VicPD's street checks are racist, because of course they are

Content note: In addition to statistics on street checks that show primarily anti-Indigenous and anti-poor discrimination, this piece includes examples of the police questioning Indigenous, Black, and homeless individuals, as well as an individual purchasing sex.

A review of one month* of Victoria Police Department (VicPD) street check reports shows that officers disproportionately questioned Indigenous individuals and members of the street community. The reports also include at least one street check that would appear to constitute police misconduct if it were held to Ontario’s new street check rules; officers policing sex work in a way that contradicts VicPD’s public statements; and officers using people’s fear of police to initiate processes that lead to street checks.

Black Lives Matter Edmonton, and others, define street checks as “the practice of arbitrarily stopping and collect[ing] information from individuals who are not suspected of committing a crime.” VicPD says they street check people ­­­­­“at the officer’s discretion,” whom they “suspect … [have] been involved in suspicious circumstances.” Those types of broad, ambiguous policies have allowed jurisdictions to use street checks as a form of arbitrary detention that is “illegal and wrong.” Not to mention racist.

Racism and other discriminatory practices in street checks are so well documented that a review is currently underway in Ontario to determine whether they should be banned altogether.

I started asking about VicPD’s street checks while documenting how loitering and trespassing laws are used against the local street community. As part of this work, I filed some freedom of information requests to confirm if VicPD street checks were being used in a discriminatory fashion.

It’s widely acknowledged that racism pervades the criminal justice system in Canada, including both structural forms of racism embedded in the system’s design, as well as the influence of implicit bias and interpersonal racism that affects individual interactions. In addition to criminalizing the street community, police are also far more likely to stop Indigenous and Black people, and the justice system is far more likely to jail Indigenous and Black people, as officers and judges enforce and maintain systemic inequalities.

We don’t need any new information to confirm that VicPD policing is discriminatory, because people have already told us that it is. As Desmond Cole reminds white people, these types of statistics are only news if we haven’t been paying attention to or believing the stories that Indigenous and Black people have been telling for years.

VicPD disproportionately street checks Indigenous people
According to Statistics Canada, about 5.31% of people in “Victoria” and “Esquimalt” — the areas policed by VicPD — are Indigenous. According to a freedom of information request, VicPD performed 109 street checks in July 2017, collecting information on 150 people. They reported the “ethnicity” of 137 of those people, 17 of whom were Indigenous (12.41%). For reports where “ethnicity” was included for all individuals who were stopped, 17.35% of those reports included an Indigenous person.

Indigenous people are far more likely to be street checked in Victoria than random chance would allow. The Canadian Race Relations Foundation, talking about Canada’s justice system, said it is “personal, systemic, and ideological racism that makes these statistics a reality.”

It’s not clear whether the “ethnicity” information was based on officers’ perceptions or information already available in the database used by VicPD. It’s worth noting, however, that VicPD officers may not be the most reliable sources when it comes to understanding or respecting Indigenous identity. In a VicPD police report released as part of a separate freedom of information request, for example, an officer dismissed a woman’s stated identity, saying she “claimed to be aboriginal but was visibly white.”

Police statement from a VicPD General Occurrence Report, July 2017 (not a street check report). Text says “She claimed to be aboriginal but was visibly white [redacted].”

Police statement from a VicPD General Occurrence Report, July 2017 (not a street check report). Text says “She claimed to be aboriginal but was visibly white [redacted].”

The fact that VicPD stops a high number of Indigenous individuals is also interwoven with the cycle of criminalizing the street community. The legacies of colonialism and systemic racism on Lkwungen territories have left a region where only 5% of the population is Indigenous, while 33% of the individuals living in homelessness identify as Indigenous or having Indigenous ancestry.

Racism in the criminal justice system also results in police brutality directed at Indigenous people, and a disproportionately high rate of incarceration: one in four inmates are Indigenous. It’s little wonder that the same systemic racism plays out in the actions of the individual police departments and officers who are stopping Indigenous people. VicPD’s street check policy allows for “the officer’s discretion” when making stops, and that discretion perpetuates the same harms borne out by the country’s legacy of colonialism.

Street checking people in their homes
A subset of VicPD’s street check reports were for “curfew,” where officers visited individuals’ homes, often waking them up, to see if they were “abiding by” parole or bail conditions and staying home. They would then email bail supervisors and parole officers about what they found.

There were 29 street checks in July 2017 that involved curfew, and 10 of those street checks (34%) were for Indigenous people. Regardless of who made the decision to perform the checks, they epitomize a justice system that is more likely to criminalize and continually surveil Indigenous people.

Street checks and the street community
While the actual number may be much higher, at least nine non-curfew street checks (11.25%) in July 2017 appear to have involved members of the street community.

During “morning wakeups,” VicPD performed at least three street checks to collect information. In one case, an officer reported that he was doing work “as part of his routine assistance to outreach service providers” when he woke two people in a tent and recorded their information “to document the arrival” of one person. What a lovely welcome to Victoria, to have an officer with a gun and the ability to arrest you wake you up one morning. Using bylaw enforcement as an intelligence gathering opportunity doesn’t sound like community-based “outreach” to me.

