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Report on reforming B.C.’s Police Act receives mixed reviews

Indigenous leaders applaud the report while other advocates say the report doesn’t go far enough
FILE Members of the RCMP wait for instructions on what to do on the scene of a shots heard call in Surrey, B.C., Friday, May 31, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A recently released report on reforming the B.C. Police Act is getting mixed reviews from groups most heavily impacted by policing.

In a news release, the B.C. First Nations Justice Council, the First Nations Summit, the B.C. Assembly of First Nations and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs praised the work of the Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act.

“The recommendations in this report represent an enormous alignment with the B.C. First Nations Justice Strategy, which outlines a less harmful and more appropriate and respectful approach to policing for our people,” said Doug White, chair of the B.C. First Nations Justice Council.

White said that the report recognizes the role the police need to play in supporting diverse programs to keep Indigenous people out of the carceral justice system. He also applauded efforts to establish a B.C. provincial police force.

READ MORE: B.C. MLAs recommend moving to new provincial police force

“When policing began, the RCMP was created to control Indigenous people and that story line has never changed. When the Province contracts with the RCMP to operate as BC’s provincial police force, they are delegating too much authority and control away. There are other models in the country where a province has its own police force, such as in Ontario and Quebec, and we need to shape policing in a way similar so BC should be able to develop a similar model.”

READ MORE: Ottawa commits $8.9M to support B.C. Indigenous justice strategy

Not all groups approve of the report’s recommendations

At a news conference on Friday (April 29), advocacy groups representing drug users and sex workers on Vancouver’s downtown east side, as well as the B.C. Civil Liberties Association panned the report’s recommendations, saying they do too little to address systemic issues in policing.

Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users and host of the Crackdown Podcast, has been watching the evolution of policing in B.C. for the past three decades. Mullins has long advocated for police reform and said a small part of him was hopeful the report would bring substantive reform.

“This report does not decriminalize people,” he said. “If you read through the report, there’s a lot of good stuff in there. The committee obviously heard from excellent witnesses that identified the key issues we’re thinking about. But the committee said, ‘yes, we heard you’, then when they turned to the recommendations and those great ideas, those key problems don’t track into the recommendations.”

“It’s a real opportunity missed to actually change things.”

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Anna Cooper, a staff lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, is currently representing a group of 17 residents of the downtown eastside in a police complaint process against two police officers. Cooper said the process of holding police accountable is inaccessible to the communities they serve and rarely results in meaningful outcomes.

“While we were cynical to begin with, even we have been surprised by the multiplicity of ways in which the Police Act is designed to insulate police from accountability.”

Cooper added that there are few mechanisms to protect complainants from police retribution and complainants have little control over the complaint process.

The special committee’s report calls for a civilian-led police oversight body, but Cooper pointed out B.C. already has one in the form of the Independent Investigations Office of B.C., which is currently struggling with funding issues and has warned that its staffing levels are inadequate to meet demands. B.C. also has the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner for municipal police forces and the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP.

READ MORE: B.C. police watchdog calls for more funding to combat staffing shortage

Meghan McDermott, staff counsel with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the BCCLA appeared before the special committee and told them that any investigation into reforming policing must contend with the history of colonial violence perpetrated by police in B.C.

“We urged the special committee to push for seismic shifts in how public safety is conceived of and sustained in our communities. In our view, the report that was released yesterday misses the mark. It falls far short of what we desperately need and what we all deserve.”


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