Community groups call for a moratorium on street checks

Carnegie Community Action ProjectHogan's Alley SocietyBC Civil Liberties Association and Pivot Legal Society call for a moratorium on street checks as VPD review of street checks is released by Vancouver Police Board 


February 20, 2020

Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish Territories — New provincial Policing Standards fail to address racial biases and the underlying harms of street checks, and the just-released Vancouver Police Department (VPD) policies and VPD-commissioned review perpetuate stigmatizing norms and behaviours that discriminate against vulnerable people instead of protecting them.

Downtown Eastside-based community groups are jointly speaking out against the Province’s Promotion of Unbiased Policing - Police Stops standards, which came into effect on January 15, 2020.

The standards uphold outdated views and de-legitimized practices of random checks, also known as police stops or “carding” — even though their efficacy has never been proven.

Across Canada, police agencies have been under pressure to cease the discredited practice of street stops, also known as “street checks” or “carding.” In Nova Scotia, the practice has been revoked through a provincial moratorium. To date, Nova Scotia is the only province to outright ban the practice, despite similar calls for police accountability across Canada. Cities such Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver have commissioned reviews in response to community pressure, and Montreal and Ottawa have also been under pressure to stop the discredited practice.

Research overwhelmingly demonstrates that street checks, police stops and “carding” are inherently biased against Black, Indigenous and other racialized groups. Despite this evidence, provincial police officers and policy analysts insist that these mechanisms are necessary to “allow them to do their jobs and protect vulnerable people”.

Show me any correlation between street checks and making any difference.

Lama Mugabo, community organizer with Hogan’s Alley Society, says, “The police are so attached to this [concept of street checks] and hold it for dear life. It borders on racial profiling, cuts across class, and destroys trust. Show me any correlation between street checks and making any difference.”

The administrative usefulness of street checks has never been proven. Among the mounting criticism of street checks across Canada, is the Halifax, Nova Scotia Street Checks Report, researched and written for the Nova Scotia NS Human Rights Commission by Dr. Scot Wortley. Dr. Wortley reported: “The majority of the police officials who took part in the consultation process admitted that many street checks are of poor quality and contribute little to public safety. At almost every police meeting and focus group, the phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’ was used to describe this situation.”

Megan McDermott, Policy Director for the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), says “In the context of an ‘exclusionary zone’ in BC’s North and daily violations of human rights, we’re already operating in an extra-judicial environment of hyper surveillance and over-policing. These measures diminish public trust and security instead of protecting vulnerable people. Nova Scotia has had a moratorium in effect for six months, and “carding” has been banned across Ontario since 2017, and they haven’t fallen apart.” The BCCLA released a press release on Tuesday lambasting the street check review and VPD policy.

The VPD policy, updated in the last month to align with the new Policing Standards, too broadly defines reasonable grounds for arrest, and places the onus on law enforcement officers to determine if a “psychological detention” is taking place. Psychological detention exists when a person feels that they are not free to leave an interaction with police.

The Vancouver Police Board Street Check Review released this week was written by Ruth Montgomery of Pyxis Consulting, a former Edmonton police superintendent. The report contains substantive evidence that street checks and police stops are heavily biased and arbitrary — yet reinforces status quo policing beliefs that street checks just need to be “fixed up” and accompanied by better training.

The Vancouver Courier reports that, in June 2018, a request under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act required Vancouver police to post data on its website that showed police conducted 97,281 street checks between 2008 and 2017. Of those checks, 15 per cent (14,536) were of Indigenous people and more than four per cent (4,365) of black people. Indigenous people make up just over two per cent of the population in Vancouver, and Black people less than one per cent.

Subjective and poorly-defined rationales for street checks allow for biases against people who are poor, people who use drugs, sex workers and those with mental health. Current Policing Standards and VPD street check policies include exemptions for “wellness” checks, reinforcing the notion that they are benign rather than harmful to vulnerable people.

There is grave potential for the stops to be misused.

