At first glance, our new police chief seems like a pretty nice guy. After all, he made it a point to march in our Pride parade and he seems genuinely committed to providing “unbiased service.”
But his commitment to queers only goes so far. In a recent interview with Xtra West, he couldn’t identify our community’s most pressing issues and had no plans to look into the matter himself.
Instead, he seems content to rely on the straight head of his diversity policing unit —a man who, by his own admission, isn’t informed enough about gay issues.
Granted, John deHaas also seems like a genuinely good guy, someone who has given a lot of thought to the best ways to serve minority communities, especially those who may distrust the police.
DeHaas now heads a section he himself restructured last year, a section that actively wants to know which minority communities are under-reporting crimes, which ones are over-represented as suspects, and why.
Sounds good to me. The problem is the gay community isn’t high on his radar.
Asked how many gay and lesbian officers are on his diversity unit, he eventually concedes that the answer is none.
Asked what happened to the gay liaison position —a position once considered a staffing priority by upper Vancouver Police Department management committed to filling it on a full-time basis and keeping it focused on gay issues —deHaas reveals that position has been dropped.
“We have very few officers that are designated for only one community. We just don’t have the staff,” he explains. “We have one aboriginal liaison officer. We’re trying to get that back to two. We used to have two, years ago. We don’t even have a South Asian. We used to have two, but because of staffing crunches, we have none right now. That’s unbelievable.”
I’m sure it is, and I am not for a second begrudging the aboriginal community its liaison, nor am I minimizing the lack of resources and staffing shortages. But I don’t think we should accept our community liaison’s elimination so easily.
This is a position that was created in the wake of Aaron Webster’s brutal gaybashing in 2001. A position that many heralded at the time as essential to building trust between the gay community and the Vancouver Police Department, to opening communication lines long strained and establishing connections that may even prevent future slayings.
A position that former West End Insp Val Harrison said she was committed to filling and maintaining. “I think we need to send a message that this really matters to us,” she told me in 2003.
Fast-forward four years. What happened to that commitment? What happened to the importance of maintaining communication with our community?
I could understand its elimination if our community’s relationship with the police was so entirely healed that we’d all feel truly comfortable calling the police in the miserable event of a gaybashing. But that’s not the case, even deHaas concedes.
There is a “lack of trust with the police still,” he told Xtra West after meeting with representatives from The Centre. “They indicated that there were still very serious concerns” about the under-reporting of gaybashings, not to mention domestic violence within gay relationships.
You don’t say.
I appreciate the fact that deHaas met with The Centre, and that he plans to meet with them again.
But it’s only a first step. We need more dedicated resources within the diversity unit and more mandatory, regular sensitivity training for every officer on the force.
The gay community has “not been the number one community on my radar,” deHaas admits.
It’s not that I blame him exactly; we have, as a community, been kind of quiet on policing issues in the last few years. But states of superficial comfort can make us all dangerously complacent.
After Aaron’s vicious beating, a lot of people swore his death would not be in vain. If nothing else, they said, his death would build bridges with the police, strengthen communication lines and drive home the need to focus on gay safety to prevent further gaybashings.
What does it mean now that those lines of communication have all but crumbled?