A report on discrimination in policing suggests Black and Indigenous people are more likely to be arrested in Nelson than white people.
University of Toronto criminology professor Dr. Scot Wortley studied data supplied by the Nelson and Vancouver police departments as well as RCMP detachments in Surrey, Duncan and Prince George.
His findings formed a report by the B.C. Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, which made 29 recommendations to the provincial committee currently reviewing the Police Act. The update to the 1996 act, which will modernize how police respond to mental health and substance use calls as well as offer solutions to systemic racism, is due in April 2022.
Nelson Police Department (NPD) made 1,687 arrests between 2019 and 2020, of which 1,617 included the race of the offender.
Self-identifying Indigenous people represent 5.4 per cent of Nelson’s population, but were involved in 10.3 per cent of arrests. They are also 1.9 times more likely to be arrested than their population would predict, and have an average arrest rate per 100,000 population that’s almost twice the rate for white people.
Only 0.7 per cent of Nelson’s population is Black, but that same group was involved in 1.5 per cent of all arrests. Black people have an average arrest rate that’s 2.3 times higher than whites per 100,000 population.
Black men are also over-represented in the report. They account for only 0.3 per cent of the city’s population, but were involved in 1.4 per cent of all arrests.
Over the two years of data made public, 24 arrests involved 34.3 per cent of Nelson’s entire Black population. That’s contrasted against the 1,398 arrests of white people, which represents only 14.6 per cent of their population.
Wortley characterized the Nelson’s arrest statistics as “dramatic” and said they warrant more research.
“I think that these numbers definitely justify such an inquiry. They definitely pointed to the fact that there is something going on that we need to drill down and then pay more attention,” he said.
“Typically, police services across the country have been able to deflect attention away from these issues by saying there is no data and we don’t collect or disseminate that data. That’s difficult to do with the release of the data today.”
Nelson’s statistics are similar to other departments included in the report, which found high rates of arrest across the province for Black and Indigenous residents.
Chief Donovan Fisher acknowledged the report is accurate, but said it is misleading to suggest the department is targeting people of colour in its arrests.
“It’s marginalized society, it’s socio-economic factors, it’s systemic racism in lots of areas that tend to put certain people at a disadvantage. And then, because of that, they have a higher incidence or a higher contact level with police,” said Fisher.
“As much as we try to be proactive on things, policing is still 90 per cent reactive. We’re responding to the calls for service and often times have little control over who, in the end, is the offender or the person involved in it that we’re dealing with.”
Sheri Walsh of the Nelson-based West Kootenay People for Racial Justice said the report confirms what the group had known anecdotally about law enforcement in Nelson. She highlighted a recommendation by the human rights commissioner that funding from police budgets be redirected to civilian-led initiatives.
“That allows more appropriate support for people experiencing health and social issues, frees up the police to focus on other areas that are more closely associated with criminal justice …,” said Walsh.
“None of this is meant to disparage the Nelson police. They’re working within the current system. But it does show that police reform is quite possible and it’s needed.”
Wortley’s report also considered if Nelson’s numbers were padded by repeat offenders.
From Jan. 1, 2019, to Dec. 31, 2020, 730 individuals were arrested by NPD. Of those, 611 were white, 31 were Indigenous and five were Black, while 16 are categorized as Other (Wortley said people of Asian, South Asian, Hispanic and Arab descent were grouped together due to overall low numbers).
Indigenous people averaged 5.35 arrests per individual, followed by Blacks at 4.80 and white people at 2.29.
“Although individuals arrested on multiple occasions largely eliminate overall racial disparities in NPD arrest statistics, Indigenous and Black individuals were involved in significantly more arrest incidents than white individuals,” wrote Wortley.
Fisher said one of the individuals included was responsible for 79 arrests, which wasn’t included in Wortley’s report.
“I think it’s important to realize that for a town and department this size we’re dealing with fairly small numbers of people in certain groups. So one person has a significant effect in skewing the numbers of the percentages.”
Fisher added arrests are one of the few actions available to Nelson police when they need to remove a person from a public place. It also doesn’t necessarily mean jail time. Fisher said an arrest can lead to a person being taken to a hospital or to shelter.
“I think everybody looks at being arrested or arresting people as punitive and negative. And often times, it’s the tool we have available to remove somebody from a harmful situation, and that could be harmful to themselves or others, to remove them from a situation that’s escalating and potentially they’re going to get themselves in more trouble.”
Wortley said he hopes the report leads to mandated race-based data collection by B.C. police. The numbers, he said, provide accountability.
“I think that racism is more likely to flourish under conditions where there is no data, where there is plausible deniability. The collection, dissemination and analysis of this data may make criminal justice representatives more aware of the situation and therefore reduce the worst forms of individual bias that might exist.”