When Mayor Kennedy Stewart learned in June of allegations of racist language and worrying conduct by two Vancouver police officers, he said “we must find out how and why” the “very troubling” allegations were edited out of a report before it was made public.
Now, after Postmedia reviewed 379 pages of emails obtained through a freedom of information request and interviewed many of those involved, details have emerged about what led to the allegations’ deletion from the final report.
The emails contain private correspondence among the police board, the VPD and external consultants during the Vancouver police board’s street checks review.
While those parties are defending their process, others have concerns. Critics say the process raises questions about the independence of the street checks review. A provincial police-oversight agency has expressed concern and pledged to investigate.
The emails reveal that a four-member subcommittee of the Vancouver police board decided late last year to show the 260-page draft report to the VPD before release. They reveal that Howard Chow, the VPD deputy chief in charge of operations, then spoke directly with one of the researchers about a section detailing allegations of police racism and misconduct.
The emails also show there was a subsequent decision to remove the allegations from the final version of the report before it went to the full police board — including board chair Mayor Stewart — and then to public release.
In recent months, representatives of the police board, the VPD and Pyxis Consulting Group, the researchers hired to conduct the street checks review, had not spoken publicly about how or why the allegations of racism were removed from the final report.
The VPD refused to make anyone available this week for an interview. But a member of the police board’s street checks committee defended the decisions and process. And the Pyxis researcher who decided to remove the allegations of racism and misconduct said this week the police did not try to influence that decision, and there was nothing inappropriate about the process.
Harsha Walia, the executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the emails left her “angry and outraged.”
Walia’s organization, along with the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, filed the 2018 complaint that led to last year’s external review of street checks. The organizations had complained that street checks — when officers stop a person outside of a regular investigation and collect their identifying information — were racist, citing police data showing it disproportionately affected Black and Indigenous Vancouverites.
Pyxis’ final street checks review report said the “available data and information could neither confirm nor deny police racism or bias.”
Walia learned about the descriptions of troubling police conduct — and their removal from the final report — in June, from the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, who had been notified about the allegations by the VPD, which conducted an internal investigation. At that time, Walia and many others questioned why seemingly relevant first-hand reports of racism were removed from the report, but the responsible parties were not providing details.
“That’s been the mystery: How did this get deleted?” Walia said this week.
Upon learning the police board provided a draft of the report to VPD brass, who discussed its contents directly with Pyxis researchers, who then scrubbed allegations of racism, Walia said: “That whole chain of events really breaches the public trust and really undermines the credibility and the findings of this report. … We’re completely outraged at the way this entire review has been handled.”
“The VPD were supposed to be getting reviewed about street checks, and how street checks are racist, and there was clear evidence of something racist, something happened in back channels, and then that paragraph was mysteriously removed,” Walia said. “This looks like a coverup.”
Pyxis and police board representatives say their process was sound, and there was no inappropriate interference.
The emails show that in November 2019, soon after the police board’s street checks committee decided to provide the draft to the VPD, the board executive director, Stephanie Johanssen, wrote to the committee to tell them of changes. Johanssen wrote she had been advised by Pyxis president Ruth Montgomery, a former Edmonton Police superintendent, that the changes to the October draft were “mainly formatting.”
However, Johanssen wrote that she was subsequently informed by Deputy Chief Chow there was one “major change”: The removal of the section about officers making “inappropriate and racially insensitive comments.”
“DCC Chow had lengthy discussions with Curt about this paragraph, and it has since been removed for a variety of reasons, which DCC Chow will speak to at the upcoming meeting,” Johanssen wrote, referring to Curt Griffiths, a co-author of the Pyxis report.
Barj Dhahan, the police board’s vice-chair and street checks committee spokesman, said the draft was sent to the VPD for fact-checking.
“I don’t see anything wrong in this, and I also don’t see that with our deputy chief looking at a draft report, that somehow that compromises the independence of the board or independence of the consultant,” Dhahan said. “I don’t think the independence of the whole process was in any way compromised.”
It was Pyxis’ decision to remove the section, Dhahan said, adding he did not object as it did not fundamentally change the report, its findings or recommendations .
