4 min

Why won’t Vancouver police release their trans sensitivity training documents?

Xtra has been filing Freedom of Information requests since July 2017

A Vancouver police officer displays a rainbow on their uniform in this image from the force’s annual report released in May 2017. Credit: VPD annual report

The Vancouver Police Department still won’t tell the LGBT community how exactly it trains its officers to treat queer and trans people with sensitivity.

For more than six months, police have been refusing to disclose the information to Xtra, ever since we ran a story asking why they were late to obey a court order to fix their discriminatory treatment of trans people.

Vancouver police have yet to fully protect trans people, more than a year past deadline

When police finally implemented the court-ordered sensitivity training more than a year after the ruling, Xtra asked what specifically it covered. The force has “a number of ongoing training initiatives in the VPD specific to the transgender community,” Sergeant Randy Fincham replied, adding that members of the trans community come in and speak to police in cultural awareness sessions.

But he refused to provide copies of any handouts that officers may have been provided with, or documents from any of the presentations.

So Xtra filed a Freedom of Information request to learn what exactly Vancouver police officers are being taught about the LGBT community. The request covers copies of the documents used in their LGBT sensitivity trainings, and copies of any emails related to those trainings sent by the police department’s LGBT liaison officer.

Nearly six months later, Xtra has not received any of the documents requested (see timeline below).

When police missed another deadline to release the documents, Xtra filed a complaint on Nov 9, 2017, with BC’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, the publicly funded institution that ensures Freedom of Information laws are respected.

“The Vancouver Police Department is a publicly funded institution, and therefore, within reasonable limits of personal privacy, the public has a right to access training materials and official correspondence by officers,” Xtra stated in the complaint, adding that the police department’s lack of response “shows disregard for the FOI process.”

A representative from the commissioner’s office agreed with Xtra that police missed deadlines for producing the information, having missed the original deadline as well as an extended deadline. The commissioner’s office ordered police to hand over the documents by Jan 31, 2018.

While waiting for police to comply with FOI rules, Xtra continued to seek information on how they train their officers, and learned that Qmunity provided some LGBT sensitivity workshops to the Vancouver Police Department. Xtra asked Joel Harnest, Qmunity’s education and training coordinator who led workshops for officers last spring, what he taught them.

Harnest says his two-and-a-half hour workshop covered LGBT-specific terminology, gender pronouns, an explanation of gender as a spectrum, and “shared histories” of the police and LGBT communities. In challenging gender norms and discussing the community’s histories with police, Harnest says reactions from officers varied: some responded in a “profound” way, some were “middle-of-the-road,” and some “got their backs up,” he says.

Harnest presented his workshop to 40 to 50 officers at a time, and estimates that by the end of Qmunity’s contract, 700 to 800 officers had sat through his lessons. However, he doesn’t think they learned enough.

“I don’t think a one-day training is enough,” he says, explaining that in the two-and-a-half hour workshop he was only able to go over a “small portion of the training that we [at Qmunity] offer.”

When he agreed to work with the police, Harnest says he was warned that information from the trainings might be subject to a routine FOI request since the Vancouver Police Department is a public institution and therefore subject to such requests. When Xtra told Harnest that police were refusing to release information on the trainings, Harnest expressed surprised.

“I can’t speak to their motivations,” he says.

But he encourages police to release the information. “In my role, I would urge the VPD that this is an opportunity to build some trust,” with the LGBT community, he says.

Xtra’s Freedom of Information request timeline:

July 28, 2017: Xtra submits an FOI request to the Vancouver Police Department, requesting copies of emails and training documents. Under FOI regulations, police have 30 business days to respond to the request.

Sept 8, 2017: On the day that the initial 30 days are up, the Vancouver Police Department sends an email to Xtra, requesting a 30-business-day extension on the grounds of needing to consult with outside organizations. Police say they will comply with the request on Oct 25, 2017.

Oct 25, 2017: Police miss their extension deadline. Xtra does not receive any correspondence from their FOI department.

Nov 2, 2017: Xtra inquires with police, noting that they have missed their deadline. The Vancouver Police Department does not reply.

Nov 2–8, 2017: Xtra calls the police department’s FOI office several times. Calls and voicemails asking about the FOI go unanswered.

Nov 9, 2017: 10 business days past the extended deadline, Xtra informs the police department that it is filing a complaint with the BC Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Nov 10, 2017: The commissioner’s office confirms by email that it has opened a file to address the issue and is in communication with the Vancouver Police Department concerning Xtra’s request.

Nov 15, 2017: The commissioner’s office tells Xtra that the police department anticipates it will be able to respond to the FOI request by Dec 4, 2017.

Dec 1, 2017: The commissioner’s office officially notifies both Xtra and the Vancouver Police Department that the department’s lateness to provide information to Xtra is considered a refusal to comply with the FOI request. The file is assigned to a different complaints officer with the commission, and Xtra is instructed to follow up with them on next steps.

Dec 4, 2017: Xtra still does not receive any documents from the police.

Dec 15, 2017: Xtra inquires with the Vancouver Police Department about the documents, and the missed Dec 4 deadline. The police department’s FOI officer replies immediately and says there has been a misunderstanding, that it never agreed to a Dec 4 deadline, and that it is in discussion with a representative from the commissioner’s office about a later deadline.

Dec 21–22, 2017: The commissioner’s office tells Xtra that the Vancouver Police Department will be signing a “consent order” in early January, in which it commits to the commissioner’s office and to Xtra that it will release the requested documents by the end of January 2018.

Jan 12, 2018: The commissioner’s office sends Xtra a consent form signed by the Vancouver Police Department promising to release the documents on Jan 31, 2018.