By Markiel Simpson
Last week, Vancouver police Chief Adam Palmer apologized for the wrongful detention of B.C.'s first Supreme Court justice of African descent, 81-year-old Selwyn Romilly; who apparently fit the description of a 40- to 50-year old dark-skinned male.
In his apology, Chief Palmer noted that although these types of calls are routine, the behaviour of the responding officers in this case could be traumatic for anybody. However, when asked if this incident led him to believe that systemic racism exists within the Vancouver Police Department, Chief Palmer stated clearly it did not.
In the last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier John Horgan, and Mayor Kennedy Stewart have all stated that systemic racism exists within our public institutions, including policing. Chief Palmer stating otherwise isn’t only an act of defiance, it’s a public safety risk.
For decades, the Vancouver Police Department has overpoliced Indigenous and Black people throughout the city, including routinely stopping and questioning Indigenous and Black people without motive in a practice commonly referred to as “street checks”. Reports produced by the VPD noted that Indigenous and Black people are stopped at exponentially higher rates than other members of the public.
As Chief Palmer admits, these experiences can be traumatic, and that trauma is unfairly placed on the shoulders of Indigenous and Black people in Vancouver.
A third-party review of the Vancouver School Board’s School Liaison Officer (SLO) program also produced evidence that Indigenous and Black children in Vancouver schools have been disproportionately abused and harassed by Vancouver police officers. These findings were startling enough for the Vancouver School Board to abolish the program.
Chief Palmer has made it a habit of denying systemic racism in all its forms throughout the VPD and his behaviour should concern everyone. Not only did the chief defend the abusive SLO program, he also supports “street checks” as an essential part of policing, regardless of the traumatic outcomes Indigenous and Black communities are left with.
Chief Palmer's outright refusal to admit the existence of systemic racism within the VPD is putting racialized people’s lives at risk and causing serious problems for the province as it works to dismantle systemic racism. It's also possibly contributing to the province’s decision to create an antiracism hotline, which intentionally avoids police involvement.
Many racialized people aren’t reporting incidents of racism to police, and those who do often aren’t supported enough to press charges. This is despite the 700 pecent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in Vancouver in 2020 over the previous year.
Lack of corrective action by the VPD led by Chief Palmer has elevated public distrust in police. It's worth noting that Vancouver has been dubbed the anti-Asian racism capital of North America, causing great concern for public safety in racialized communities.
The safety of racialized people in Vancouver is at risk with a chief of police who denies the existence of systemic racism within the VPD. If Mayor Stewart supports Chief Palmer, he too is complicit in supporting the racist actions of the VPD, and its denial of internal systemic racism.
Apologies without corrective action are meaningless for victims of abuse, especially when the problems are systemic. It’s time for Mayor Stewart to demand better from his police force or take swift action to improve its leadership—racialized people in Vancouver are counting on it.