Racial disparity in Vancouver drug charges revealed by new data

Nuanced analysis of the data and disparities:

Black and Indigenous people are dramatically overrepresented in drug charges recommended by Vancouver police, an analysis of new data shows.

The police say, and some experts agree, that these findings are not evidence of racial bias in the Vancouver Police Department, but instead reflect inequalities and failings in broader Canadian society. Others say those wider problems don’t absolve police in Vancouver or elsewhere of a need to confront racism within their own institutions.

These findings emerge from data obtained from the VPD and provided to Postmedia by a University of B.C. PhD student, Ryan Moyer, who said he filed the FOI request “to better investigate the disproportionate impacts of punitive drug policy.”

“While we cannot infer that the overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black communities in drug-related crimes is due to racism specifically,” Moyer said, the “disproportionately frequent interactions” with these populations is concerning and shows the need for more cultural training and more dialogue with leaders of these communities.

In B.C., police do not decide on charges. Instead they make recommendations to Crown counsels, who then decide whether to approve charges. Moyer’s FOI records include 1,268 files where VPD recommended a range of drug charges, 76 per cent of which were approved and went to court, 17 per cent were pending or unknown and seven per cent were not approved by Crown.

In mid-June, Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer talked to Postmedia about racism and policing. Palmer said that while he believes systemic racism doesn’t exist in Canadian policing, racism is still a problem in Canada.

VPD officers undergo more extensive training than other B.C. police agencies on issues including implicit bias, cultural competency and sensitivity, and Indigenous culture, Palmer said then.

Palmer also pointed to broader societal problems that can precede the point in a person’s life when they encounter a cop: “The police officer (is) sometimes dealing with the end result of 20 years of trouble that that person has gone through.”

Palmer is not wrong there, said University of Toronto criminologist Akwasi Owusu-Bempah.

“The chief makes a great point: The police are left to deal with many of society’s failures, and if those societal failures have racially disparate outcomes, then policing is going to have racially disparate outcomes as well,” said Owusu-Bempah.

However, he was surprised Palmer so forcefully denied systemic racism in Canadian policing, considering “the police are a microcosm of society.”

The stakes are high, Owusu-Bempah said, because drug charges, even those resulting in acquittals, can have long-lasting affects on a person’s prospects for employment, education and housing. This adds urgency, he said, to calls to decriminalize, or as he’d prefer, fully legalize all drugs in Canada.

On that point, the data show drug possession charges in Vancouver have fallen sharply in recent years: VPD recommended 142 possession charges in 2015 but only 36 last year, a 75 per cent reduction. In the first half of this year, only 10 possession charges recommended.

“I think (the VPD) should be commended for that approach. But it raises questions of who doesn’t benefit from that?” Owusu-Bempah said. “It seems like decriminalization’s in practice for some, but not for others.”

It’s a good thing this data has now been made public through Moyer’s FOI request, Owusu-Bempah said, “because if they don’t make it public, we can’t identify problems.”

The public should be careful of drawing the wrong conclusions from this data, said VPD spokeswoman Simi Heer.

“It’s simplistic to compare the percentages related to the data in the spreadsheet based on ethnicity,” without taking into account several “long-standing, complex issues,” Heer said.

“Canada has a troubling history of systemic discrimination against Indigenous Peoples,” Heer said. “We recognize that this discrimination continues to perpetuate significant problems today, including overrepresentation in all aspects of the criminal justice system, the homeless population, and more recently, the number of overdoses during the fentanyl crisis.”

“The VPD’s approach on drug issues has been to target the most serious harms to society, as the number of deaths in our communities related to the fentanyl crisis have reached crisis proportions,” Heer said. “This means we’ve been targeting drug trafficking, drug production and organized crime.”

Heer also pointed to the preliminary findings of Metro Vancouver’s homeless count released this week, showing Black and Indigenous people were significantly overrepresented in the region’s homeless population.

The overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous people in both drug charges and homeless populations are “totally connected,” said Neil Boyd, a lawyer and Simon Fraser University professor of criminology.

Boyd said he can’t say racism definitely doesn’t exist in the VPD, but these statistics don’t definitively prove that it does.

“The disproportionate numbers, there might be people who would want to argue that reflects a kind of racism, but I think if it’s racism, it’s not racism within the police department, it’s the racism of our culture, in which we see such an overrepresentation of Indigenous and Black people on the street,” said Boyd.

People from all walks of Canadian society buy, sell, and use drugs, but the police are more likely to come into contact with people with fewer resources, and especially less access to private space, Boyd said. In other words, officers are far more likely to come across a homeless person selling opioids to support his own addiction than an affluent person in a Yaletown condo buying cocaine for a night out.

Others say these racial disparities underscore how much work remains to be done to combat racism and oppression in Canada.

“What we’re seeing is a continuation of oppression,” said Patricia Vickers, a psychotherapist and the First Nations Health Authority’s former director of mental health and wellness services. “Nothing has really changed all that much, as far as our relationships go. When we look at reconciliation, we’re not really seeing what that means in society.”

“The incarceration of Indigenous people is just another symptom of this continuation of domination, control, oppression,” Vickers said. “This is just one of the pieces of evidence we have.”

Harsha Walia, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said these numbers are “not surprising, but it’s still deeply disturbing.”

Racial inequalities exist in many aspects of Canadian society, including the economy, education, health care and more, Walia said. “It’s also not accurate that somehow the armed institutions of the state … are somehow immune from this either.”

“We have study after study that shows over-criminalization and over-incarceration of Black and Indigenous people is absolutely both a symptom and a cause of systemic racism in other institutions,” Walia said. “It’s not a linear A leads to B, it’s a cyclical process.”

In June, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth announced the NDP government plans to modernize the province’s Police Act, “with a specific focus on systemic racism.”

Source: Racial disparity in Vancouver drug charges revealed by new data

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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