People who responded to a 2017 police survey of housed residents and business owners told VicPD that they believed the top three policing “problems” in Victoria and Esquimalt are “drug activity,” “homelessness,” and “panhandling, loitering.” Given that the number two and number three “problems” are specifically about criminalizing people who don’t have access to private space, I think it’s fair to say that “drug use” actually means “use of illegal drugs in public spaces, if you look poor.” Most people who use substances in Victoria and Esquimalt are able to do so in their homes, or in other places where using certain substances is socially acceptable. That’s not true for everyone, though. The city has displaced Indigenous people from their traditional territory, and it has also been built to aggressively displace homeless people; street checks provide yet another way to further both agendas.

VicPD street checking Black people, and using fear of police as a reason for street checks
According to Statistics Canada, about 1.43% of people living in Victoria and Esquimalt are Black. There were two July 2017 street check reports that included a Black person, which amounted to 2.04% of the reports where ethnicity information was reported for all individuals.

With only two street checks it’s not the same obvious pattern as VicPD’s street checks for Indigenous people, but there are numerous reports of anti-Black racism in policing and street checks across the country, and anti-Black racism is embedded in the justice system. Robyn Maynard writes in Policing Black Lives that “African Canadians are incarcerated in federal prisons at a rate three times higher than the number of Blacks in the Canadian population, a rate comparable to the United States and the United Kingdom.” She also points out that in 2016, a United Nations committee “confirmed that anti-Black racism in Canada is systemic,” highlighting “enormous racial inequities with respect to income, housing, child welfare rates, access to quality education and healthcare and the application of drug laws.”

The Georgia Straight reports that “at least 65 people died in connection with police interactions in Canada in 2017,” including a disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people. Maynard writes that “Black persons in some parts of the country make up around one-third of those killed by police.”

Police in Canada have given Indigenous people, Black people, homeless people, and people who use drugs plenty of reasons to fear them, and fear of police was a common theme in VicPD’s street check reports.

In July 2017, out of all the street checks that weren’t for “curfew,” there were six reports (7.5%) where the police said someone’s apparent fear or avoidance of the police led to them being street checked.

In one example, individuals in a car “maintained their gaze forward while police drove by as if they were trying not to look at them.” The officers used that a reason to run the car’s plates. They saw that the registered owner was on parole, and they pulled them over. The individual “was not breaching any of his conditions,” but had to endure contact with officers they were clearly afraid of.

In another instance, officers were watching two people, a Black man and a white woman, who were walking to their car. The officers wrote that they “appeared to be nervous and concerned about police attention.” The officers used their fear as a reason to check the car’s information, and they said the registered owner “was inconsistent to the male and female walking to the vehicle.” In other words, they didn’t think the Black man and/or white woman owned that car.

The police pulled them over “for the purpose of verifying that the driver possesses a valid [licence] and is lawfully in possession of the vehicle.” The officers then “allowed [them] to proceed on their way.” The police said the street check was “submitted to document their behaviour during the traffic stop.”

Officers watching a Black man and a white woman who had done nothing wrong, and then pulling them over anyway, seems like a potentially terrifying interaction. The note that the street check report was only submitted because the officer wanted “to document their behaviour” also suggests there may be plenty of street check-equivalents going on that aren’t being recorded as street checks.

Maynard writes that continued law enforcement scrutiny of Black people is “a form of state violence.” She notes that “Even profiling that does not result in arrest or violence is itself harmful” and can “cause post-traumatic stress disorder and other stress-related disorders, as well as alienation.”

If you’re afraid of the police — who can kill you, and who may have targeted or arrested you in the past — that can be enough to make them want to stop you again. That’s a terrifying example of the type of state surveillance and oppression faced by Black, Indigenous, and homeless people every day.

Street checks and sex work
Prior to 2014, activities related to sex work were criminalized at the federal level. In order to continue earning a living, many sex workers were forced to work alone in more secluded areas away from police surveillance. The Supreme Court ruled that these laws put sex workers’ lives in danger, and they forced the federal government to come up with new legislation. Unfortunately, the government implemented legislation criminalizing the purchase of sex, which similarly puts sex workers in danger. 

The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, with 24 member groups from 15 cities (including PEERS Victoria), said the 2014 legislation would continue to endanger sex workers. VicPD said they would not enforce the new purchasing provision, and that their response to sex work would “target the people who are going out there and preying on sex workers,” as opposed to those engaging in the consensual sale and purchase of sex.

Despite VicPD’s public statements, “prostitution” was listed as the reason for two of the July 2017 street checks. In one report, police said they saw an Indigenous woman “leaning into the passenger window [and] engaging the driver in conversation. … Officers believed that the driver was likely trying to solicit.” They pulled in front of his car, and when he drove away, they pulled him over, before releasing him “with a warning.”

Excerpt from a VicPD street check report, July 2017. Text says “Reason for Check: PROSTITUTION Additional Remarks: MALE SOLICITING.”

