3 min

Looking at police liaison committees

Some cities seem more successful than others

Police liaison committees are commonplace in most of Canada’s large cities.

But although they serve a purpose, how effective are they and why are some more success-ful than others?

Ann Field is completing her thesis at Carleton University on hate crime sentencing and police relations with the GLBT community and has studied in depth several liaison committees across Canada. She says it’s not fair to compare the different committees because each has their own agenda. She says while Ottawa may focus on hate crime and GLBT safety, Toronto deals with police harassment and police relations.

Field says the Ottawa committee is successful in its efforts because of involvement from all levels of the community and the police.

“Having high-ranking officers at the table is necessary, as well, support from the chief makes a big difference, compared to Vancouver or Toronto whose committees have only patrol constables present at meetings.”

She says the gay community in Ottawa doesn’t mind the committee working with police, unlike Toronto where there is criticism from members of the community for giving any co-operation.

But not everyone shares Field’s views about the Ottawa. Douglas Janoff, who just finished writing a book on homophobic violence and gay-bashing, says the substantial police presence at committee meetings is not beneficial.

“A liaison committee is more effective if it creates a core group of community activists that could fan out at the grassroots level,” he says. “All the strategy is taking place in the same room with police. We need to meet in our own space and discuss issues important to the queer community, then go to the police and say, ‘These are our issues.'”

Janoff questions whether meeting once a month with police is really necessary, and wonders if more people from the community would attend meetings if they were held in a more neutral place than police headquarters.

“There’s no mechanism in place to draw people to the meeting. One meeting I was at, there were more police or criminal justice personnel than people from the community, giving a real bureaucratic feel to it. There just didn’t seem to be a spark from the community. What was their priority, it was hard to find.”

Janoff says there may have been a reason for the current committee make-up at one time, but it’s now time to re-consider how representative of the community these meetings are. He says it’s now difficult to separate the issues of the community from those of the police.

In Calgary, relations between the police and the gay community have been very strained since last December’s raid on the Goliath bathhouse. Members of the community were outraged, saying the raid was another example of how police continue to harass gays.

Stephen Lock, a member of the Calgary liaison committee, says the raid has damaged the relationship between the committee and police.

“There’s a feeling that despite all the talk about building bridges with the GLBT community, there is also the feeling we were ignored,” says Lock.

He says it’s evident the police have no understanding of GLBT issues and that is an attitude the committee has to rectify. Even after the committee finally got to meet with Calgary police chief Jack Beaton, five months after the raid, Lock says it was a waste of time.

“It was obvious the chief had no idea of GLBT issues and declined to even discuss the bathhouse raid which was the point of the meeting to begin with.” Lock says the police claim to understand diversity issues, but didn’t listen to what the community was saying.

But despite the setback, Lock still supports such committees.

“Overall, committees are the right direction to take,” says Lock. “They give the police force some insight into GLBT issues and give our community some understanding of policing services.”

Lock is confident the Calgary committee can achieve the work they set out to do, but personally feels it will take some time to rebuild any trust. “Police stated for a long time they were not interested in Goliath, yet they raided it anyhow. They say they are not interested in tearoom or park sex, but I don’t believe them.”

According to Ann Field, the success or failure of a committee depends more upon that level of trust than leadership from either the gay community or the police. A committee just can’t be formed, exist and meet.

In Vancouver, the police department’s liaison to the GLBT community admits that she is still working to build up that trust.

“There is still some strong mistrust of the police by the community,” says Detective Roz Shakespeare. “After all it was a criminal offence 30 years ago to be gay. As both a lesbian and a police officer I have to try to bring both groups together and build trust and empathy.”

Vancouver doesn’t have a liaison committee like Ottawa or Calgary; instead there is a Diversity Advisory Committee (DAC) that represents more than just the gay community.

She says after the murder of Aaron Webster two members of DAC went to the gay community to calm things down and after the Sep 11 attacks in New York, committee members went to the Muslim community to calm fears of any reprisals.

“We find this method works for us. It’s constantly evolving. The committee meets monthly and in different locations in the city,” she says.

In the end, says Cynthia Cousens, the chair of the Ottawa committee, it may come down to simply whether community leaders are able to trust the police leadership.

“Some committees work and others don’t because of the relationship or lack of with key representatives.”