“The final recommendation to the report still remained the same. So I, personally, as a committee member, I’m satisfied with that. But I do understand that somebody else can look at it and say: ‘Gee, this paragraph should have been left.’ I understand and respect that feeling,” Dhahan said. “But from where I sit, I think it was fine.”
Chief Don Tom, a Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs vice-president, disagreed. “What good is a report reviewing police conduct if the very conduct under review is being omitted, hidden or ignored?”
Later emails state that Griffiths, the Pyxis researcher, decided to remove the descriptions of racist comments because it was “outlier information.”
Pyxis’s draft, also obtained through a freedom of information request, described incidents witnessed by researchers during two out of the 12 ride-alongs done for the review. One officer “made a number of inappropriate, racially insensitive comments to the researcher and his partner throughout the shift,” language described as “extremely inappropriate and highly concerning.” On another ride-along, another officer “made a number of inappropriate comments about vulnerable and marginalized people and appeared to have considerable anger issues,” and when dealing with the public, he was “overly terse” and, on one occasion, “extremely rude.”
Pyxis researcher Griffiths told Postmedia that providing the draft to the VPD was the board’s decision. His experience with this kind of consulting work, he said, is some police boards provide drafts to police, others do not.
Griffiths said that when Chow spoke with him late last year about the incidents outlined in the draft, it was only to ask for the officers’ names because the VPD had launched an internal investigation.
Griffiths also said Chow did not try to get him to remove the misconduct allegations. He said that he and his Pyxis colleagues independently decided to cut that section because they were “outlier” incidents.
“He didn’t ask me to remove anything, and I wouldn’t have anyway,” said Griffiths, who is a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University, where Chow was one of his students in the 1980s.
“The team that I work with have never given in to pressure from an agency, and we wouldn’t. I’ve been 40 years in this business, and my integrity and my professional reputation are on the line every time we do a project,” Griffiths said. “We’re under pressure lots of times to change what we write, if it embarrasses the agency, or doesn’t fit a narrative or whatever … but we’ve never collapsed under pressure, and that includes this case here.”
Walia was not satisfied with that explanation.
For one thing, she said, the B.C. Civil Liberties asked the police board months ago to explain why the information was removed and was never provided with the “outlier” explanation — or any explanation — until Postmedia got the emails. And, Walia added, calling the incidents “outliers” was debatable considering they happened in the presence of researchers on two of the 12 ride-alongs they conducted.
The debate on the Vancouver report comes as many police departments — and other institutions — are facing public debates about racism and bias.
In June of this year, Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer told The Vancouver Sun that the suggestion of systemic racism in Canadian policing is not only untrue but “offensive.”
Soon after, Stewart publicly disagreed with the chief, telling the Sun “systemic racism exists in all of our institutions,” including the VPD.
At that time, in June, the mayor also spoke publicly of his concern about the incidents of racism deleted from the street checks review, which he said he had only just learned about that week. Although Stewart chairs the police board — and has recently publicly expressed frustration at the limitations of that role — he was not a part of the four-member street checks committee, and was not copied on last year’s emails regarding the drafting of the Pyxis report.
Now the mayor says he can no longer comment on the matter.
In an email this week, Stewart said: “The Vancouver police board has designated Barj Dhahan as the only authorized spokesperson on the issue of street checks.”
“While I do not agree with that assessment, I am nonetheless prevented from commenting on this issue for now.”
Chow refused to answer questions this week about the process. VPD spokeswoman Simi Heer said by email that “the paragraph is problematic to us even though the researchers indicated the two officers ‘were clear exceptions.’”
“We continue to utilize extensive training with new officers to ensure fair, impartial, and bias-free policing and also have ongoing training for existing officers,” Heer said.
She said that after Chow saw the draft, “it was his duty to follow up on the problematic, anonymized comments” and report them to the VPD’s professional standards section.
That internal investigation was fruitless. The internal investigators closed the file in July, unable to identify the officers involved.
The Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner, the B.C. agency that oversaw the VPD’s internal probe, determined the investigators were thorough and had the full co-operation of both the police board and the police department. The investigation was unsuccessful, the OPCC found, primarily because of the lack of co-operation from the Pyxis researchers.
Tomorrow, part 2: Why Pyxis did not cooperate with the internal police investigation — and how the matter will soon be under review by provincial authorities.