4 min

Police department dilutes gay liaison

'It's not been the number one community on my radar': deHaas

Credit: Natasha Barsotti photo

A full-time police liaison dedicated to gay issues no longer exists at the Vancouver Police Department (VPD), five years after now-retired detective Roz Shakespeare created the position in the wake of Aaron Webster’s 2001 killing.

“I think in an ideal world, it would,” says Insp John deHaas, noting that very few officers are designated for only one community these days.

“We just don’t have the staff. We used to have two South Asian liaisons, we got zero now. We used to have two aboriginals; we’re down to one. I’ve certainly had a request in for more staff, and I’ve received very little. It would be wonderful. Is it realistic at this time? No,” says deHaas, who heads the VPD’s Diversity and Aboriginal Policing Section under the police chief’s office.

DeHaas, who has been the section manager for about a year, says he authored the business plan that lumped aboriginal policing and diversity issues together with an inspector in charge.

Shakespeare originally created the gay liaison position a year after Webster’s fatal beating, to build trust between the gay community and the VPD, strengthen communication and make other officers aware of gay needs.

In 2003, then-West End Insp Val Harrison said she was committed to keeping the position full-time and staffed.

“The focus is the gay community,” she assured Xtra West a year later, firmly dismissing allegations that the VPD was trying to dilute the position and add non-gay matters to its purview.

“Part of what we’re working on now is attempting to determine which communities are having issues,” says DeHaas, “so that we can reach out to the communities in a partnership and clarify what the public safety issues are, and then what might be the drivers,” he explains, adding that each “community will know that better than us.”

DeHaas admits there are no gay officers in the new section but says there are “a lot” of out officers in the VPD.

Asked if anyone is handling gay issues for the section, deHaas told Xtra West last month that there’s an outreach officer whose responsibilities included acting as liaison to the queer community but the position would soon be vacant as the current occupant was transferring in accordance with VPD policy.

DeHaas acknowledges the queer community probably has “no idea who I am.”

He also says he’s not “informed enough” about the queer community’s concerns, adding “it’s not been the number one community on my radar.

“The aboriginal community has been. Resources, and huge issues with the aboriginal community,” he points out.

Shakespeare feels a liaison dedicated to the gay community would still be ideal.

“It sounds to me that all resources have been pulled back. I think the LGBT community is a fairly large community that speaks a different language to any other diverse community. Ideally, it would be nice to have a member that deals with that community exclusively,” she contends, ” but I don’t know at this moment, and from the police dept’s perspective, whether there’s enough need there.”

DeHaas says he’s interested in an anti-violence pilot study The Centre conducted showing that gaybashing, relationship violence —and the under-reporting of both —are still high on the community’s list of concerns.

In meeting with The Centre’s Michael Harding and Peter Toppings, deHaas says a lack of trust in the police was also flagged as a concern.

“I suggested maybe we establish —instead of going meeting to meeting —a working group, and they were excited about that,” deHaas says.

“We’re at the point of forming some terms of reference around that and continuing to talk about the safety issues: how do we collectively clarify what they are, how do we put some strategies — one of which has got to be about relationships —and then how do we actually get the violence to come down if that is a key community issue,” he explains.

“That may be awareness training for people, I don’t know. I wouldn’t guess what they are. That’s sort of where we’re at.”

Shakespeare says that might be a good place to start, but she hopes the working group is not a way of mollifying the community without accomplishing anything concrete.

For his part, Little Sister’s co-owner Jim Deva doesn’t feel the queer community should demand a full-time officer dedicated to queer issues, citing the shortage of police officers and the reality of the crises that are hitting other communities alienated from the police department.

“We definitely need a close relationship with the police. We need some specialized work to be done, but I can’t imagine eight hours a day, five days a week. I really can’t,” says Deva.

“I suppose if we approach this from a reasonably selfish, sort of self-centred kind of concept, we could demand that there be a full-time liaison officer but I don’t think that would be fair to the other communities that also need support and liaison and work.

“It’s still important that there be liaison with members from the community, that they’re putting out fires, that they’re being preventative in a lot of their practices, but I don’t think we need a full-time officer.”

The major work needs to be done within the police department, he emphasizes, pointing out that “we don’t hear what happens internally.”

West Enders Against Violence Everywhere co-founder Ron Stipp still thinks there’s a need for a dedicated person —even as he acknowledges the “immensely” improved relationship between the police and the queer community, and says he feels “really positive” about the new police chief, Jim Chu.

The working group idea is a step in the right direction but it’s only an interim solution, Stipp says.

“I’m sure that most people do believe that [a dedicated position] is still a necessary thing to have,” Stipp stresses. “It just gives us a person we can go to, that understands queer issues, that we can work with if we are having a problem.

“I would say to the chief and the VPD that a dedicated officer is the way to go. And when they have the resources to do that, they should do that.”