VPD and the case of the missing jail video
This last week it came to our attention that the VPD is still refusing to release video footage from the Vancouver Jail (VCJ) to people who request it under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, despite the fact that they lost a major court case requiring them to do so in 2011.
Here’s the background: Pivot is currently investigating two complaints from people who say they were mistreated in the Vancouver Jail. One from a man who was arrested for being intoxicated in a public place and claims that while he was being transferred from one cell to another he was punched in the face and hit by officers so hard that he was left with a broken orbital bone. The other is a man arrested for ‘breach of the peace’ who was placed into the Hobble restraint device. He is the fourth person who has complained to us over the last 3 years about being placed in this device, and each and every one of them has referred to it as akin to being tortured. You may remember the case of Willow Kinloch (pictured above), where the Supreme Court awarded $60,000 in damages to the teenager after she was placed in the device under similar circumstances.
In both cases our office sent in a freedom of information request to the VPD, and in both cases we were given copies of the police report, booking sheets, and any other relevant paper documents, but no video. After discussing the matter with the department we were told that the VPD has a policy that no video from the jail will be released without a court order, and that this was done because of ‘operational privilege’. Why take this position? There’s no way to know for sure what the VPD is thinking but if you’ve familair with the system you know that a video released through an FOI request can be disseminated freely to the media and whoever you want to show it to, as it becomes the property of the individual who is the subject of the video, but a video released through court ordered disclosure must be kept confidential and cannot be released.
This was the same position the government took when Traysea Stelmack, a Vancouver woman who claimed she was mistreated at the Vancouver Jail, made an FOI request for a copy of the video. Ms. Stelmack said specifically that the reason she wanted to get the video from an FOI request was so she could show it to the media and expose police misconduct. Jess Hadley, a lawyer for the Community Legal Assistance Society, argued for the release of the video on Ms. Stelmack’s behalf. The Information and Privacy Commissioner sided with Stelmack, ordering the release of the video. That decision was appealed to the B.C. Supreme Court, and once again Ms. Stelmack was successful, with the court clearly stating: “The Ministry's position on this issue amounts to a class-based exception for VCJ surveillance records. With some limited exceptions, which do not apply to VCJ, the statute does not contemplate such a class exception”. But here we are, 7 months after the decision, and the VPD is still maintaining they have a blanket right to keep potential victims of police misconduct from obtaining video evidence.
It’s a funny thing when you gear up for a battle only to stumble upon the remnants of the same battle, fought and won, less than a year previous. The first thing that came to my mind is of course ‘how are we fighting something that’s already been decided?' When the court makes a clear decision and awards a victor, yet the losing side insists on continuing to fight, it’s unseemly. When that loser is the Vancouver Police Department, a government entity whose sole purpose is to uphold and enforce the law, it’s infuriating.Read the full decision of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General v. Stelmack here..