Know Your Rights campaign against racist police street checks stalled by bureaucracy | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
The police are allowed to stop and search your car if they have reasonable suspicion you’re involved in a crime; they can’t do a street check for suspicious activity.
The police are allowed to stop and search your car if they have reasonable suspicion you’re involved in a crime; they can’t do a street check for suspicious activity.

Know Your Rights campaign against racist police street checks stalled by bureaucracy

Three years later, still no action from the Board of Police Commissioners on this Wortley Report idea.

After Monday's meeting of the Board of Police Commissioners, it's clear Halifax will need to wait longer for one of the recommendations from the Wortley Report on police street checks to become a reality. The recommendation from the report (4.10 for the nerds) reads in part, “it is recommended that the HRP and RCMP develop a public education program for Black and minority youth. This program should be delivered by police officials and focus on teaching youth about their rights during police interactions.” At a BOPC meeting on June 17, 2019, city councillor/police commissioner Lindell Smith directed the Halifax Regional Police to create such a public education program in the form of a pamphlet.

And then nothing happened until May 17, 2021 when HRP chief Dan Kinsella told the board he was unable to provide an update on the delays because the province was holding up the process. And the province, at that time, was being governed by the Nova Scotia Liberal Party, which would only explain the delay as engaging with stakeholders and said the work was “ongoing.

Optimists believe the delayed update is due to COVID. Cynics believe the delayed update is being blamed on COVID.

Defence attorneys believe the delay is due to police powers relating to “suspicious activity.” At the May 17 police commissioners meeting Kinsella said as much, telling the board part of the delay was waiting for the province to define suspicious activity for the HRP. In the year since that meeting, there was a provincial election and the new PC government announced it was closing the suspicious activity loophole on September 21, 2021. The police are allowed to stop and search your car if they have reasonable suspicion you’re involved in a crime; they can’t do a street check for suspicious activity, which the Wortley Report showed often meant simply being Black.

Suspicious activity vs reasonable suspicion

While this clarification might seem like good news, criminal defence lawyer Sarah Rankin believes it won’t solve the issue of racist outcomes of policing. While it’s true that reasonable suspicion is a defined legal standard, and it’s also true that it's a more rigorous standard than the “police got bad vibes” standard of suspicious activity, the standard is only ever tested if the police interaction results in charges or a formal complaint. Practically speaking, there’s no way to ensure police are using the appropriate standard when they’re interacting with members of the public.

A glaring issue with the Know Your Rights pamphlet is that it requires people who have historically been oppressed by police, to magically feel comfortable exercising their rights to police because of a pamphlet in their pocket. A much easier solution would be to force police officers to outline people’s rights at the start of every interaction.

Because fundamentally this isn’t an education of rights problem, or a communication of rights problem. It’s a policing problem.

One reason it might be hard to get police to explain people's rights to them is because police don’t always want people to know their rights. For example, explaining someone’s rights to them before a polygraph test doesn’t allow police to rely on low key charter violations to do their “investigation.” But Rankin says “it’s unjustly cynical for police to believe that telling the truth will inhibit cooperation instead of establishing a clear foundation of trust.” Rankin adds that having police take this first step is “more important in communities that have a justified mistrust of police.”

Or put another way, we wouldn’t need a Know Your Rights pamphlet if police started every interaction outlining our rights with a simple “you don’t have to answer my questions, and you can leave whenever you want.” But the police won’t do it, and our politicians won’t legislate it. So, instead, we need to protect ourselves from those who are supposed to serve and protect us.

The actual update on the pamphlet

At the Monday, May 16 BOPC meeting, councillor Smith updated the board on the progress of the Know Your rights pamphlet. It will be rolled out in a province-wide campaign led by the Nova Scotian Decade for People of African Descent Coalition.

In a statement to The Coast, the provincial government confirmed that the Department of Justice "feels that a province-wide, community-led, ‘Know Your Rights’ initiative developed in collaboration with police, DOJ and other key stakeholders is the best approach for this important work." The statement continues to say the "'Know Your Rights' materials will be developed under the African Nova Scotian Justice Institute, once staff resources are in place."

In the meantime, if you’d like a useful tip while you wait for the pamphlet, here it is. If a police officer chooses to interact with you, ask them the following questions: Am I being detained? and Do I have to answer your questions? If the officer says yes, call a lawyer. If the answer is no… well, what you do next is up to you.

Other stuff from the BOPC’s Monday meeting

Rookie board member Harry Critchley asked what proportion of all crime is administration of justice charges, which are charges like failing to appear in court. Critchley asked for this information because in BC, they make up 30 percent of all charges and are disproportionately levied against people who are not white. HRP is not able to say if this is the case in the HRM, as those stats are not tracked.

Councillor/commissioner Lisa Blackburn is trying to put together a working group to start implementing a report from defining defunding the police subcommittee. This working group would divide the recommendations into things the city can do on its own, and things that need participation from other jurisdictions. This working group would also have a subcommittee to start completing those recommendations from this report that are in the city’s purview. The next step is starting the working group, which she has started to do. Councillors Becky Kent and Blackburn, as well as commissioner Yemi Akindoju, will be the members of the working group. They will come back with a formal motion at the next meeting in June.

HRP’s chief Dan Kinsella updated the board on recruitment efforts. Also, the HRP launched a tipline, but Kinsella didn’t say how it’s working so far. And commissioner Critchley asked for a report on the policy framework police use to enforce the law on people residing in parks, but city lawyer Marty Ward says council asked for a different report, so Critchley should wait to prevent overlap of work.

The RCMP gave an update: Some people are retiring, some people are being hired. The African Canadian experience course, developed by the RCMP, is being taught outside of Nova Scotia. The RCMP also bragged about doing their job right at least a half a dozen times since the last BOPC meeting.

Matt Stickland

Matt spent 10 years in the Navy where he deployed to Libya with HMCS Charlottetown and then became a submariner until ‘retiring’ in 2018. In 2019 he completed his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College. Matt is an almost award winning opinion writer.
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