Four Victoria councillors want police to stop ‘arbitrary’ ID checks

Four Victoria councillors are calling on police to end street checks and carding — identification checks. The councillors say the checks disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous communities, people of colour and people without homes.

“We heard from Indigenous, Black and other communities of colour, the unhoused people for years about how their communities have been targeted by carding and street checks,” Coun. Sharmarke Dubow told the Times Colonist. “This discriminatory practice needs to end.”

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Dubow and councillors Sarah Potts, Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday will present the motion at a committee of the whole meeting on Thursday.

In a joint statement, the councillors said “all residents deserve to live free from fear of arbitrary police questioning and detention.”

If passed, the motion would declare that street checks and carding are against the priorities, goals and objectives of the City of Victoria and ask the Victoria and Esquimalt Police Board and the Victoria Police Department to ban the practice.

Douglas King, executive director of Together Against Poverty Society, said the society strongly supports the motion.

Street checks are done under the philosophy of proactive policing, which aims to prevent crime before it occurs.

However, King said it’s worth questioning “whether the harms outweigh the benefits when you think of the detrimental impact it has on marginalized communities, when you think about all the people who have had those unwanted interactions and how that destroys the trust relationship with police.”

The closing or limited capacity of many shelters due to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced people into public spaces, making them more susceptible to arbitrary street checks, King said. Even though people who aren’t under arrest are entitled to walk away or refuse to give information, those who exercise that right are often viewed with more suspicion, which leads to more police scrutiny in the future, King said.

Street checks occur when an officer obtains information from an individual that is not part of a criminal investigation, according to Justice Michael Tulloch, who wrote a report in 2019 calling for an end to random carding.

Carding is when an officer randomly asks someone to provide identifying information when there is no suspicious activity, the individual is not suspected of any offence and there’s no reason to believe they have information on any offence, Tulloch wrote in his report.

In the case of both street checks and carding, the information gathered is entered and stored the police database.

However, a January 2020 report by the Victoria Police Department defines street checks as “when a police officer proactively conducts a field interview or investigation with a member of the public related to suspicious activity or a suspected crime.”

The department said a street check can be initiated based on someone’s behaviour or location and is initiated by an officer in the absence of a specific call for service from the public.

The department published the report in response to criticism that the practice disproportionately affects Indigenous communities and people of colour.

“While there is significant debate on the effectiveness of street checks, when used correctly and appropriately, street checks may act as an important aspect of public safety and are intended to prevent and solve crime and reduce victimization,” the report said.

“However, while viewed as effective, street checks also have the potential to damage perceptions of police legitimacy and threaten the police-citizen relationship when used incorrectly or inappropriately.”

The Victoria department analyzed street check data entered in its PRIME records management system in 2017 to identify issues with how street checks are conducted and determine if there’s any need for change. Of the 1,327 files classified as street checks, 297 were “actual” street checks, according to the department’s definition. Some of the remaining files included curfew checks of people facing court conditions or checks to gather intelligence on people known to police.

The 297 files classified by the department as “actual” street checks involved 407 people who were asked for identifying information.

The department found six per cent of the individuals checked were Indigenous and four per cent were visible minorities, which includes people who are Black, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Asian and Hispanic. Indigenous people make up 4.8 per cent of Victoria and Esquimalt’s population, according to 2016 census data, and visible minorities make up 13.6 per cent of the population.

The report noted several problems with the data, including inconsistency among officers on what constitutes a street check and the fact that about six per cent of the street-check entries did not include an individual’s ethnicity.

Victoria police’s report said street checks are one component of “problem-oriented policing” or “hot-spot policing” in which police provide a visible presence in a high-crime area in an effort to reduce crime.

The report said street checks can have beneficial outcomes, such as identifying a critical witness or suspect in a crime, uncovering “complex relationships between criminal networks,” providing a starting point to solve a crime and ensuring individuals are complying with court orders.

Ninety-four of the 297 street checks were carried out because the person was a suspected criminal, 70 were as a result of “problem-oriented policing” and 43 files were due to suspicious activity.

The Victoria police report did not call for an end to street checks, but said that police officers receive legal training specific to street checks and undergo training on fair and impartial policing. It said Victoria police are developing guidelines for street checks, including a requirement to explain the reason for the stop and let individuals know that they are not required to answer questions, that they are free to leave at any time and that any information they provide will be recorded in PRIME.

The Victoria Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on the councillors’ motion.

Dozens of organizations, including Communities Against Criminalization, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Union of Indian Chiefs, the B.C. Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, Amnesty International Canada and the Vancouver chapter of Black Lives Matter, have called for an end to street checks in B.C. because the practice has been shown to be discriminatory.

A letter distributed by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association last week, signed by 73 organizations, called on the City of Vancouver, Premier John Horgan, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth, and director of police services Brenda Butterworth-Carr to “take immediate action to address systemic discrimination in policing by ending all street checks in Vancouver and B.C.”

B.C. Civil Liberties Association said in addition to being harmful and discriminatory for Indigenous, Black, and low-income communities, “street checks also have no basis in law, and you have the powers to ban them.”

“Amidst protests against police killings of Black and Indigenous people, your statements about addressing systemic racism are not enough,” the letter says.

“There is a responsibility resting on your shoulders and you must take immediate action to eliminate street checks. Prohibiting street checks is only one part of the many actions needed to end the harms of policing, but it is a necessary part.”

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