4 min

One contact at a time

Det Roz Shakespeare wants to build bridges

DIVERSITY TRAINING NEEDED. Det Roz Shakespeare thinks cops need diversity training added to their curriculum. It was chopped after the provincial government cut funding. Shakespeare also wants to take gay-positive messages to the schools. Credit: Robin Perelle

A lot changed for Det Roz Shakespeare on a cold November day in 2001. That was the day she walked with 2,000 other queers down Davie St to protest and mourn Aaron Webster’s fatal gay-bashing in Stanley Park.

Until that November day, Shakespeare thought Vancouver was a fairly safe place to be gay. Webster’s death proved her wrong.

“I was tremendously affected by Aaron’s murder,” she says. The bashing jolted her into action-after it sent her spiralling.

“For this to happen on my beat, on my turf, in my city where I’m a cop supposed to be doing things to protect people…” she trails off.

“I marched that day, not only as a police officer but as a member of my community. I decided that as out and proud as I was, I wanted to be outer and prouder.”

Shakespeare was already pretty out and proud by the time Webster was murdered in 2001. The first cop to ever transition as an out transsexual on the Vancouver police force, she says she still doesn’t know any other trans officers serving in Canada today.

Her full title, as she puts it, is post-operative male-to-female transsexual lesbian. “When you put ‘detective’ in front of that it gets to be really long,” she jokes, reminding me, once again, to just call her Roz.

After the march, Shakespeare wasted little time in putting her new determination to serve the gay community into action. As a member of the Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) diversity relations unit, she began exploring ways to curb the growing bashing problem in the West End.

Then a new challenge arose. Shakespeare was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder five months after the march and forced to take some time off work.

It was a difficult time. The combination of Webster’s murder and the Sep 11 attacks in the US had triggered some hidden pain inside of her, she says candidly. For one thing, she began to recover memories of being sexually abused as a child.

Her colleagues were very supportive. They encouraged her to take the time off she needed. They even said she could stay on stress leave until she officially retired in August 2003.

But Shakespeare had a different plan in mind. Just 10 months from her official retirement date, she decided that she wasn’t ready to leave the force, after all. Her work wasn’t done.

“I wanted to finish what I started,” she says. “I wanted to leave the organization on a high note-with some kind of legacy I could be proud of.”

So, almost a year to the day after Webster was murdered, Shakespeare drew up a job description for a brand new position. Four days later, she was back at work-as the VPD’s first-ever full-time GLBT Programs Coordinator.

Now she spends her days in a new, minimalist office. She asked for, and received, a cell phone and an unmarked car (except for the “police on duty” decal on the dashboard). She says that’s all she needs right now to be there for the community and to respond to whatever the people say they need.

She could have retired, just five months from now, with a full pension. Instead, Shakespeare has just signed on for at least another two years of serving the gay community.

This job is “so important to me,” she explains. She’s determined not to leave the VPD until she’s confident that she has created a solid structure and trained a replacement to take her place.

That’s not all she’s determined to leave in place.

Her first order of business, she says, is to help build more trust between the VPD and the gay community. And the first step to accomplishing that is to make sure every officer and 911 operator is made aware of gay issues and needs.

One way to ensure that officers get the information they need is to reinstate the gay-specific training they used to get at the Justice Institute.

New recruits used to get more than just the general “diversity” training they get today, Shakespeare explains. They used to get an additional 80 hours of social awareness training and community speakers-including gay speakers. Shakespeare herself used to speak to the recruits as an out transsexual.

But a recent round of provincial budget cuts stripped that all away. “How do you make officers aware when 80 hours of their training has been eliminated?” she asks.

It’s not just the VPD, she hastens to add. Every municipal police force in BC is being affected by these training cuts. This was not a VPD decision, she emphasizes.

But the VPD may have a special responsibility to supplement its new officers’ training, she suggests, especially when their rookies are posted to the West End.

Chief Jamie Graham is non-committal. He says the VPD has a responsibility to deliver “as much quality training” as it can-but he is not planning to add any gay-specific training at this time.

It’s a question of priorities, he explains. Though educating officers about gay issues is important, it has to be weighed against countless other projects that are also vying for funding.

Shakespeare maintains that the existing general diversity training is not enough. “A specific awareness of the gay community is important,” she says.

Which is not to say that she thinks the VPD bears full responsibility for improving the relationship between its officers and the gay community. The community has to do its part, too, she says. And that starts with reporting every bashing.

She readily acknowledges that a lot of queers still have trouble trusting the police. “But that trust has to happen somewhere,” she says. And she has a message for everyone who has had trouble with the VPD in the past: “I’m sorry.”

She also has a promise. From now on, she’ll be there for anyone who has a problem with the VPD or 911, to help them navigate the system and get the support they deserve.

But Shakespeare won’t be content with simply building trust. She is also taking active steps to try to make the West End safer for queers. And she’s starting at the root of the problem: homophobia in schools.

She recently asked to join the Vancouver school board’s new queer advisory committee. Together, she hopes they’ll put on workshops in schools and talk to gymnasiums full of children about fighting homophobia and embracing difference.

As essential as tackling the root of the problem is, Shakespeare also wants to make the streets of the West End safer now. Towards that end, she plans to launch a new “safe haven” neighbourhood watch program soon. She’s hoping to create a safe strip through the heart of the Davie Village, where members of the gay community can run into selected stores for help in an emergency.

And that’s just the beginning. Shakespeare plans to expand the program throughout Vancouver as soon as possible.

But it all starts with trust, she reiterates. Building trust is “incredibly important. And we build that one contact at a time.”