9 min

‘It’s not just tolerance, it’s celebration’

No room for discrimination, says new top cop

Credit: Natasha Barsotti

Jim Chu, who assumed the mantle of Vancouver’s chief of police in August, says his 28-plus years on the city’s force reflect an ongoing commitment to human rights and a celebration of diversity.

Chu joined the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) in 1979 at the age of 19 and has held, among other titles, the position of diversity relations inspector. It was during that period, back in 1997, that he crafted a hate crime policy for BC that included sexual orientation.

Attending Pride parades, he notes, is not a stretch for him. In fact, he’d like to see a larger VPD entry next year.

The gay community is important and will receive, under his tenure, “unbiased police service,” Chu promises.

Chu recently sat down with Xtra West to share his perspective on the current and future relationship of the VPD to the queer community. Here is an excerpt from that interview.

Xtra West: How was the Pride parade?

Police chief Jim Chu: The Pride parade was a lot of fun. I’ve been in the Pride parade before. But what I really felt like was that there was so much appreciation for the Vancouver Police Department. It was actually an uplifting experience to have people applaud us as a group, and so I’d like to have an increased presence next year. I’m working on the pipe band to come out with me. We have to upstage those firefighters with their water balloons.

XW: Why was this important to you, to mark [the parade] as the new police chief?

JC: I’ve attended before, so I wasn’t going in the Pride parade just because I’m the new chief. I’ve always believed in celebrating diversity, but especially as chief I really had to be there, to set the message and tone that we believe in diversity and policing all of our communities in the city.

XW: What message were you sending to the gay community?

JC: That as the new person in charge of the organization, the gay community was very important and that they will receive unbiased police service, and if I can be a symbol of that, then that’s why I needed to be there at the Pride parade.

XW: What is your sense of the concerns the gay community has with regard to policing?

JC: I’ve been in the Vancouver Police Department now for 28 and half years. My first assignment was actually in the West End and working the downtown area, and that’s when probably the gay community was not as public as it is now. I think we’re now in a place where it’s not just tolerance, it’s celebration. And I like that about our city, and I think that’s what makes our city great. So I do want the Vancouver Police Department to police the community in a way that they feel they receive unbiased attention, they receive the same service as any other community in the city. That’s a very important priority of mine.

XW: Have you heard from the gay community about what the concerns are?

JC: Certainly, there’s concerns that arise every once in a while but, you know, I would say sometimes no news is good news, and we haven’t heard big issues come up lately… unless you’re gonna tell me about something (laughs).

One of the recent cases that we handled, the Aaron Webster homicide, just the effort we put into it, and there were some creative investigative techniques we used in that case. And then we met with some members of the family after, and just the effort that we put into those —I think actions speak louder than words. We’re not going to go to a bunch of meetings and say, ‘Yeah, we’re friends, whatever.’ The service we give will actually determine what our level of support in that community is.

XW: How do you plan to meet the gay community’s safety needs in concrete terms?

JC: We have some very effective officers in many areas. It starts with our community policing officers, the crime prevention community centre that we have in Coal Harbour. Those are effective liaisons. I will visit the Association of Crime Prevention board meetings, and I do meet people from all cities there. We have an inspector in charge of downtown; we have a superintendent in charge of the whole north command. And if it’s appropriate at certain events that I come, then I’d be more than happy to do that. And I’ve actually been out meeting many community groups, especially early in my tenure. I would say right now I haven’t been invited yet to meet [with the gay community], so I feel like no news is good news, right? No one’s saying, ‘Chief, we need to meet with you, and there’s some issues we have.’ That said, I’m open to whatever might come up.

XW: What about, instead of waiting, being proactive and saying as police chief you’d like to meet with members?

JC: Yes, it is something that… yeah.

I have my advisors and people who say there are certain key groups we need to meet with. There’s a list of those groups, and so I don’t know if I have it on the calendar yet, but that is something that is important, yes.

XW: Do you think the VPD’s officers have enough gay sensitivity training?

JC: I’ll answer that in a two-part question. Number one, we select people very carefully, and there are specific questions and background investigation focuses that we have to ensure that person is someone that would provide unbiased service, that they’re not homophobic or against certain cultures or ways of life. So we have people that celebrate diversity that we hire, and that’s really important for us.

The second thing is, yes, there is some ongoing training and awareness.

We have a full-time inspector —so a high-level officer that works under the chief’s office —in charge of diversity and aboriginal relations. So that person is out in the community a lot, too. And I take a cue from him, Insp John deHaas. And so if there is need for more training in different things, then we will put that in.

XW: Can you give a sense of how that training is handled now? Are there specific workshops, or time set aside to have officers attend diversity training?

JC: We have had workshops, and right now, these workshops are ongoing. We have, like I say, the inspector in charge of that area. He actually has a better idea of the ongoing, more recent stuff that I do.

XW: You recall the recent bathroom sting involving the US senator Larry Craig. Do you have any officers on bathhouse or bathroom patrol?

JC: We’re not focused on that type of enforcement right now…. It’s not a priority.

XW: Toronto, from time to time, has had bathhouse raids. That is not something you foresee happening under your tenure?

JC: I wouldn’t even say that has come on our radar screen at all. I don’t foresee it happening. I don’t recall it happening in the last 15, 20 years.

XW: Do you have a position on consensual bathroom sex among gay people?

JC: You know, I don’t.

