Critics are renewing their call for Vancouver police to ban street checks, amid a new report that shows the controversial practice dropped dramatically over the last year.
Under a new street check policy implemented in January 2020, the Vancouver Police Department is required to produce an annual audit on its use of the practice.
That report, presented to the Vancouver Police Board Thursday, found that street checks had dropped more than 94 per cent between 2020 and 2021, “likely due to a combination of the public dialogue on street checks and the constraints placed upon the practice by (the new policy).”
Street checks, sometimes referred to as “carding” are defined by the VPD as any “voluntary interaction between a police officer and a person that is more than a casual conversation and which impedes the person’s movement.”
The department’s policy bars the use of street checks for random or identity-based reasons (such as race or ethnicity), and requires a “legitimate public safety purpose” such as suspicious activity, crime prevention or intelligence gathering.
Street checks may involve police collecting people’s personal information, and have drawn accusations of arbitrariness and of disproportionately targeting marginalized groups.
Police maintain that street checks are effective at preventing crime and a useful tool in missing persons cases and interactions with the homeless.
“We can’t just ignore something when we see it, so if police see somebody lying out in the wintertime, in the snow, and they’re freezing to death we’re not going to just drive by and call somebody else to attend,” Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer said.
According to the audit, 261 street check records were submitted, just 75 of which police say were actual “proactive street checks.”
The remainder were police using existing police powers stop people for incidents such as traffic stops, violation ticket investigations and calls for service, according to the audit. Those records were being reclassified and officers were getting more training on classification, it said.
Of the remaining 75, seven did not have an “articulated public safety reason” for the stop, as required by policy. The department is following up with the officers in those stops, according to the audit.
The proactive street checks did show a disproportionate impact on some racialized groups.
Black people, who account or one per cent of Vancouver’s population, accounted for 2.3 per cent of “proactive” street checks.
Indigenous peoples, who represent 2.2 per cent of Vancouver’s population, accounted for 23 per cent of street checks.
Caucasian people, who make up 46.1 per cent of the city’s population, accounted for 56.3 per cent of the checks.
The audit states that more than half the checks involving Indigenous people were wellness checks, adding that with Indigenous people making up a third of the city’s homeless population “it would be unrealistic to expect that police contacts at an aggregate level would remain unaffected.”
Harsha Walia, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, said the fact police have cut street checks by more than 90 per cent shows they aren’t truly needed.
She argued Thursday that street checks remain unlawful.
“They keep saying that street checks are voluntary, which means people are free to go — and that’s essentially an admission that they don’t have the ability to detain someone,” she said.
“It’s not enough or OK to regulate a street check, and then say, ‘We’ll do street checks but they’re voluntary, the person is free to walk away.’ Because we know, given the power imbalance between the public and police in general, and even more so when you have communities that are marginalized … people will not feel that they can actually walk away.”
Don Tom, vice-president of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, echoed those concerns.
“What does it look like when someone, when a police officer comes up and does a street check?” he asked.
“It’s a person with a gun and uniform asking you questions and I think if you’re the person on the other end of receiving those questions, it doesn’t feel voluntary.”
In 2018, the UBCIC and BCCLA launched a complaint with B.C.’s Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner, following the release of 10 years of VPD data showing 15 per cent of its street checks involved Indigenous people, and four per cent involved Black people.
The organizations, along with 90 other groups, are calling on the department to ban the practice.
Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart has also spearheaded an initiative at city council to see the use of street checks abolished.
The police board has invited groups critical of street checks to meet and further discuss their concerns.
— With files from Nadia Stewart