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Counting crimes against queer people

Canadian cities do it differently, but Vancouver not at all

While the Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton police forces keep records of crimes motivated by homophobia, the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) does not.

Xtra West tried to contact the VPD and Chief Jamie Graham to ask why, but despite multiple calls, our inquiries weren’t returned by press time.

When Vince Marino, a queer member of the VPD’s Diversity Advisory Committee, inquired about gaybashing statistics at the VPD, he was told that the provincial Hate Crime Unit does not record that information due to a lack of resources. Marino was given no information on why the VPD itself doesn’t count gaybashings.

“This impacts the VPD as all stats [in Vancouver] are supposed to be reported by [the hatecrime unit] office [in Victoria],” wrote the Diversity Relations Unit’s Al Gosbee to Marino in an email.

“I know it’s not a very positive answer, but that’s where it currently stands,” Gosbee wrote.

Marino says he’ll raise the issue at the next Diversity Advisory Committee meeting, Sep 13.

The BC Hate Crime Unit consists of two officers who are mandated to help police identify, investigate and track hate-motivated crimes, such as gaybashings, in all of BC.

The team’s funding was cut by the provincial Liberal government in 2002.

Gay Vancouver city councillor Tim Stevenson says that’s not acceptable.

He has been lobbying for a restoration of the funding but says the response from Victoria has been lacklustre.

“I really think it’s quite appalling,” he says. “I think it’s important to have these figures so we can see precisely what we’re dealing with.”

Curiously, the Calgary Police Service (CPS)-which raided Goliath’s bathhouse in 2002-does count the number of attacks against queer people.

CPS tracks crimes motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, gender, age, mental or physical disability, or sexual orientation.

“When submitting a report, police officers are asked their opinion on whether or not an incident was motivated by hate/bias,” reads the CPS 2004 annual report. “If their professional opinion is that there was some form of hate/bias motivation, CPS has resources committed to investigate those specific incidents.”

In 2001, the CPS recorded nine hate crimes based on sexual orientation. In 2002, they recorded 12. In 2003 they recorded 15 and in 2004 of 133 total recorded hate crimes, eight were motivated by homophobia.

Sgt Frank Foley of the CPS Diversity Relations Unit says the statistics are an important tool-not only for the police but also as an educational tool for the public.

“It’s important to get it out into the light and destroy it,” he says. “It’s in our best interests and the citizens’ best interests. Some groups are targeted and we need to do something to stamp it out.”

Edmonton police commissioner and queer activist Murray Billett says similar statistics are also gathered in Edmonton. He says recording crimes against queer people is “a responsible part of statistical gathering.

“It’s a very important part of what police do,” he says. “I think our hate crimes unit is one of the most outstanding in the country.”

Even though several large police services across Canada do count crimes against queer people, there are still problems interpreting and comparing the data from one jurisdiction to another. Each jurisdiction counts crimes against queer people slightly differently, and sometimes their systems vary, too.

For example: while in Alberta the labels police apply to queer bashing remain constant, Toronto’s have changed several times over the years.

In 1994, hate crimes against queers were described by the Toronto Police Service (TPS) with the term ‘sexual orientation.’ In 1996, they were called ‘homophobic assaults.’ In 1997, they were broken down into crimes against gay men and crimes against lesbians. Then the cycle of descriptors began again, changing through the years among homophobic assaults, sexual orientation, and gay men and lesbians.

That shifting makes year-over-year comparisons in Toronto problematic and comparisons from jurisdiction to jurisdiction almost meaningless.

Doug Janoff, who recently published Pink Blood: Homophobic Violence in Canada, takes a cautionary approach to the value of hate crime statistics.

“It’s still limited in its usefulness,” he says. “When they say ‘three gay men were assaulted last year,’ you don’t know why. They could have been victims of domestic assaults.

“It’s a step in the right direction that they are at least categorizing the sexual orientation of the victims,” he continues, “but that in itself can be quite misleading.”

When it comes to Toronto’s shifting parameters, Janoff muses: “It was making me wonder what their methodology was.”

The problem of varying statistical methods could have been remedied in 1993, he says.

Bill C-455, the Hate Crime Statistics Act, would have required federal, provincial and municipal police forces to record bias-motivated crimes and identify targeted groups.

The bill was a private members’ bill and died on Parliament’s order paper.

University of Ottawa criminologist Julian Roberts, in a 1995 paper for the federal government, Disproportionate Harm: Hate Crime in Canada, believes the act should be revisited.

“Federal legislation would make sure that all police services were committed to a uniform definition, and thus make it more likely they would produce uniform data.”

Such a system, he says, would sensitize the community in general to the importance of the issue.

“Police across Canada generally refuse to classify the killings of queer people as hate crimes,” Janoff writes in his book. “Why does the queer community accept this?”