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BC government promises study to achieve bias-free policing

Queer community's inclusion vital, activists say

A study promised by BC’s Ministry of Justice to ensure that policing is bias-free should include input from the queer community, activists and a lawyer say.

“If we’re not part of this, I guess we’re further marginalized,” says Ron Stipp, a member of West Enders Against Violence Everywhere and the City of Vancouver’s LGBTQ advisory committee. “There’s been a history in the gay movement of having a problem with policing over decades.”

Stipp is glad to see the study will be provincewide in scope, noting that the problem has not just been in Vancouver. “Bias-free policing has to happen in Prince George, Kamloops and Cranbrook,” he says.

The promise of a study is contained in “White Paper on Justice Reform: A Timely, Balanced Justice System,” released by Justice Minister Shirley Bond Feb 26. It comes in the wake of a justice-system review last year by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper and the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, headed by former judge and attorney-general Wally Oppal.

The white paper commits to examining police agencies’ practices and policies related to bias-free policing and to determining where audits are needed to ensure the equitable treatment of all people by police. The deadline for completion is March 31, 2015.

Oppal’s report recommended that government conduct “equality in policing” audits under the authority of the Police Act and create an explicit duty for police to deliver services in a non-discriminatory manner. Oppal also recommended training for police officers, including mandatory cultural awareness and sensitivity training courses.

A BC Policing and Community Safety Plan was also released with the white paper. A key theme identified during roundtable discussions about the plan “was the importance of awareness and understanding of all community members, including marginalized or minority community members and the First Nations culture. This is necessary to deliver effective responses to criminal activity and crime prevention strategies, as well as to promote positive police-community relationships,” the plan says.

While no other minorities were mentioned, the only reference to the queer community in the plan is the listing and explanation of the acronym LGBT in an appendix.

That’s not good enough, says activist Velvet Steel.

Steel tells Xtra the officers she dealt with when she was assaulted in 2002 were uncooperative and rude, harkening back to the days when police routinely dismissed gay complaints and refused to investigate gaybashings.

Steel says police officers, who were supposed to be undergoing sensitivity training, would come through fetish parties she hosted at a West Cordova nightclub to gawk.

“I heard one of the officers say, ‘You’ve got to come down here and see this,’” Steel recalls.

Steel, who is working with the City of Vancouver’s Sex Work and Sexual Exploitation Task Force, believes bias against the queer community and sex workers remains systemic in police forces. She agrees with Stipp that being excluded from the study would marginalize the queer community.

“It stigmatizes, too,” she says. “They need to be held accountable. They need to be studied.”

“The hope is that we’re included in the discussion and not excluded,” says gay lawyer Garth Barriere. He says the invisibility of queers historically has meant community members in the past have been excluded from healthcare, family rights and partnership rights. “There’s always a danger if we’re not expressly included, we’re going to be ignored,” he adds. “That’s a concern.”

Barriere says the situation of bias could be likened to the current bullying arguments, where some say that bullying of queer people should not be explicitly recognized and that bullying in general should be dealt with.

In a statement to Xtra, Bond says the policing plan is still in draft form and is online for all British Columbians to review.

“We welcome feedback on any and all aspects of the plan, and we encourage people to submit their thoughts on this very important issue. We will consider all feedback carefully before the final plan is drafted,” Bond says.

Vancouver police spokesperson Constable Brian Montague says it’s difficult to comment specifically on a study that hasn’t happened yet and is being proposed by another agency.

“The VPD and its officers strive to listen to community concerns and to treat everyone respectfully and equally,” Montague says. “I believe that our policies and procedures reflect that, but we are always open to recommendations from other groups and regularly look at how we can improve the way we operate and build better relationships with the community.”

The most recent numbers from Statistics Canada, from 2010, show that Vancouver remained Canada’s capital for reported gaybashings that year, despite an overall 18 percent drop in hate crimes in Canada’s biggest cities and a drop in gaybashings of 5.6 percent.

Nationally, hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation were also more likely than other types to result in physical injury to victims, according to the report. Injuries were reported in 59 percent of violent incidents motivated by sexual orientation, compared to 40 percent of racially motivated violent incidents and 14 percent of religiously motivated violent incidents.