As a resident of Vancouver for more than 40 years, I have gained an intimate understanding of the issue of random police street checks, and its impact on Black and Indigenous communities in British Columbia and Vancouver in particular. I believe that street checks constitute an unlawful and unjustified tool for law enforcement that Vancouver does not need.
In the wake of political events erupting across North America over the past month, we are now at a moment in history when Vancouver City Council can end police street checks for good – if it has the will.
What is a street check?
A street check (or “carding”) is a discretionary police practice where police stop a person in public, question them outside the context of an arrest or detention or police investigation, and often record their personal information in a database. A street check can include recording of personal information upon observation of someone by the police without any face-to-face contact between the person and officer.
In 2017, using the Freedom of Information Act, the BC Civil Liberties Association was able to access a report that showed disproportionate representation of Black and Indigenous people on all police checks in the City of Vancouver.
Although Blacks make up less than 1% of the population in Vancouver, 5% of those who were street checked were Black, while Indigenous people who make up only 2% of the city’s population were carded at 16%. A full 20% of the women who were carded were Indigenous.
Street checks in Vancouver also take the form of “wellness checks.” Police officers in full uniform and carrying a gun often conduct wellness checks at random, both in the street and in people’s homes, thus introducing a hierarchy of authority and threat of force.
What’s wrong with street checks?
These figures are troubling to us, because of the assumption that Black and Indigenous people are more likely to commit crimes than individuals from other racial groups. As a result, low-income neighbourhoods such as the DTES are over-policed and people are frequently stopped and asked stupid questions, wasting their time and embarrassing them in the eyes of passersby and their own community.
According to Pivot Legal Society, “street checks are…arbitrary detentions not authorized by statute or the common law. By inventing the practice of street checks, the police seek to escape the constitutional protections guaranteed to individuals during investigative detentions.” Under Canadian jurisprudence, the charter requires that police only detain someone physically or psychologically if the officer has reasonable grounds to suspect that the person is connected to the crime and the detention is reasonably necessary. If detained, the officer has the responsibility to inform the person that they are being held, and inform them of their right to a lawyer.
For many years, Black people have spoken loud and clear about this injustice. Our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Time and time again, we have objected to the fact that the police have been given too much authority. They act as first responders when conducting wellness checks, although they are not adequately trained as mental health professionals. They continue to racially profile us, often using unnecessary force when interacting with Black or Indigenous pedestrians.
When we confront police brutality, they lie and deny using excessive force, even in the face of the evidence we film of violent incidents. A case in point here in Vancouver: on a Saturday night, while crossing Granville street and avoiding someone who was throwing rocks, the police stopped Jamiel Moore-Williams for jaywalking on Granville Street. As is well known, Granville street becomes an entertainment district at night and operates as a car-free zone from Robson to Davie.
Jamiel was accosted by seven police officers who took him down, tasered him, and physically assaulted him. He spent the weekend in the hospital. The police denied that they used excessive force on Jamiel until his friends produced video footage of the incident. To this day, the officers who inflicted considerable pain on Jamiel are still employed by the VPD while the case remains in the hands of the courts.
City council must act
In the context of the pandemic crisis, events like the public lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto have amplified the “Black Lives Matter” movement. To us, these words are not a slogan. They are an affirmation of our humanity, as well as a call to action for non-Black people, those who are in positions of power, and those who have benefited and continue to benefit from white privilege. It is an invitation to decision makers to value Black and Indigenous lives by reducing the racial profiling and atrocities that our people continue to experience at the hands of law enforcement.
Prior to the mass movement that has engulfed the airwaves around the world, whenever we articulated the words “Black Lives Matter,” people pushed back and asked: “Does White Life not Matter?” To them I would argue that no life truly matters until Black life matters. As the American civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
The ongoing and long-term negative impacts of street checking must not be dismissed or ignored. In the minds of those who are physically and psychologically detained, the act is analogous to an officer kneeling on your neck. He presses hard. You scream, “I can’t breathe.” Instead of releasing the officer says to himself, “If you can speak, you can breathe.” He presses on until you are no more. Today we have a chance to stop the bleeding. Let’s do the right thing and end police street checks in Vancouver.
Banning police street checks in Vancouver is the first step towards imagining a new way of keeping our communities safe. Today there is an urgency to defund the police and allocate much-needed resources to community-based organizations and those that are doing the heavy-lifting on the ground in the fight against poverty.
This is also a call to action for municipal, provincial and federal governments to invest in housing that low-income tenants can afford, education and training for all, extended healthcare and job creation in the community. If those solutions are genuinely implemented, crime will inevitably begin to plummet and the police will no longer be the answer to all the problems in society.
Lama Mugabo is a Downtown Eastside community organizer and board member of the Hogan’s Alley Society