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City's top cop and B.C. human rights commissioner converge on some issues, diverge on others

Indigenous people over-represented in arrests and detentions, Prince George RCMP Superintendent acknowledges
RCMP detachment2017
Prince George RCMP Detachment. Victoria Street. Police. Sept 14 2017

Prince George RCMP Supt. Shaun Wright sees merit in some of the suggestions B.C.'s Human Rights Commissioner is proposing to address racial disparities the province's policing but is also preaching a cautious when it comes to reducing the role of law enforcement and the courts.

Data collected on behalf of Kasari Govender's office from the five B.C. police services - including Prince George - found Indigenous, Black and other racialized people were over-represented in arrests and detentions, as well as in mental health or well-being checks and strip searches.

The findings do not come as a surprise to Wright who acknowledged as much in both comments provided to the Citizen and in his recent submission a special committee of the legislature tasked with examining potential changes to the province's Police Act.

"Prince George, like most communities in the North, has a high proportion of the population that's Indigenous," Wright told the committee. "Additionally, Indigenous persons are over-represented in the marginalized community as well as in the criminal justice system."

Among the commissioner's recommendations, which have also been forwarded to the committee, is one ensure police respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis only as a last resort. In doing so, Govender says such calls to 911 should be rerouted civilian-led mental health crisis response teams.

Wright, in turn, says mental health professionals should be stationed within the operational communication centres to provide an assessment once a call has been determined to be non-criminal.

"This would reduce the calls for service where police are dispatched to attend for persons experiencing a mental health crisis with no overt criminal act," Wright told the committee. "I think this would be particularly effective in smaller remote communities, as they lack any types of resources except for police to attend those incidents."

Wright also called for a rollout of a system similar to one up and running elsewhere in Canada that gives police a heads up on the mental health history of a person prior to their arrival on scene.

He said the system, known as HealthIM, has been show to reduce mental health apprehensions by up to 61 percent, "thereby reducing the number of incidents where physical force by police may be used on emotionally disturbed persons."

Wright said efforts to raise awareness of Indigenous history and cultural on national or provincial scales has been insufficient and called for funding targeted at the community level to develop training based upon local history and demographics.

Wright also said that while there is an Indigenous court in Prince George, it has limited capacity.

"Really, there needs to be continued support and resources dedicated to initiatives such as this, to drive them forward and keep them going, if we're going to see any real change in this area," Wright told the committee.

The report's author, Scott Wortley, a professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies at the University of Toronto, found serious violent offences accounted for less than five per cent of the charges recorded by all five B.C. police departments. By contrast, between 30 and 40 per cent of the charges related to public disorder or the administration of justice, such as failing to appear in court or to comply with the conditions of a release.

The over-representation of Indigenous and Black people was higher for such charges, which are more likely to involve police discretion, Wortley said. It also was highest among cases that were either dropped by Crown prosecutors or closed if police decided not to pursue charges, he said.

Some would argue that provides "evidence of arrests of low quality or arrests that were based on limited evidence and have very little chance of prosecution," he said.

In contrast, Wright told the committee that over the last several years, he has seen changes to the Criminal Code, provincial policies and developments in case law that have effectively decriminalized "low-level crimes" such as breaches of probation and bail, minor theft and minor property damage and yet has noticed a concurrent increase in crime rates and calls for service in Prince George.

In the report, the HRC says funding for police should be redirected to social services. Wright, in turn, told the committee that increased addiction and mental health treatment services are important in reducing criminal activity but added those are long-term solutions.

"In the interim, the courts should not ignore these issues, but should be used as a gateway to mandate access and participation in needed services that persons charged with criminal acts are either unwilling, or unable to engage in, to address the underlying causes of criminal behaviour," Wright continued.

"While social supports need to be improved to assist disadvantaged groups in decreasing their contact with the criminal justice system, we also have a responsibility to hold those who commit criminal acts accountable in order to protect the residents of our community and their property.

- with files from The Canadian Press