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B.C. Police Act needs overhaul to address trust, mental health issues: legislative report

An all-party committee of British Columbia legislators is recommending sweeping change to the province’s Police Act aimed at restoring trust in law enforcement and moving away from the criminalization of mental health, homelessness and poverty.

 
PHOTO: Stock
 
 
Committee chair Doug Routley said members often heard about a general lack of trust between the police and many people in the province, with the oversight process being one of the sources of that mistrust.

The report from the special committee on reforming the Police Act is making 11 major recommendations for change, including the creation of a provincial police force; creating and funding a “continuum of response” to mental health, addictions and other complex social issues with a focus on prevention and community-led responses; standardizing police training; and the creation of a civilian-led oversight agency responsible for complaints and investigations against police. The committee also said B.C. should bring in a new Community Safety and Policing Act to govern the provision of policing and public safety services, with Indigenous peoples and municipalities actively engaged in drafting the legislation.

“One thing that surprised every member of the committee almost without exception was that many Indigenous communities came to us and told us they were underpoliced and desired more service, but a different service,” he said. “It became obvious to us that the federal institution of the RCMP was definitely not accessible to us in terms of how to shape the service in the future, so we felt a provincial police service was the most effective way to achieve our goals.”

Another major recommendation was a call to appoint a parliamentary committee to undertake a broad review of the Mental Health Act, which has not been updated in many years. The committee noted the criminalization of mental health, homelessness and poverty is a theme that runs throughout the input they received, particularly as it relates to police as the default responder to mental health issues.

Michelle Lawrence, University of Victoria

Michelle Lawrence, an associate professor at the University of Victoria faculty of law and director of the school’s Access to Justice Centre of Excellence, noted B.C.’s mental health legislation is undergoing significant scrutiny and the Act’s provisions on “deemed consent,” in which the director of a mental health facility can substitute their consent if a patient is seen to be in need to treatment, is currently subject to a constitutional challenge.

“The government should be paying attention to this because there is reason to be concerned that the deemed consent provisions violate the Charter’s protections of personal autonomy,” she said. “If those provisions were struck down it would be forced into legislative change, so the fact there is this call early on for a review of the Act is significant and positive to see.”

Neil Boyd, emeritus professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, said police forces across B.C. have had to take on responsibility of dealing with people who have a mix of mental health issues and problems with substance abuse and are involved in the commission of crime since the early 1970s.

“And what we found was when these people went to the community in the late 1970s and 1980s and beyond, there weren’t any resources there to deal with the problems they have,” he said. “I have some sympathy with what police have had to deal with. It is a system that has developed because of our failure to provide supports and controls for these individuals in the community. But if you look at a police force such as Vancouver it has been one of the most progressive in the country in terms of policing supervised injection sites and recognizing that drug use is a public health problem, and not a moral failing.”

Lawrence said the recommendation on the RCMP is the “headline-grabbing” aspect of the report, but others, including the call for increasing oversight of police, would be particularly impactful if adopted.

“And one call which is one of the strongest in the report, but unfortunately the least developed, is the one to bring in a duty to co-operate with oversight investigations on the part of police. And it doesn’t say this in the recommendations, but it is in the text of the report that a police officer who breaches that duty to co-operate will be subject to sanction,” she said. “It is really quite surprising that we would have a police oversight process that would speak to a duty to co-operate, but not about the consequences of a breach. But my question is whether that duty to co-operate will extend to the officer who is accused of the offence, because there are issues about whether those folks have the right to silence and how that will be managed on a constitutional level.”

Minister of Public Safety and solicitor general Mike Farnworth said in a statement that the committee’s recommendations “echo our government’s belief that everyone deserves equal treatment by police.” He said the province will be discussing the report with Indigenous communities, community advocacy groups and police leadership in the late summer.

“Public trust requires that the delivery of police services is fair, equitable and responsive to all British Columbians,” he said. “We will review the report’s findings on the roles and responsibilities of police, the effectiveness and efficiencies of policing practices, the level of public trust, and how to deliver exceptional services to all British Columbians while being understanding and responsive to the needs of Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities.”

Neil Boyd, Simon Fraser University

Boyd noted the police are the front line in terms of responding to property and violent crime “and I don’t know how you could really change that.”

“I think the solution is one that will involve both support and constraint,” he said. “I quite agree with [Attorney General] David Eby when he says locking these individuals up is not going to help us — they are going to come out in worse shape than when they went it, and it is simply not affordable or desirable to incarcerate all of these prolific offenders. So, I think we need to look at investing more in housing and support, with some measure of control.”

For his part, Routley said he has “high hopes” the province will act on the committee’s recommendations, noting the fact it had unanimous agreement between all three of B.C.’s major political parties give it added weight.

“Some recommendations can be acted on very quickly, but shifting a culture is a long-term project,” he said. “I know the government has welcomed the report, with the attorney general and the premier pleased with it. So, here’s hoping, and we are going to work to see that it happens.”

Contact Ian Burns at Ian.Burns@lexisnexis.ca 


 
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