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Vancouver police chief lashes out at 'misleading' riot expert's criticism

VANCOUVER - Vancouver's police chief is lashing out against critics who say officers should have followed recommendations of a report from a 1994 riot in the city, saying the man claiming to have written it did no such thing.

Jim Chu said Tuesday in a letter to staff that Bob Whitelaw has made "misleading" comments about the Vancouver Police Department's failures in responding to last week's riot.

Chu, who encouraged staff to share the letter with friends and family, said an earlier report by Whitelaw on the 1994 riot was rejected by the B.C. Police Commission and that a new report didn't use of any of his material.

"Many of Mr. Whitelaw's recommendations in his discarded report were rejected as unrealistic, and recommended a police reaction disproportionate to the offence being committed," Chu said.

"Can you imagine the public outcry if we had zero tolerance on horn honking?" the chief added.

Chu said several news organizations have interviewed Whitelaw as an expert since last week's riot, but that the former civil servant's statements aren't based on any expertise.

Whitelaw said he was hired as a researcher who also did some administrative work on the report. He said he never claimed to have authored it.

"With the media, I tried in each case to say I was part of the study team and the report was issued by the BC Police Commission," he said from Ottawa.

"I did keep a copy of the report and I was photographed with that and some media said:`Here's Bob with his report.' Well, it was the police commission's report and that may have caused some questions, concerns.

"Certainly I was not the author, I was the fact finder and team member behind the scene."

Whitelaw said he emailed the Vancouver Police Department on June 1, 2011, with 15 points identified in the 1994 report and pitched himself as a consultant.

He didn't get a reply.

"My problem, I guess, is I was trying to reach out to the community and say, `Look, this report did take place by the police commission, work was done 17 years ago and it may be useful to reflect on some of the findings."

Whitelaw said reporters called him for comment after the riot that followed the final Stanley Cup game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Boston Bruins, and he provided his opinion.

"I was asked to comment, which I did, because there weren't any major comments coming out from people who may have been involved (with the report) in '94," he said.

"At the time, it seemed that some value might be given from an independent point of view."

The 1994 B.C. Police Commission report was never released publicly. Reporters who have asked for it since have been told to submit a freedom of information request with the City of Vancouver.

In his letter Tuesday, Chu said that even if all its recommendations were followed, there's no guarantee that riots will not occur in the future in Vancouver.

Chu has been stung by criticism that his force should have been better prepared for a potential riot.

A massive police investigation is now underway to arrest those responsible for inciting the riot and for the damage and looting.

The provincial government has put together a team of prosecutors and the publicly funded auto insurer has been given clearance by B.C.'s information and privacy commissioner to allow police to use its facial recognition technology to nab people involved in the riot.

Adam Grossman, a spokesman for the Insurance Corporation of B.C., said since 2009, the public insurer has used the technology to catch theft and fraud related to drivers licences.

He said police would provide images to ICBC, which would try to match them with its database.

Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said ICBC's actions are legal—but only if police first get a court order for the data they're seeking.

"The general principle in the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act is that information that's collected by a government agency for one purpose, such as a driver's licence database, can't be used for another purpose," she said.

But there's a provision in the law for information to be disclosed to the police for law-enforcement purposes, Denham said.

"This is a very, very tricky area of law, especially when government bodies have new technologies and new caches and extensive databases of personal information," she said, calling the data honey pots of information.

But police do not have unfettered access to government databases without judicial oversight, she said, adding that while privacy is an important value, it has to compete with public safety and law enforcement.

"Obviously what happened in Vancouver is very troubling and very serious but police can't override due process and the rule of law."

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has criticized ICBC's co-operation with police in the investigation.

"Facial recognition technology was sold to the B.C. public as preventing fraud," Michael Vonn, a spokeswoman for the association, said Tuesday.

"It would appear there is no purpose in that except for becoming an arm of the Vancouver Police Department."

Denham said she's troubled by the fact that hundreds of thousands of photographs and video images of people at the riot are circulating on the Internet and that those photos could be taken out of context or used for vigilante justice.

"I'm deeply concerned about this vigilante justice on the net and people being forced from their homes and being shamed," she said.

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