Policing

What are street checks, the thing Victoria just voted to ban?

They're much different than the more controversial practices of "carding" or "stop and frisk"

By Anna J. James
August 14, 2020
Policing

What are street checks, the thing Victoria just voted to ban?

They're much different than the more controversial practices of "carding" or "stop and frisk"

By Anna J. James
Aug 14, 2020
Victoria Police officers deployed along Douglas Street in May, 2019 (Source: Twitter.com/vicpdcanada)
Policing

What are street checks, the thing Victoria just voted to ban?

They're much different than the more controversial practices of "carding" or "stop and frisk"

By Anna J. James
August 14, 2020
What are street checks, the thing Victoria just voted to ban?
Victoria Police officers deployed along Douglas Street in May, 2019 (Source: Twitter.com/vicpdcanada)

Last month, Victoria City Council unanimously approved a motion that called to end “street checks” by Victoria Police. 

Council members claimed that random stops encourage racial profiling by law enforcement. “Available data points to a pattern of discrimination against Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) and unhoused people in the deployment of this tactic in various jurisdictions” read the motion dated July 9 and signed by Councillors Potts, Loveday, Isitt, and Dubow. 

But Victoria Police Chief Del Manak has countered that while his officers already do not carry out the practice of  carding (when a person is stopped and asked for ID), it would be unwise to banish the much more generalized practice of street checks.

“With regard to street checks, I can tell you that VicPD does not support random or arbitrary stops of any kind,” wrote Del Manak. “I do, however, support officers initiating conversations with individuals in the community where there is a reasonable and unbiased reason to do so.” 

“Most police interactions do not result in a street check,” said a Vancouver Police officer who spoke to The Capital on the condition of anonymity.  “We stop someone—that is not a street check. It only becomes one if we find that interaction has some intelligence value. This is then reported and filed.”

Victoria Police define a street check as as “a field interview or investigation with a member of the public related to suspicious activity or a suspected crime.” The practice is much different than the policy of “stop and frisk” which has raised similar opposition in US jurisdictions such as New York City. Also known as a “Terry search”, a “stop and frisk” allows police to arbiliatrily search an individual on a hunch (that is, without solid intel or just cause). For example, if an officer sees an individual peering into a window of a closed store, they can—legally—pat him down, and ask him a series of questions—all on the assumption that the individual may commit a robbery. Critics of the stop-and-frisk system claim their nature and frequency are consistently underreported

“The ‘stop and frisk’ model of arbitrarily stopping a citizen is against democracy,” said the Vancouver officer. “However, a lot of things that are bad in policing come from bad training.” He explained that officers work with the community to decide who to check in on. “If I’m performing a check, chances are my community has let me know about him, like “there’s a new guy from Ottawa, he’s selling bad dope or he’s a sexual predator or he robs banks.”

He said there’s a big difference between “carding” (ceasing a citizen’s ID information without clear cause) and a street check (a conversation with an individual based on information or evidence). The officer said that in accordance with the Criminal Code, if a person is carrying a visible and unexplainable weapon, he is justified to contact a street check. “We don’t do things randomly as we have to be accountable, especially if it ends up in court,” he said. 

The officer said his department tries to make decisions based on facts not racial bias but it’s a tricky balance. He provided an example: “We approached vehicles with American plates slowly as, statistically, Americans carries more guns. Could this be considered racial profiling? Yes, but it saves lives.”

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According to the Victoria Police Street Check report, in 2016, 381 street checks were performed (page 17 of the link). Of that group, 10% were either black, Indigenous or any other visible minority. This is compared to the 18.4% of Victorians as a whole who identify as non-white, according to the 2016 census. 

In his statement, Del Manak (who is Victoria’s first Indo-Canadian police chief), painted a picture of a department that monitors their policies, trying to balance the need to keep citizens safe through surveillance and fair stops “in adherence to Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and all laws, including the Police Act … I can say with certainty that our communities expect all police–public interactions to be conducted without bias or discrimination.”

Victoria residents have questioned the veracity of the Victoria Police data, including Stephen Harrison who runs the blog Needs More Spikes, which critiques the design of public spaces.

In a December post, Harrison attached a spreadsheet of street check data he received from VicPD through a Freedom of Information request. 

According to Harrison’s analysis, 5% of people identified as Indigenous in the 2016 Victoria and Esquimalt census—but accounted for 9.9% of people who were checked. In the 2016 census, 1.4% of respondents identify as black—2.4% of those checked were black. 

The graph formulated by Stephen Harrison based on data he received from Victoria Police (Stephen Harrison).


Harrison claimed this is not the full picture, writing, “the reliance on officers’ perceptions as a stand-in for determining identity, as well as the incomplete data, mean that the number of Indigenous and Black people street checked in B.C. is likely underreported.”

Movements to end street checks have cropped up all across Canada. On July 6 a letter signed by 73 organizations, including Victoria-based non-profits Peers and Together was distributed by the BC Civil Liberties Association, stating, “street checks … have no basis in law.”

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