The issue of systemic racism was front and centre at Thursday’s Vancouver Police Board meeting.
It was the first board meeting since Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who chairs the board, stepped down as board spokesperson after publicly calling out what he said was an “indefensible lack of action on systemic racism.”
The department has faced increased scrutiny in recent months over high-profile incidents, including the wrongful handcuffing of Black former B.C. Supreme Court Judge Selwyn Romilly and an Indigenous grandfather and his 12-year-old granddaughter who was trying to open a bank account.
Last week, Postmedia reported that an executive with the Vancouver Police Union had launched a complaint against the mayor over his comments on systemic racism, claiming they had created a “toxic work environment.”
VPD Chief Adam Palmer has repeatedly refused to acknowledge the presence of systemic racism in policing in the city.
Thursday, Palmer faced a call for his resignation as anti-racism advocate Markiel Simpson addressed the board.
“The City of Vancouver and our public institutions throughout the province can no longer tolerate being undermined by people who are not elected to lead. The premier of B.C. and the mayor of Vancouver have admitted systemic racism is a problem in policing. Appointed members of the board as well as employed members of the VPD have no right or mandate to publicly disagree with this fact,” Simpson said.
“Simply put, the current situation between the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Board and the Vancouver Police Department is untenable. Therefore it is incumbent on you, appointed members of the board, to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism within the VPD and release Chief Adam Palmer from his duties as his leadership has caused great trouble to our public institutions and the relationship between racialized people and the Vancouver police department.”
Stewart did not attend Thursday’s meeting, citing a scheduling conflict, but told Global News he would like to see the force under the governance of the city, rather than an appointed board, similar to how the fire department is run.
The recent handcuffing events, he said, only underscored his concerns and his motivation to step down as board spokesperson.
“I just felt standing in front of a microphone trying to say there’s no systemic racism within policing just wasn’t working for me anymore because I not only saw what everyone else saw, I also have talked to many, many members of the community who have experienced systemic racism, who have expired interactions with police that are different for them because they’re a different colour,” he said.
“I do think there’s a structural problem here, I don’t necessarily think it’s the people on the board.”
Palmer did not directly address the controversy, or Simpson’s direct call for his resignation. He did speak to demographics in recruitment, noting growing diversity in the force.
Deputy Chief Steve Rai did, however, veer closer to the issue, announcing an equity, diversity and inclusion review of all policies and procedures in the department.
“In the 21st century, our institutions, including police, must ensure systemic biases are not embedded in our operations and organization policies,” he said.
“Therefore the executive are committed to ensuring we undertake and authentic and earnest evaluation of our policies and practices.”
The review will be led by the VPD’s planning and research section, and be represent diverse genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations, he said.
For Simpson, that likely won’t be enough.
“Hopefully we can get a turnaround on the position of both the Vancouver Police Board and the police department to recognize systemic racism as a fact,” he said.
“The burden shouldn’t lie on the shoulders of black and indigenous people to face this trauma from an institution and if you’re refusing to admit the problem then we’re not going to have a solution either.”