This is not just between gay people. Even if it’s heterosexual couples, if they’re engaging in sex in public places, and little kids are using the bathroom, right, and it disturbs people, then we’ll probably take some action, right? But that would not be confined to gay liaisons or heterosexuals. It would just be the behaviour that is inappropriate.

Having said that, I don’t recall any complaints. So I think the good thing is our community is being discreet.

XW: How representative is your police force? How many out gay officers do you have?

JC: I know we have openly gay male and female officers. We had an officer that had a sex change operation. And there are many people that have come out and publicly said it, and they’re accepted. And there’re some people that haven’t said it but they don’t make any secret about it.

All I can say is that the officers that have chosen to make it well known have been supported, their peers support them. My message to all of our officers is we support it. And it’s almost a non-issue. It really is.

I was a former sergeant in recruiting, and when I was there literally 11 years ago, we hired officers that were gay. I interviewed many of them. I was the former deputy chief in that area, so I oversaw the background files, and we hired lots of officers with diverse lifestyles. It’s not an issue in Vancouver right now.

I encourage the community to apply, actually. And we’ve actually done outreach. We’ve had recruiting fairs and we need officers, and we need people that have a history of integrity and initiative and good people skills, and so I encourage people from all communities to apply.

It’s also important to have people from all communities as part of the Vancouver Police Department. It’s really healthy to have that mix. It wasn’t always like that.

XW: Is there a sense that you, as police chief, and the VPD will advertise in Xtra West or in gay publications for officers?

JC: We have advertised in Xtra West before.

XW: Do you remember when?

JC: If you go back to my time in recruiting.

Right now, I don’t make the decisions on where we advertise. They’ve got some good advisors for them, and we’re not advertising in any papers right now.

That’s not to say we wouldn’t advertise if the right demographic was there, so all I know is that we’re actually not even… My recollection for the last while is we haven’t advertised in any papers.

XW: Would you consider having a recruiting booth at Pride?

JC: We would consider it but we’ve done it in the past, and quite frankly, everybody wants to have a good time and they weren’t really that interested in coming by the booth. So we thought just being visible and handing out recruiting information and having the people wave was probably just as good advertising than having a booth. We had both straight and gay officers in the parade, and it was a great turnout.

XW: Do you plan to keep the Diversity Advisory Committee?

JC: Yes. We’ve got some good representation there, and it’s something that Insp John deHaas helps with. I helped set that up back in 1996. The inaugural committee was put together with myself under then deputy chief Terry Blythe.

XW: How many gay representatives do you have on it now?

JC: I’d say there’s about two or three people.

XW: Are they out?

JC: They’re out, yeah.

XW: In a committee of how many people?

JC: About 14 people.

XW: As a person of colour, what were your initial experiences in the VPD? Did you face discrimination?

JC: I’ll answer that question by saying every organization that had been used to certain ways, whenever change happens, there is some bumps in the road. There’s things that officers I’ve dealt with, there’re always respectful, they’re accepting, but you know, there’s occasional boneheads that you had to deal with. I know officers that deal with boneheads on issues that are not related to anything with ethnicity or sexual orientation.

I will just say the organization has changed a lot. Quite frankly, I would say when I started in 1979, my awareness was there were no openly gay officers, okay? And then over the next 10, 20 years it changed, and more and more officers felt comfortable in expressing what their background was.

XW: At that time, were you hearing more discriminatory sorts of language and you’re saying that’s changed?

JC: The language of officers changes with the times, right? Back in ’79, most of the officers, especially the ones that were leaving were hired right after World War II. So they grew up in different eras. If you think of your grandfather, or parents if they’re older, the era they grew up in was different. And that’s the kind of officer we had. The era that the current officers are growing up in is different, much more celebratory of diversity. I think that’s a good thing.

XW: Does your background as a visible person of colour give you an understanding of community needs?

JC: I think it does because the irony is the way the city is so diverse, right, what is the minority? I think also my life experiences —growing up in Canada, being an ethnic minority —you have certain experiences that shape your thinking. I probably have a different way of thinking about certain things than a Caucasian male does.

XW: Would you say there still exists an old boys’ club in the VPD?

JC: You know I’ve always looked for that old boys’ club to join it.

I remember —I’ll just say quite frankly, I’m the longest serving manager in the VPD. I was promoted to inspector in 1997. In 1998, there was an article about the old boys’ club and all that, and they talked about the officers’ mess, right?

And I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’m the vice-president of the mess,’ and believe me it’s not an elitist club. I’m the guy that has to buy the pop and haul it up the elevator, right?

And I’m reading the newspaper saying ‘this old boys’ club,’ and thinking, ‘Where is it?’

So I think that was more of something that was not in reality. You know, yeah, maybe there are one or two officers who have a clique going but you have that in every organization.

XW: Is there an old straight boys’ club, then?

JC: The answer is certainly you had certain officers that are set in their ways and had certain attitudes, and while maybe openly would not communicate that, privately you probably thought they were not as accepting as they could or should be. But I think those officers have been long gone.

XW: Do you get a sense that homophobic attitudes still exist but they are unspoken because of a climate of political correctness? Or do you genuinely believe that the VPD is truly accepting?

JC: I believe they’re truly accepting. I do. I have family members that are gay, so I’m quite protective of them. And I watch for it too. I think we’ve progressed. I do.

Yes, there are some older people, they’re in their 60s and 70s, that might be curmudgeons about it, some, and like I say, they grew up in a different era. That said, I know many, many elderly people that are very accepting.