Nelson residents question chief on police violence

Nelson’s police chief Paul Burkart answered questions at an outdoor meeting on policing and race relations for more than two hours on June 8. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
This represents about one-third of the number of people who attended the meeting on policing and race relations on Monday. Photo: Bill Metcalfe
Dr. Shelina Musaji, one of the organizers, told the Star after the meeting, “It is sad that there were not more people of colour there, and that they felt too vulnerable to be there. That says something about our community, I think.” Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Nelson’s police chief Paul Burkart met with about 150 residents on Monday to talk about policing and race in the city.

It was one of hundreds of events worldwide following a number of deaths of people in police custody in the U.S. and Canada.

The event was set up as a question-and-answer session between the public and Burkart, who answered questions for more than two hours.

The first questioner asked: “I know that Black and Indigenous and other people of colour have far more interactions with police than white people in Nelson. Can you explain why?”

Burkart responded that he keeps police statistics on race, and the number of interactions with those groups roughly corresponds with the numbers of those groups in the overall Nelson population.

By “interactions” Burkart was referring to situations that could result in criminal charges.

One questioner said this definition does not capture the whole picture.

“What we hear from people of colour in this community,” she said, “is that they experience a lot more interactions, which are questioning, suspicions, being pulled over, all kinds of things that don’t necessarily result in charges, but feel like harassment.”

The first questioner agreed: “Yeah, statistics are great, but they don’t show us what is hidden behind the scenes. [What you are saying is] the bright shiny face of everything is fine. But what happens at 2 a.m.?”

Burkart said he is aware of this perception and is working on it. He said he is a member of the street culture collaborative and chairs the city’s vulnerable population committee that is dealing with the effects of COVID-19.

Burkart said people should bring these issues forward through organizations he works closely with: Nelson Mental Health and Substance Use, Nelson CARES, Nelson Community Services, Stepping Stones, Nelson Committee on Homeless, and the Salvation Army.

Several other questioners said non-white people are targeted and those channels might not work because people might not feel comfortable with them. They wanted to know what he can do about this.

Every officer in the province is required to take the internationally recognized fair and impartial policing course, Burkart said.

He said he recently attended a meeting of western Canadian police chiefs where “there were way too many old white guys, and that was a comment made by a number of the chiefs as we sat there. We need to work on that.”

He added his department has two Indigenous officers.

Burkart said in 2015 the police department and city wanted an unmarked car staffed by a plainclothes officer and mental health worker to “help people proactively before they are in mental health crisis model.” However, the proposal failed because Interior Health declined to fund it.

Burkart said this could be understood in the context of the current “defund the police” movement, which asks that police not be required to do social services work.

“We wanted [mental health workers] to take over that portion of what we were doing. They’re better at it than we are. That’s why I work with ANKORS. They can do their part and open the overdose prevention site, which I support. I work with the street culture collaborative, so they can get outreach workers on the street to take away some of the work we’re doing and get people into care rather than us dealing with them.

A questioner asked Burkart what he is doing about the mental health of his own officers.

“Over the last two years, our members have received more mental health training than ever,” he said. “We have a job that can tear a little piece off your soul every day. We now have peer-to-peer supports within our agency who are trained by a psychologist who specializes in police.”

Burkart was asked if some parts of the job could be done without firearms. He said in the vast majority of cases a firearm is not needed, but this is not predictable.

In the 123 years of the Nelson Police Department, they have fatally shot one person, in 1968. In the past year they had 6,300 calls and used a taser once and no other weapons.

Several questioners encouraged Burkart to attempt to influence things at a national level, because they said he, in addition to his white privilege, has an additional layer of privilege by being a police chief.

He responded that he can only influence Nelson. He can influence the bigger picture by being part of a provincial association of police chiefs, but only indirectly, and not at a national level.

Dr. Shelina Musaji, one of the organizers, said after the meeting “I am cautiously optimistic. A wedge has opened, there is an opportunity for the unlearning of racism.”

She said she was pleased that at the meeting’s end, Burkart agreed to a formal process that invites people of colour to speak, and the police board committed to holding the police chief accountable during this process.

However, Musaji said she was “sad there were not more people of colour there, and that they felt too vulnerable to be there.”

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