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Vancouver mayor asks B.C. for 'comprehensive review' of policing in province
VANCOUVER -- Amid growing calls for police reform in cities across North America, the mayor of Vancouver is calling on the B.C. government to conduct a "comprehensive review" of policing in the province.
Kennedy Stewart noted the provincial government has broad control over how police work is done, with jurisdiction over everything from training to funding to use of force policies. It also appoints police watchdogs and conducts oversight through the complaint commissioner.
And while the shocking displays of police violence recently seen in the U.S. have led some British Columbians to look favourably on their local law enforcement agencies, Stewart suggested there is still much room for improvement at home.
"This is a watershed moment. Black, Indigenous and people of colour across our province expect people like me and the premier to use our privilege and power to do something profound and fundamentally change how policing is done in our province," Stewart said. "I believe that we can do this."
The mayor said the review should cover a range of topics, including systemic racism, disproportional violence experienced by minority groups, and the impacts that policing in its current form has on vulnerable populations such as the homeless, sex workers, drug users and people experiencing mental health issues.
He called for an end to street checks, which data has shown are disproportionally used on Black and Indigenous residents in Vancouver, and to investigate the efficacy of body-mounted cameras for all police officers across B.C.
Stewart acknowledged that the Vancouver Police Department and Vancouver Police Board have made major steps in trying to improve policing in the city, but said "the systemic changes called for around the globe require bolder action."
The mayor said racism and discrimination are an inescapable part of Vancouver history, and that their impacts continue to this day. Elected decision makers, he noted, "have never mirrored the demographic composition of the society for which they make decisions."
"Our city is built on stolen land with the labour of immigrants who were taxed based on their race and denied basic freedoms and dignity," Stewart said.
"All public and private institutions reinforce the dominant culture, including historic patterns of colonialism and racism."
Calls to "Defund Police" – a campaign to divert some funding away from law enforcement and use it to address the root causes of crime instead, such as poverty and mental health issues – have been increasing since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That city's elected councillors have already announced their intention to disband the local police department entirely in favour of a community-based approach.
In British Columbia, city councillors have much less power to make even minor changes to how policing is done. In Vancouver, an unelected board determines the police department's budget and can appeal to the province if elected councillors refuse to approve it – a system that was set up intentionally to prevent political interference in policing.
"The province's Police Act requires us to more or less rubber stamp police budgets outside minimal discretionary spending," Stewart said. "If the cities say no, the province can, and it has in the past, step in and override our decision."
Stewart said the people working on the Vancouver Police Board, which he chairs, are all dedicated, independent and committed to representing their community, but that major structural change will only happen with the province's leadership.
"As stewards of our social safety net, the provincial government is best placed to examine how we can better balance investments in safety, criminal justice and policing with more investments in community-based approaches to mental health, youth outreach, poverty and homelessness."
Hours after the mayor's announcement, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said he and Premier John Horgan have already been discussing the need to update the province's Police Act.
In a statement to CTV News, Farnworth described the 45-year-old legislation as outdated and "out of step with our government's approach and our work with police services on important issues including harm-reduction and mental health."
The minister said he's been asked to strike an all-party committee to speak with experts and communities and determine how the act can be modernized, particularly to address systemic racism.
“When the legislature resumes later this month, I will be tabling a motion to strike this committee, and I will look forward to receiving their recommendations," Farnworth said.
The Vancouver Police Department's budget has increased by more than $120 million over the last decade, though staffing only recently returned to 2010 levels. In 2008 and 2009, police went on a hiring spree to prepare for the Winter Olympics, bringing on 151 new staff.
Earlier this week, the department said it fundamentally disagrees with the idea of diverting funding away from police into other services, but that it advocates for "community partnerships" that combine the services of police with health care professionals.
On Thursday, the Vancouver Police Board said that if the province decides to conduct a full review of policing services in B.C., it and the Vancouver Police Department will "fully co-operate and assist in every way."