An on-duty Victoria police officer faced online criticism after giving a thumbs up Saturday (Jan. 29) to demonstrators calling for governments to scrap COVID-19 related mandates.
Videos circulating on social media capture a uniformed VicPD officer giving a thumbs up – while driving an Esquimalt Division police car along Belleville Street – amidst a crowd gathered near the B.C. legislature. Thousands attended the area that day to call for an end to provincial and federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
While the city’s police chief claimed the officer’s gesture “was responding to appreciative comments from citizens,” one expert who studies police communication and perception said the gesture opens the door for the public to question the local force’s credibility and bias.
Victoria police Chief Const. Del Manak said that when he first saw the video Monday, he “initially viewed it with concern since impartiality and neutrality are key to serving our community as police officers.”
“I have since spoken to the officer, who told me that he was responding to appreciative comments from citizens about VicPD’s presence in ensuring public safety at this event,” Manak said in a statement.
He added that while police impartiality and neutrality are essential when attending protests, “so is proactive engagement with protest participants and bystanders in the interest of public safety.”
Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins, who co-chairs the Victoria and Esquimalt police board, was not aware of the video when Black Press Media asked for comment early on Monday afternoon.
“I have requested the police board be given a report on this to inform us,” Desjardins said in an email.
While Manak contends the officer’s action was not showing support for the demonstrators’ cause, Michelle Bonner, a University of Victoria political science professor, said the thumbs-up was an odd choice, as it can be perceived that the officer is taking a side on the protest.
“Ideally, the police are established in most countries as being apolitical,” said Bonner, who has researched how police present themselves to the public for the last two decades. Police are supposed to apply the law equally, she added, so it’s essential that they at least seem absent of political stances.
“It’s very important to their legitimacy to be perceived as politically neutral,” she said. “If they’re taking a position on a particular protest, be it positive or negative, they’re communicating to the public that some citizens’ actions are acceptable to them and some citizens’ actions are not acceptable to them – not based on law, but based on (an officer’s) own perception.”
“We don’t want a police force making choices based on their perception, but based on the law.”
Questions on police bias can arise if they approach enforcement differently with different protest groups, Bonner said. “That all undermines the idea of police neutrality.”
Asked if guidelines exist that bar on-duty officers from showing support for partisan causes, both the City of Victoria and the Ministry of Public Safety directed Black Press Media to Victoria police.
VicPD said in an email Tuesday that it operates under a Fair and Impartial Policing policy, which supports bias-free policing, and respects and adheres to the principles in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Impartiality is a common-law standard throughout our legal system,” said Const. Cam MacIntyre. “Police have the common law duty of fairness.”
The officer who gave the thumbs up to the crowd also appears to not be wearing a mask when the video was taken. VicPD said their mask policy aligns with the current public health order, so officers are not expected to wear a mask when alone in a police vehicle.
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