5 min

Compromising queer safety?

Sweeping community policing changes spark concern

A plan to expand the jurisdiction of the Davie St community policing centre to include Coal Harbour has split the queer community, drawing fire from some activists and kudos from others.

Frustrated by ongoing street violence and the lack of a visible police presence, some queers believe community safety will be further compromised as resources are stretched to cover a larger area.

“My fear is that it will dilute the police presence in the Village,” says Ron Stipp, a member of West Enders Against Violence Everywhere (WEAVE).

“We’ve asked over and over again to get police out of their cars and onto the streets but it hasn’t happened. We had hoped that the police presence would increase, not decrease. This will mean more bashing, more violence.”

Jim Deva, a well-known queer activist heading the board that governs the community policing centre, disagrees.

He believes increased centre funding, coupled with the Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) recent decision to add some 30 new officers to District One (the zone encompassing Yaletown, the West End and Coal Harbour), is positive news for queers and other downtown residents.

“I think it’s all good,” says Deva. “Service to the LGBT community will not be whittled down, not in any way, shape or form. We have a much larger job but also a bigger budget.”

In the past, five community policing centres served the downtown peninsula, but three of them are now closed.

The Davie St centre survived the cuts, but since it now serves all neighbourhoods west of Burrard St, it has been renamed the West End/Coal Harbour Community Policing Centre (CPC). The centre’s annual budget has increased from $18,000 to $100,000.

Although the centre will now be responsible for a much larger city area, queer issues will continue to be a high priority, says Deva, noting that the top two positions on the centre’s board are held by queers.

“Gays and lesbians are also well represented in all volunteer patrols and in the office,” he notes. “It’s important that the entire community be served, that we all work together.”

While the CPC’s jurisdiction is expanding, the number of police officers assigned to its office will likely remain the same. The centre currently has one Neighbourhood Police Officer (NPO), who has been off on sick leave since May, and is also home to the force’s gay liaison officer, Chris Smith.

The centre board will lobby for a second NPO, says Deva, but a police department spokesperson told Xtra West that request would likely not be granted.

“He [Deva] can try,” says Sgt Walter Argent, the police department’s NPO manager. “I don’t see it happening, but you never know.”

The centre’s board is close to signing a one-year deal for a new, temporary office to house the expanded service near the intersection of Davie and Denman Sts, says Deva. He says the centre will be permanently relocated to a more central location next year.

The old Davie community policing centre in the heart of the gay Village is expected to remain open with a skeleton staff, including gay liaison officer Smith.

Argent told Xtra West Jul 12 that he expects Smith to stay on at the Davie office to maintain a police presence in the volatile area off Bute St if Shoppers Drug Mart continues to offer free space.

Shoppers pharmacy owner Bill McConnachie told Xtra West Jul 13 that the office, fronted off the west wall of the Shoppers building, will continue to be offered to the community. “We did this for the community and my feeling is that it will stay that way as long as it is needed.”

When the expanded West End/Coal Harbour Community Centre opens this fall at the temporary Davie/Denman location, Deva says staffing will be increased to include a full-time, paid coordinator, and a campaign will be launched to double the number of volunteers from 50 to 100.

Current police manpower shortages mean there is no replacement for NPO Mike Cayer, who went on sick leave due to a heart-related illness a few weeks ago, says Argent. Cayer will be assigned to the new centre upon his return in September.

In the meantime, Smith is filling in for Cayer, leaving the force’s gay liaison officer wearing two hats heading into the busiest time of the year. Smith didn’t return Xtra West’s phone messages.

Argent says the VPD is committed to getting police back on foot patrol in the area. “We’re committed to getting people back on the ground.”

But, he says, it will be at least 18 months before there is any noticeable change because time will be needed to hire, train and work new recruits into the system.

Brent Granby, chair of the West End Integrated Neighbourhood Network (WEINN), says the organization supports the community policing centre’s new, expanded role.

WEINN, a West End think-tank comprised of representatives of 11 West End groups including The Centre and the Davie Village Business Improvement Association, believes the expanded service is well positioned to serve the larger catchment area, says Granby.

Community organizations are hopeful the new officers assigned to the downtown core will lead to a greater police presence in the West End, he adds. “There is a lot of room for more visibility of police.”

Brad Chase, a St Paul’s nurse and longtime queer West End resident, says he finds it difficult to believe there is a police officer stationed on Davie St. “I walk that route along Davie at least twice a day and I’ve never seen anyone I’ve identified as a cop walking the beat. I do see cops in police cars but no one visible as a beat cop.

Jack Herman, a co-founder of WEAVE, is reassured by the continuing involvement of Deva in overseeing the community policing centre changes. “My only hesitation is whether the focus will remain on victims of bashing but I think if we have people like Jim Deva involved our issues will be addressed.”

Herman believes the assignment of more officers to service the downtown core is at least a partial victory. “It’s good news. We’ve been asking for more uniformed cops on the beat.”

Stipp says the addition of more officers to District One is “a step in the right direction but we’ve been asking for the last three years to increase the number of cops on the street and now they’re saying wait another year and a half. It just isn’t good enough.”

Velvet Steel, also of WEAVE, is skeptical when it comes to promises of more beat cops. “I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ve heard it all before.”

She, too, is concerned that the expansion of the community centre’s coverage area will dilute the effort to curb queer-bashing.

VPD District One Insp Andy Hobbs confirmed in a telephone interview with Xtra West that a plan is in place to strengthen the police presence downtown over the next couple of years. He estimates the number of officers servicing the region will increase from 120 to 150 because of the large increase in the area’s population. The new officers will be integrated into 10 patrol teams in the district.

Hobbs says city council, police chiefs and deputy chiefs have worked to increase the police presence in the downtown area. “The new officers will certainly help with visibility.”

The VPD has a special plan in place to respond to gaybashing during the summer, historically a violent time of the year for queers, but Hobbs won’t reveal details to protect the integrity of the plan.

“You wouldn’t want to compromise its effectiveness, would you?” he asked.

VPD Insp Steve Schnitzer, the new top cop for District One, told Xtra West Jul 11-his first day on the job-that he would follow the path set out by retiring District One Insp Val Harrison, widely viewed as a friend to the queer community and credited by Deva as substantially furthering queer policing interests.

Schnitzer, a 25-year VPD veteran, says he’s worked hard to establish a reputation as “an open-minded individual” and says he plans to stay the course insofar as maintaining a good rapport with the queer community.