4 min

Police chief’s small-town baggage

Ottawa's top cop answers our questions on queer topics

Credit: (Samnang Touch)

Vernon White is not a city man. Ottawa’s new chief of police was hired from the sprawling Toronto commuter towns of Whitby, Oshawa and Ajax. When he arrives on May 22, he’ll bring with him a lot of baggage traditionally associated with the suburbs, including a fear of sex workers and a belief that crack pipe programs promote addiction.

And he freely admits that he knows nothing about queer issues.

“To be fair and to be brutally frank, I have no idea [about gay and lesbian concerns], and that will be discussions we’ll have,” says White speaking to Capital Xtra from his current post as chief of the Durham Regional Police Service [DRPS] in southern Ontario.

“From a diversity perspective, diversity is more than race, more than culture. It crosses all boundaries. And I think these are the types of conversations we have to have with these communities and ask them what it is that they’re facing, and how it is that the police can assist them in ensuring them that they live in the same safe environment that I live in. I’m hoping it’s [the dialogue is] already open, but if it isn’t I guarantee it will be.”

White says he did not encounter a gay community in his two years leading the DRPS — in fact, he doesn’t know if one exists.

“We don’t have a large gay and lesbian movement in Durham, it’s not a discussion I can even have. I’m not even sure we have gay establishments.”

When it comes to discussing the sex trade and how he plans to approach it, White has more to say. He is strongly opposed to body-rub parlours, which have recently become subject to a bylaw limiting the number that can exist in the city, along with restricting possible locations.

Historically, gays have faced issues of overpolicing — especially where gay sex is concerned. Although queer activists have denounced Ottawa’s new bylaw as moral prudery, White has no qualms with seeing an end to body-rub parlours. Many worry that the bylaw will lead to a crackdown on ground-level establishments, causing a boom in underground, unregulated establishments.

“I have a real challenge understanding that it’s more than what you’re hearing … They don’t bring positives to any community from my perspective,” White says.

“I’ve seen rub-down parlours in the last couple of years here. We’ve run operations in there and it was nothing more than illegal acts. Someone would have to show me the one that’s okay,” he says.

“When they start in the community, they start to take over. They grow very quickly. But again, they have a client base: that’s the challenge.”

He indicates that patrons of sex workers will also face increased police pressure under White.

“I think for me that’s where the major criminality focus has to be, is on the john … I think you really have to make it uninhabitable for johns to continue to behave in this manner, while at the same time dealing with some of these issues that some of these prostitutes find themselves in,” he says.

According to White, crack was not prevalent in Durham, and practically non-existent when he worked as a commanding officer for the RCMP in Nunavut.

The new chief says he is seeking information on how successful crack-pipe distribution programs — such as the one that exists in Ottawa through the AIDS Committee of Ottawa — are.

Mayor Larry O’Brien pledged to end the program during the municipal election last year, even though the rate of HIV infection for crack users has fallen from 39 per year to 12 since the crack-pipe distribution program started in 2005.

“I guess my concern — as a police officer first, and secondly as a community member — is that it flies in the face of everything I’ve learned, to give drug paraphernalia to anybody. I understand the exchange of needles program, because you’re taking a dirty needle away and providing a clean needle. At least I understand that,” says White.

“I guess the challenge I have, and what I’m trying to figure out and get evidence on, is what we see in reducing disease, reducing HIV for example, by giving out crack pipes.”

“Young people, they will think, ‘well it can’t be that bad if the government is giving them out. Police are okay with it.’ Does it outweigh the possible positive effects of not sharing those utensils?” says White.

“All that to say I haven’t really been challenged to tell me that giving out crack pipes is a good idea. I haven’t seen it yet.”

All of which you might expect from the former police chief of a commuter-based municipality.

But two areas hard-line moralists have never found interesting — restorative justice and community policing – are policies White has embraced.

“All of us have found ourselves on the wrong path at one point in our lives at least, and many times somebody has been there to help us onto a better path. Those people help us get where we are,” says White.

“Give people the opportunity to get on the right track, other than the one they’ve been on with is to the criminal justice system, which has a high rate of re-offending. I am a big proponent of [restorative justice].”

He also supports putting people “on the right track” rather than putting them through the criminal justice system, which carries with it a high risk or re-offending.

It might sound a bit too familiar to Ottawans. Moralize about the lifestyle of downtowners, especially the homeless, especially drug users, especially sex workers. Offer them help, but only if they agree to change their lifestyles. Whereas harm reduction approaches deal with people in their real life, he prefers to call the crack pipe program, which protects drug users from contracting hepatitis and HIV, counterproductive.

If there’s good news in all this, it’s that Vernon White appears willing to listen. He readily acknowledges his ignorance on our issues, and wants to familiarize himself with our community. But with conservative heads of both city council and the Ottawa Police Services, we’re going to have to speak plenty loudly.