Mistaken arrest of retired judge Selwyn Romilly raises questions about VPD's understanding of Black history

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      Anyone with a smidgen of curiosity about Black history in B.C. knows the big names from the past.

      They will be aware that mother of colonial governor Sir James Douglas was of African ancestry. They will know that Mifflin Gibbs was the first Black person elected in B.C. in the 1860s when he ran for Victoria city council.

      They'll have heard of Joe Fortes, who saved many lives as a lifeguard patrolling English Bay in the late 19th and early part of the 20th century.

      They'll know who Harry Jerome was. They might even be aware of the Black community's history on Salt Spring Island.

      They won't have to be told that Emery Barnes and Rosemary Brown were the first two Black MLAs elected to the B.C. legislature in 1972.

      And they will also know that Selwyn Romilly became B.C.'s first Black superior court judge after being a Provincial Court judge for two decades.

      My guess is that many Vancouver police officers don't know these basic facts about Black history in B.C.

      After all, five of them recently arrested and handcuffed Romilly while he was walking on the Stanley Park seawall at 9:15 a.m.

      It was a case of mistaken identity—Romilly is in his early 80s and the suspect whom the cops were seeking was in his 40s or 50s.

      The VPD's statement said that the retired judge "resembled the description of the suspect". Police said that this person was later arrested in the same area and taken to jail.

      Romilly received an apology. He is not planning on filing a complaint.

      A tweet by racial-justice advocate Stephanie Allen sums up how many are feeling. 

      "But are they also mistakenly arresting random elder white men walking the seawall!?" she wrote.

      Back in 2018, the VPD also embarrassed itself by arresting one of Canada's most famous Black activists, Desmond Cole, when he was walking toward Stanley Park. Clearly, that cop didn't know who Cole was. Cole said he was on the sidewalk when the officer claimed that he was smoking in a public park.

      That came after the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs had revealed that even though Blacks make up one percent of the city's population, about four percent of police street checks targeted them over a 10-year period.

      The retired judge, Romilly, told reporters that it was humiliating to be detained while out for a morning walk.

      Evidently, not a single one of those officers even knew who he was before slapping on the cuffs.

      What an embarrassment.

      There's an opportunity to turn the Romilly arrest into a teachable moment for the VPD.

      The Vancouver police board needs to instruct Chief Adam Palmer to ensure that every member of the force receives some basic education about Black history in B.C.

      If we can create a course on Black history in B.C. in the Vancouver school system, surely we can do the same for members of the Vancouver police force.