Vancouver Police Board member resigns over rekindling of school officer liaison program

Click to play video: 'VPD Police Board school liaison controversy'
VPD Police Board school liaison controversy
WATCH: A VPD Police Board meeting erupted into controversy, with one board member resigning over the controversial school liaison officer program. Kamil Karamali reports. – Jun 15, 2023

A member of the Vancouver Police Board has stepped down over plans to rekindle a “reimagined” police school liaison officer (SLO) program, citing a lack of consultation with racialized communities and evidence of the need for armed officers in schools.

Director Rachel Roy, who was appointed to the board in March 2020, confirmed she would tender her resignation after a tense, heated and “deeply disappointing” meeting Thursday, during which members of the VPD’s African Descent Advisory Committee walked out.

“We agreed as a board to include anti-racism and decolonization as one of our strategic imperatives,” she told board members.

“Here we are two years later and we’ve stifled the debate on this, we’ve lied to the African Descent Advisory Committee, I feel lied to, we didn’t have a vote on this as a policy matter, we didn’t consider what we as a board were going to do if our advisory committee said ‘No.'”

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Committee members attended Thursday’s meeting hoping to weigh in on the controversial SLO proposal, slated for a vote later in the day. Instead, they were told there would be no vote as the program had been approved.

Roy told Global News the police board has never held a formal vote on bringing police officers back into Vancouver schools, and that her motion to give the committee’s speakers 20 minutes instead of five minutes to present on Thursday was rejected.

Click to play video: 'Students support Vancouver school liaison officer program'
Students support Vancouver school liaison officer program

Trustees at the Vancouver School Board voted in April 2021 to eliminate the longstanding but controversial SLO program, following an independent third party review by Argyle Communications. That review found that while 61 per cent of student respondents felt officers added a sense of safety to their schools, the number dropped to 47 per cent among Indigenous respondents and 15 per cent among Black respondents.

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At the time, the Vancouver School Board was the first in B.C. to axe SLOs.

Last year, however, newly-elected trustees narrowly voted to restore the program this September with a “reimagined” vision that includes more diverse officers on a team of 15 constables, two sergeants and one youth coordinator. The VPD has already approved a budget for the initiative.

A VPD presentation on Thursday claimed SLOs are needed to intervene early when students are at risk, noting an increase in incidents since the program was disbanded. The force suggested officers wear more casual uniforms, carry smaller firearms, conceal radio communications, have smaller batons, and use unmarked vehicles to address community concerns.

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Participating officers would also engage in additional school-based training with the Vancouver School District, as well as cultural awareness and restorative justice training, it added.

The force said it had consulted with various committees and community groups about the renewed SLO program, including the African Descent VPD Advisory Committee and the school board’s Equity Anti-Racism and Non-Discrimination Working Group, but recognized not all supported it.

Click to play video: 'Future of Vancouver’s School Liaison Officer program up for debate as review heads back to trustees'
Future of Vancouver’s School Liaison Officer program up for debate as review heads back to trustees

Parker Johnson of the African Descent VPD Advisory Committee told the police board he was “disappointed” on Thursday, and felt their feedback and opposition to SLOs was not taken seriously.

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“What is being done right now in our mind is a fiasco and you wasted our time asking us to come to a meeting which you’ve already made a decision on, so it seems like a bold-faced lie,” he said.

“The concern isn’t just for African-Canadian children, it’s also a concern for how LGBTQ folks are being dealt with, how people with disabilities are being dealt with and so on.”

Last November, B.C.’s human rights commissioner penned a letter to the B.C. School Trustees Association urging an end to the use of SLOs in all schools, “unless and until they can demonstrate an evidence-based need for them that cannot be met through other services.”

In the letter, Kasari Govender cited a lack of research on whether SLO programs make schools safer and a lack of focus on the experience of marginalized students. She said the Vancouver School Board in particular did not have sufficient evidence to suggest that “tweaks to the SLO construct will be sufficient to address community concerns of harm and discrimination.”

Johnson said neither the VPD nor the Vancouver School Board had responded to calls for additional research and concerns expressed by the human rights commissioner. An evaluation of the reimagined SLO program is needed before implementation, he added, encouraging Vancouver police officers to simply refuse to enter schools until that work is done.

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Black History Month: changes and challenges in Canada

Earlier this month, committee chair Sadie Kuehn urged the board not to reinstate the SLO program. By email, she said the committee had noted an “absence of authentic community engagement” in the decision-making process and felt the VPD was not living up to the “spirit of recommendations” listed in B.C.’s reformed Police Act and submissions from the B.C. human rights commissioner.

“Black, Indigenous, and other racialized students have repeatedly stated that the School Liaison program causes harm, and their voices are not being heard,” she wrote.

“The harm indicated includes concerns about surveillance, intelligence gathering, profiling and discomfort around having firearms present.”

Based on that documented harm, Kuehn said the SLO program — past and present iterations — contravenes the BC School Act, which requires schools to take on the role of family when youth are in their care. The committee urged the VPD to engage in further consultation with its working groups and committees from a variety of racialized and marginalized communities.

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At Thursday’s meeting, Kuehn said it was very clear that “some kind of agreement was made” without her committee’s knowledge. She said she felt “rolled over” by people who were failing their “basic responsibilities” to uphold democracy, truth and justice for all.

“It is insulting to have people engaged and involved in advisory groupings, giving up their time and energy and expertise and skills to advise you on matters, when you have already made a judgement call,” she told police board members.

“I have to say when I was told this before I didn’t want to believe it, and it proves my naivety in trusting folk to be honest and upfront about what they are doing and what is going on, and I resent it.

“I resent it whole-heartedly because everyone in this room, whether they are police or trustees or lawyers or whatever, know that we live in a society and a culture that is biased and bigoted, and particular people are targeted more than others.”

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Mayor Ken Sim, chair of the Vancouver Police Board, attempted to reassure the African Descent Advisory Committee that it has “not lost” its voice.

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Committee members, however, walked out.

Roy accused the board of restricting the flow of information and access to full public debate on the SLO program.

“Our job is to insulate the department from political interference. I’m very disappointed about how this went procedurally. It was wrong,” she said.

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