Senior leadership needs to stop delaying support for body cams
BY KASH HEED
THERE are two glaring statements on page one of the recently released Street Check Audit Report that demonstrate how important shaping public opinion has become for the Vancouver Police Department.
One sternly warns that “[p]olice cannot conduct a street check that is random, arbitrary, biased, or based on identify factors such as….race or ethnicity.” The passage, however, only reinforces the standards outlined in BC’s Police Act rather than reflecting VPD’s current policing methods.
The other is underlined for impact, classifying “[t]hose who have stated that street checks are illegal, even when they are done free of any bias” as “incorrect.” This is the essence of what the report is really trying to accomplish.
The VPD’s new communications approach has direct correlation with an independent study conducted on street checks that was commissioned by the Vancouver Police Board last year. Amidst the research, allegations of racist and inappropriate attitudes from officers witnessed on ride-alongs surfaced, though they mysteriously never made it into the final review presented to the Board. The information only came to the public’s attention through a third party’s Freedom of Information request.
As a consequence, the VPD’s newly released audit report spends most of its 36 pages trying to defend the antiquated practice of street checks even though they fall well short of their own prescribed code of conduct as well as the law.
In my formative years in the 1980s as a VPD beat cop, “check cards” as they were known back then were ingrained as a rite of passage for anyone hoping to rise through the ranks. At that time, monthly quotas that openly encouraged the targeting of racialized populations due to a misguided belief in causation were reinforced across the department. Pursued and enforced by supervisors and senior management through threats of negative performance appraisals (a fate that no young officer wants on their record), profiling became compulsory.
Today, the VPD goes to great pains to acknowledge that “[t]here is ethnic/racial statistical disproportionality in data across the entire spectrum of the criminal justice system.” True to form, the numbers presented on 2020 street checks do not seem to indicate a gratuitous focus on any particular racialized group. Instead, the audit report contains a strong emphasis on the efficacy of “lawfully conducted” street checks as an invaluable tool for current and future investigations.
Yet the data that the VPD clings to so tightly are the very statistics that expose the weakness in their arguments.
First, the audit emphatically trumpets the fact that street checks decreased by 94.3% from 4,544 in 2019 to 261 in 2020. Ironically, the VPD attributes the drop to “a combination of the public dialogue on street checks and the constraints placed upon the practice by the Standard.” The “Standard” being referred to is the BC Provincial Policing Standard that became law on January 15, 2020. The constraints cited relate to the subsequent provincial mandate for police forces to be in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (and more specifically, sections 7, 9, 10 and 15).
Basically, the only reasons the VPD found to rein in the rampant use of street checks were the fundamental rights enjoyed by every Canadian citizen combined with loud outcries from the public.
This then begs one simple question: if “lawful” street checks were so effective prior to the enactment of provincial guidelines, why was there such a precipitous reduction in one calendar year?
Secondly, there were 3,999 crimes that VPD officers came across in 2020 before they were reported (known as on-view crimes), which is an average of one every 132 minutes. This is presented against the backdrop of incessant messaging around street checks only being conducted “because of a concern about a person’s safety or because of suspicious behaviour that the officer observes.”
Assuming the latter half of this statement is true, the 3,999 reported on-view crimes would have resulted in far more than the 261 street check records that were presented to the Vancouver Police Board for review. Something just does not add up.
If the VPD’s claims of utilizing street checks to improve the effectiveness of their officers is sincere, there is an obvious tool available that will immediately enhance the transparency, conduct and investigative powers associated with the practice.
Body cams are the missing ingredient that would not only force individual officers to improve, but also dramatically increase the department’s capabilities in identifying and solving crimes. In the case of Vancouver, there are two critical determinants necessary to make this aspiration a reality.
First, the City of Vancouver must reconsider its recent budgetary freeze for policing. There is a substantial monetary cost associated with the implementation of body cams. This of course must be balanced with the evidence presented in the Independent Investigations Office of BC’s 2016 Annual Report, which found that in 93% of cases reviewed, body cams would have assisted in “either exonerating officers…of a criminal offence” or provided “Crown counsel with sufficient information to ensure an appropriate charge evaluation.”
In other words, they are as equally effective at protecting cops as they are in creating a new standard for accountability.
Which brings me to the next piece of the puzzle that needs to change before body cams become even remotely possible in Vancouver. Namely, the VPD must finally embrace its obligation to be forthright and collaborative with the public.
Body cams have apparently been researched internally since 2012, undoubtedly deeming the process as one of the longest investigations in VPD history. Simply put, senior leadership needs to stop delaying support for what is increasingly becoming a pillar of modern policing.
In an era where there is more access to technology and information than at any point in history, street checks in their current form embody a methodology that is far too arbitrary to justify. As I have indicated to certain members of the Vancouver Police Board, a major reconsideration is in order.
Kash Heed spent 28 years with the VPD before becoming the West Vancouver Police Chief and later Solicitor General of British Columbia. He currently runs his own firm as an internationally renowned policing and public safety consultant.
(This opinion piece was first published in Vancouver Sun)