity for concrete action.

      There is a rising tide of awareness of the need to eliminate racial discrimination in policing.

      When events like this occur, they should be used as an opportunity to reflect and consider whether current strategies to address concerns about racial bias are adequate and whether there is sufficient training and effective mechanisms of accountability. While I accept that using a reasonably detailed description that includes the race of a suspect may be a reality of policing, the use of race, ethnicity, national origin, or religious appearance as an unreasonably dominant factor in the decision to arrest or detain is a form of racial profiling and an insidious form of racial discrimination that affects all visible minorities and is of particular concern to parents of visible minority children. It causes mental and physical harm to individuals and communities and undermines the Rule of Law.

      The Honourable Romilly brothers deserve our sincere gratitude for their service as respected jurists in our Province and for their resiliency in the face of systemic racism, particularly their treatment by law enforcement in this City. In my view, the VPD and the City owe them, and the community, decisive action to eliminate racial bias and discrimination in policing in order to maintain public trust in those institutions.

      This letter is sent with the support of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, Criminal Defence Advocacy Society, South Asian Bar Association of BC, and Trial Lawyers Association of BC.

      Yours truly,