Meenakshi Mannoe, Criminalization and Policing Campaigner at Pivot Legal Society, says, “There is grave potential for the stops to be misused. Consider that people are stopped just because they are in the DTES. In heavily surveilled communities, there is very little interaction with the police that feels voluntary. When we bring up street stops, folks tell us they don’t want police, they want help from peers.” Pivot has been calling for a moratorium on street stops since July 2019 and published a recent blog that responds to the provincial standards.

The community groups are calling for:

  • an immediate moratorium on police checks, police stops and “carding”(defined as any interaction that results in physical or psychological detention and is not either detainment or arrest)
  • action and involvement from public bodies such as the Human Rights Commission, to review this practice from a Human Rights perspective and make recommendations
  • an independent review of the practice as it occurs in Vancouver/across the country, by an unbiased third party not affiliated with police or law enforcement

We acknowledge that our work takes place on the unceded traditional territory of the Coast Salish peoples, including the territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and səl̓ílwətaʔɬ/selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

Media Contacts

Lama Mugabo
Hogan’s Alley Society

Fiona York
Coordinator and Administrator
Carnegie Community Action Project

Sozan Savehilaghi
Communications & Digital Engagement Manager
Pivot Legal Society
604-255-9700 ext.154

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Wortley Report Findings

Dr. Wortley concluded that the police in Halifax disproportionately conduct street checks in relation to Black individuals — notably young Black men.

Dr. Wortley analyzed 12 years of data collected by the HRP and the RCMP between January 1, 2006 and December 31, 2017. He concluded that: “Black people are over-represented in the street checks that take place across the Halifax region — whether those regions have a high Black population or not.” (Full citations are contained in our opinion.)

In fact: “Black civilians were five times more likely to be subject to a street check than their proportion of the population would predict.” Black men, in particular, “are 9.2 times more likely to appear in Halifax street check statistics than their presence in the general population would predict” while young “Black males [15-24 years of age] are twenty times more likely to appear in the street check dataset than their proportion of the general population would suggest.”

According to the police officials consulted for the Wortley Report, street checks have not necessarily proved valuable. As Dr. Wortley reported: “The majority of the police officials who took part in the consultation process admitted that many street checks are of poor quality and contribute little to public safety. At almost every police meeting and focus group, the phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’ was used to describe this situation.”

Red Women Rising

Recommendation 8. End the policing practice of street checks; reduce the number of bylaw infraction tickets issued by police in the DTES; prohibit police from carrying and using all lethal weapons; develop guidelines to facilitate greater use of police discretion not to lay charges especially for minor poverty-related offences; and end the counter-charging and criminalization of Indigenous women who defend themselves or their children.

Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU)

Downtown Eastside residents say they experience overwhelming over-policing, harassment and ongoing, unprovoked checks and stops. Aiyanas Feardorcha Ormond of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) says, “ I don’t think people understand in the rest of the city how much of the police resources are spent over-policing and controlling our neighbourhood. We’ve got police going constantly up and down the block, checking peoples IDs and stopping people in supposedly arbitrary but really targeted checks.”

Report of the Independent Street Checks Review by the Honourable Michael H. Tulloch

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Using the law as a catalyst for positive social change, Pivot Legal Society works to improve the lives of marginalized communities.

About Hogan's Alley Society

The purposes of the Society is to research, preserve and promote the historical, cultural, societal and economic contributions made by Black Settlers.

About Carnegie Community Action Project

The Carnegie Community Action Project is a project of the board of the Carnegie Community Centre Association. CCAP works mostly on housing, income, and land use issues in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver so that the area can remain a low-income friendly community.

About Pivot Legal Society

Pivot Legal Society is a leading Canadian human rights organization that uses the law to address the root causes of poverty and social exclusion in Canada. Pivot’s award-winning work includes challenging laws and policies that force people to the margins of society and keep them there. Since 2002 Pivot has won major victories for sex workers’ rights, police accountability, affordable housing, and health and drug policy.