Excerpt from a VicPD street check report, July 2017. Text says “Reason for Check: PROSTITUTION Additional Remarks: MALE SOLICITING.”

Pulling over a vehicle and warning the driver for soliciting sex appears to directly contradict VicPD’s public statements about how they would engage with the new sex work laws. The Supreme Court recognized that policing sex work can put sex workers in danger, and VicPD seem to be engaging in this harm.

VicPD’s street checks are offside in Ontario
Continuous outside pressure in Ontario resulted in the government adopting a number of new rules, one of which is worth comparing to VicPD’s current practices. In Ontario, officers can’t perform a street check “only because you are in a high-crime area.” If that was the only reason for a stop, it would be a code of conduct violation that could result in disciplinary action.

In five of VicPD’s non-curfew street checks for July 2017 (6.25 per cent), part or all of the justification for the stop was that the individual or individuals were in a “high crime” or “high drug use” area. In one example, police stopped an individual they recognized, as well as her acquaintance. According to the street check report, the acquaintance was street checked because “he was in a known high crime and high drug trafficking area.”

Excerpt from a VicPD street check report, July 2017. Text says “Street check for [redacted] as he was in a known high crime and high drug trafficking area. Cst. [Redacted] Victoria PD.”

Excerpt from a VicPD street check report, July 2017. Text says “Street check for [redacted] as he was in a known high crime and high drug trafficking area. Cst. [Redacted] Victoria PD.”

VicPD’s stated reason for that street check would appear to constitute a code of conduct violation if it took place in Ontario. Stopping someone because of the part of town they’re walking in is just as arbitrary and discriminatory in B.C., but those with power over VicPD haven’t forced any such reforms. 

It’s important to note that Black Lives Matter Toronto said Ontario’s changes left unacceptable loopholes, similar to VicPD’s current policy to allow street checks “at the officer’s discretion.” It should be incumbent on both elected officials and the police to review and change VicPD’s practices, and they should also be held accountable for their inadequate response.

While activists forced change in other regions, VicPD wrote a one-page memo
A freedom of information request for any VicPD reports, briefing notes, guidelines, or procedural documents mentioning street checks between January 2014 and July 2017 returned a one-page memo from 2015, and a five-page “Legal Update” from 2013 on the “principles of detention.”

The “Legal Update” is described elsewhere as “instructor’s notes,” which suggests it’s material taught to officers. It’s about how to avoid accidentally “detaining” people, with top tips like “ask them for i.d., rather than demanding it.” I’m sure that nuance is always super obvious when being questioned by an officer with a gun.

In the November 2015 memo, titled “Creation of New Street Check Policy,” then-Deputy Chief Del Manak suggested using proposed changes from the Vancouver Police Department to update VicPD’s street check policy. The Vancouver police department released street check “guidelines” in January 2017, which are six pages that mostly talk about how great street checks are. The absence of other records from VicPD suggests they did not update their street check rules between January 2014 and July 2017.

VicPD said in November that the department was “currently liaising with other police agencies” about street checks, and in December they said they were “currently reviewing our street check practices to ensure they’re consistent with public expectations.” They also confirmed that an internal review of their street check practices “is possible.” However, it appears no internal review had been completed as of December 2017.

Despite their apparent inaction, VicPD’s street checks have been dropping, from 3,059 in 2014 — seemingly the second-highest street check rate in Canada — to an estimated 1,450 in 2017. It’s still a ludicrously high number, even if we assume no street checks simply moved off of the official books. By way of comparison, that’s about 192 times as many street checks as Greater Sudbury reportedly performed in 2017, once you adjust for population differences. Which isn’t to say that Sudbury’s twelve reported street checks aren’t problematic, but outside pressure did result in new laws which forced Ontario police departments to make some changes.

It’s easy to point to street checks as an obviously racist part of a racist policing system. Unfortunately, if VicPD ever announces ‘improvements’ to their street check policies, they will almost certainly still be open to abuse. The B.C. Human Rights Code has prohibited discriminatory policing for decades, but people told VIPIRG in 2012 that they had been treated unequally or unfairly by VicPD based on their race or ancestry, social status, disability, gender, and sexuality; research by SOLID in 2015 further confirmed these experiences. We know that discrimination is systemic and widespread in other areas as well.

Reviewing just one month of reports suggests that Victoria’s street checks are fraught with the same problems that have been found in other communities, including racism and anti-poor discrimination. The only difference I can see is that in some of those jurisdictions police departments have been held accountable for their actions, and forced to begrudgingly make some changes.

Not so for VicPD.

*Limitations of the data
I filed a freedom of information request for all street check reports produced by VicPD for the month of July 2017. One month of data is not a large sample size; however, through discussions with Victoria Police Department staff, it was apparent that if I requested additional records I might have had to pay a fee. Freedom of information requests in other jurisdictions have resulted in departments turning over up to 10 years of aggregate data.

The narratives included in the street check reports were heavily redacted. That redaction likely limited my ability to categorize street check reports in certain ways (e.g., how many street checks appear to involve members of the street community).

Stephen Harrison