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Cut police, build affordable housing instead, says B.C. human rights commissioner

Homeless, Indigenous Peoples and those living in poverty have far more interactions with police, says Kasari Govender
Kasari Govender, British Columbia’s human rights commissioner, is seen in an undated handout photo. She says cutting police officer numbers where possible and using the money saved to build affordable housing should be part of a legislature’s committee’s deliberations to change the Police Act, including addressing systemic racism in policing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-B.C. Human Rights Commission, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

The all-party committee tasked with reviewing British Columbia’s Police Act should consider deploying fewer police officers and using the money saved to build affordable housing, says the province’s human rights commissioner.

The fight against systemic racism in policing should also prompt changes to both the Police Act and the Human Rights Code to ensure protection of those most vulnerable to discrimination, Kasari Govender said Thursday.

Govender told the all-party committee appointed to review the 45-year-old act that race-based data should be collected to help eliminate systemic racism in policing.

She urged the committee to re-examine the role of police in making communities safer, especially in areas where poverty, addiction and homelessness are prevalent.

“I recommend that police should be de-tasked where possible, and critically the funds that would otherwise go to policing be put towards infrastructure and services that create safer communities,” Govender said. “To, for example, affordable housing, with appropriate supports for British Columbians with mental health problems, addictions and other needs that make them vulnerable.”

She said the homeless, Indigenous Peoples and those living in poverty have far more interactions with police, which should prompt the committee to recommend amendments to the Human Rights Code to give those people more protection and access to justice when dealing with officers.

“Adding social conditions to the code would provide another accountability mechanism for those who believe they’ve been discriminated against by the police, because they are living in poverty, including those who are homeless,” Govender said.

She said she will provide the committee with written recommendations on the issue of street checks by police, but called the practice of stopping people for limited cause harmful.

“Street checks can and do result in harm to Indigenous, Black and low-income individuals in communities,” Govender said. “Street checks contribute to the overpolicing and disproportionate criminalization of those groups.”

In October 2019, the Nova Scotia government issued a provincewide moratorium on street checks due to the discriminatory impact on Black Nova Scotians, she said.

“Street checks take a toll on a person’s physical and mental health and can impact their ability to pursue employment and educational opportunities,” said Govender.

She said amending the act to ensure all police agencies collect, analyze and disclose race-based data will support efforts to end systemic racism in policing.

“The data will assist us in preventing and monitoring systemic discrimination as well as providing much-needed transparency for the system,” Govender said.

NDP legislature member Rachna Singh called Govender’s presentation “extremely powerful.”

The special committee was formed last July to make recommendations to the legislative assembly on modernizing the Police Act by considering the role of police in complex social issues, including mental health and addictions.

It is also expected to examine the scope of systemic racism within provincial police agencies and to suggest measures to ensure the act is consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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