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Many in Sask. don't know police street checks are voluntary: Commission

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Saskatchewan’s Human Rights Commission (SHRC) says there’s significant difference between the way police contact interviews are described by law enforcement and experienced by people on the ground.

On Monday, chief commissioner Barry Wilcox released a report that examined the use of contact interviews, commonly known as street checks, in the province since the Saskatchewan Police Commission issued a policy on the practice in 2018.

A contact interview involves a police officer stopping a person and requesting personal information, other than during the investigation of a crime.

“There are long-standing concerns in this country that street checks employ racial profiling and disproportionately affect those living in poverty and/or experiencing homelessness,” Wilcox writes in the report.

“For Indigenous communities, the police practice of street checks has been likened to the historic pass system instituted by the federal government.”

Saskatchewan police are only supposed to conduct contact interviews under three conditions: there’s a lack of any apparent reason for the person to be in a particular area, the person’s actions or demeanor raise a concern regarding their purpose or safety, or the person appears lost, confused, frightened or in need of assistance.

Policies at Regina and Prince Albert’s police services clarify the practice doesn’t preclude normal social interactions or general conversation with the public, the report says.

Someone’s presence in a high-crime neighbourhood is not sufficient justification for a so-called street check.

Based on the responses of community groups interviewed by the commission, many community members experience the practice as a tool of intimidation and discrimination.

“A person may be stopped because they have been seen with a gang member in the past, which could be a family member or a friend. Individuals who are known to police and/or have a longer criminal record are likely to be stopped more often,” Wilcox writes.

Homeless people are particularly likely to be questioned by police, he said, and extreme weather can be used as a premise to question people and then issue tickets.

“A representative from one community-based organization told the Commission about a homeless client who was stopped by police and found to have a knife in his bag, which he used in the preparation of food. He was charged for carrying a concealed weapon.”

Community organizations were generally of the opinion that police use more verbal aggression and intimidation toward Indigenous than non-Indigenous clients to get information, the report says.

Since police across Saskatchewan adopted new rules around street checks in 2019, the province’s large police services have reported a drastic decrease in the reported number of contact interviews.

At the same time, small police services saw an increase — likely due to more stringent reporting requirements.

Small services reported just 21 contact interviews in 2019 when the policy was implemented, which rose to over 100 each year since, according to the SHRC report.

Wilcox says an overall decline in the number of contact interviews is largely due to reductions at the Saskatoon and Prince Albert police services.

Large police services reported 740 contact interviews in 2019. By 2022, that was down to 61.

A contact interview is “by definition, a voluntary interaction,” the commissioner writes. A person can walk away and doesn’t have to identify themselves.

Officers in Saskatoon conducted just 16 contact interviews in 2022, down from 189 in 2021, according to a report from the city’s patrol division.

The patrol division report said some officers were confused about what constituted a contact interview and mistakenly included interactions that actually involved the investigation of a crime.

Wilcox also points out that courts have recognized that racialized people may feel especially unable to ignore police orders because of a concern that exercising their right to walk away will be “taken as evasive,” and used to justify their detention.

One community organization interviewed by the commission said none of its clients knew their participation in a contact interview was voluntary.

“I’ve had so many people who do not know that when they are stopped they can say nothing and walk away. A lot of times, people feel bullied or intimidated into it.”

Some of the police interviewed by the commission recognized there was problem among their officers. One police representative interviewed by the commission said there was a need for more ethical and empathetic training for officers.

“I think training is lacking. Euphemistically, we will teach you 99 ways to kill people, but not treat them with dignity and respect.” 

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