The Canadian Bankers Association has donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Vancouver Police to fight crime—but the money comes with strings attached.
Publicly available documents show that since 2010, the CBA, a lobby group that works to promote the interests of Canadian member banks and foreign banks operating in Canada, has made several cash donations to Vancouver Police. These came with the stipulation that the money be used to fund the Identity Theft Unit, which focuses on crimes involving stolen personal and financial information.
The documents show a payment of $14,050 from the CBA to the Vancouver Police Department in October 2010; another payment of $10,530 in January 2013; and a third payment of $5,000 in January 2016.
The Canadian Council of Better Business Bureaus estimates that identity theft costs banks, victims, credit card companies, and merchants upwards of $2.5 billion a year in losses. But the donations raise the question of whether government bodies should be able to accept donations from corporate interests, especially when the donor has a vested interest in the matter at hand.
Dr. Theresa Miedema, a lawyer and instructor in the Ethics, Society and Law program at the University of Toronto Law School, argues it can leave the impression that a degree of influence has been earned on the part of the donor.
"The [recipient] may feel that it has an obligation to keep the donor happy and... allow the donor to influence decisions, [for example] decisions about the use of resources, investigations, and charging decisions," she said. Add to that, the perception of bias. "Public agencies, especially those that exercise state-sanctioned force, must not only be free of bias, but must appear to be free of bias."
Brian Montague of the Vancouver Police Department confirmed the donations, but noted that it is the Vancouver Police Board, not the Department, that approves all private donations.
He also stressed that "donations to the VPD... are often the only way to fund programs that are not covered by the VPD budget."
Montague provided a link to the VPD policy manual that explains the process that the Department must go through to accept private donations but wouldn't provide details about what specific police activities the CBA donations paid for, saying the information would only be available through a freedom of information request.
VICE Canada sent an email to the CBA asking for the total dollar amount of donations they've made to the Vancouver Police Department and if they've given cash donations to any other municipal police services in Canada.
"As a private organization, we do not disclose this information," Maura Drew-Lytle, director of media relations and communications for CBA, said.
VICE Canada reached out to other police agencies across the country to see if similar donations are ending up in the coffers of police bodies.
A business plan produced by the Peel Regional Police in 2001 describes how the CBA provided material and operational support during an investigation into identity theft and ATM fraud in the region.
"In addition to providing corporate security officers to assist the investigation on a part-time basis, the [Canadian Bankers Association] also provided three leased vehicles and a "communications system for the duration of the project," the document reads.
Asked if the CBA had supported other investigations since 2001, Detective Randy Ackerman with the agency said in an email that he wasn't aware of "any support... provided by the CBA."That being said, it isn't something we would keep a record of," Ackerman said. "An officer running a case may reach out and ask for assistance from a company for resources to assist with an investigation." Ackerman explained that only the officer in charge of an investigation would know about any support provided by a private company.
"If/when [the officer in charge] was requested to produce documentation [of] the expenses of his operation, then the [officer] would have to come up with the expense figures for his operation and how they are being used."
When asked about donations from the CBA, the Edmonton Police Service recommended filing a Freedom of Information request, while Winnipeg Police suggested asking CBA directly. Toronto, York Region and Regina police said they had no records of donations from the association. The Calgary Police Foundation, which accepts donations for the Calgary Police, didn't respond to questions, nor did the Ottawa Police Service.
Of the police agencies contacted, only the Halifax Regional Police reported receiving support from the CBA.
"We received sponsorship from the Canadian Bankers' Association in 2003 when we were the host agency for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) annual conference," said Theresa Rath, public relations manager for the HRP, in an email. "While we collected this money as the host agency, it was subsequently remitted to the CACP."
Rath explained that she couldn't reveal the specific amount of money that the CBA had donated because financial records for the city of Halifax are destroyed after seven years.
The CBA has a history of financially supporting police in British Columbia with both public and private donations. An investigation by journalist Rob Wipond into police associations in the province revealed that in 2012, the CBA donated $10,000 to the British Columbia Association of Chiefs of Police (BCACP), a group that isn't subject to public oversight. That $10k donation from the CBA represented one-fifth of the BCACP's total budget for 2012.
The CBA maintains a fairly high profile when it comes to sponsoring police galas and giving out awards for catching criminals, but these contributions seem quaint when compared with the CBA's behind-the-scenes lobbying for justice system reforms that the Association believes would be good for Canadian banks.
In 2012, the CBA published the British Columbia Justice Reform Initiative Submission, a set of policy recommendations that included a suggestion that the province hand down "tougher sentences" and "increased penalties" for drug users that rob banks. In the words of the CBA, "appropriate sentencing must occur to ensure that there is an opportunity for the drug addiction robbery cycle to be broken". The CBA also bragged that the association's lobbying "has had a positive impact with offenders being dealt with more quickly, and... receiving sentences that are more in line with the penalties given in other jurisdictions in Canada."
According to Dr. Miedema, it's this type of influence that exemplifies concerns about public bodies accepting donations from private donors, especially when the donor is deciding how the money will be spent.
"The perception that a police force is beholden to any particular interest group in society will erode its legitimacy," she says.
"This is a serious issue in a democratic society."