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B.C. human rights commissioner report outlines racial disparities in policing

VICTORIA — The office of British Columbia's human rights commissioner says an analysis of data from five police services across the province shows "profound racial disparities" and it is calling for changes toaddress discrimination in policing.
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VICTORIA — The office of British Columbia's human rights commissioner says an analysis of data from five police services across the province shows "profound racial disparities" and it is calling for changes toaddress discrimination in policing.

The report from Kasari Govender's office includes a series of recommendations for the B.C. government as part of a submission to a special committee of the legislature tasked with examining potential changes to the province's Police Act.

An analysis of data from the five B.C. police services found Indigenous, Black and other racialized people were over-represented in arrests and detentions, as well as in mental health or well-being checks and strip searches, the report says.

In one example, it says data provided by the Vancouver Police Department from 2011 to 2020 showed Indigenous people were over 11 times more likely to be arrested than their representation in the general population would predict. The analysis found that while Indigenous men represented 1.1 per cent of the city's population, they were involved in 19 per cent of the department's arrests.

In Nelson, data from 2016 to 2020 showed Black people were 4.7 times more likely to be involved in mental health incidents than their representation in the population.

The Vancouver and Nelson police services and the RCMP in Surrey, Prince George and Duncan/North Cowichan were chosen because they represent communities of different sizes with varying demographics in distinct parts of B.C., the report says.

The data analysis was completed in September by Scott Wortley, a professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto.

Wortley highlighted the over-representation of Indigenous women in arrests and mental health checks by police at a news conference on Wednesday.

Studies across North America show that women, regardless of race, are typically under-represented in police statistics and charge recommendations, he said.

However, he said the analysis of B.C. police data found that Indigenous women were not only arrested at higher rates than women from other racial groups, but they often had arrest rates higher than those of white, Asian and South Asian men.

Serious violent offences accounted for less than five per cent of the charges recorded by all five B.C. police departments, he said. By contrast, between 30 and 40 per cent of the charges related to public disorder or the administration of justice, such as failing to appear in court or to comply with the conditions of a release.

The over-representation of Indigenous and Black people was higher for such charges, which are more likely to involve police discretion, Wortley said. It also was highest among cases that were either dropped by Crown prosecutors or closed if police decided not to pursue charges, he said.

Some would argue that provides "evidence of arrests of low quality or arrests that were based on limited evidence and have very little chance of prosecution," he said.

While the data analysis did not seek to identify the root causes of the racial disparities that it revealed, Wortley said three main explanations have emerged: bias in policing practices, such as surveillance and street checks; police discretion in how minor offences are handled; and bias when civilians report crimes to police.

Wortley also noted the possibility of higher rates of offending among racialized groups that "may be related to issues of colonization, historical discrimination, multi-generational trauma and contemporary social-economic disadvantage."

Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, had not yet reviewed the commissioner's report and analysis on Wednesday, but said in general, factors underlying data on police interactions "aren't just policing issues."

"The reason why police do end up needing to respond to issues related to mental health or addictions or homelessness is because there have been cuts to other services or other services aren't available to fill that space," he said in an interview.

"If people are telling us there are issues with the way we're policing in a particular community or the way we're policing a part of a community, then of course the police need to be responsive to that." 

The human rights commissioner's report says an array of data shows that the impacts of colonization, immigration policies, systemic racism in the health-care and education systems, and other "embedded social inequities lead to greater involvement of some communities in the criminal justice system."

Systemic racism in policing is unjust, contrary to the law and undermines community safety, Govender told the news conference.

"When marginalized people cannot trust the police, they are less likely to report crimes against them. To build this trust, we need to reimagine the role of police in our province, including by shifting our focus from the police as default responders."

Govender's report urges B.C. to adopt recommendations that include working with other levels of government to redirect funding from police budgets and investing in civilian-led services for mental health and substance use, homelessness and other conditions that could be addressed through expanded social programs.

The report also calls for changes to police oversight in B.C. and says the Police Act should be amended to ensure police boards are representative of the communities they serve, specifically those who are disproportionately affected by policing.

The B.C. RCMP said in a statement it could not speak to the specifics of the report's findings as the Mounties were not invited as active participants in the research and did not receive a final copy of the report until its public release. 

In general, spokeswoman Dawn Roberts said the RCMP "has acknowledged the existing broad body of research demonstrating that certain groups are over-represented" in the justice system, including Black and Indigenous people.

The RCMP has been developing a national approach to the collection, analysis and reporting of race-based data in policing since July 2020 in collaboration with Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and Statistics Canada, she said.

The B.C. RCMP's submission to the legislative committee on the Police Act addresses many of the same issues as the commissioner's report, Roberts added.

In Vancouver, Sgt. Steve Addison said police recognize that "historical inequalities have led to over-representation of racialized people in the criminal justice system."

The department changed its policies on street checks last year in response to concerns that people of colour were over-represented in the stops, and the new policy has "significantly reduced the number of checks that occur," he said.

Officers receive anti-bias training throughout their careers, Addison said in a statement.

Police in Nelson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2021. 

The Canadian Press

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