4 min

Police make a ‘mess’

Latest West End bashing preventable

Credit: Robin Perelle

Police handling of a recent bashing has left the victim and other gays saying relations between the queer community and the city’s cops need a lot of work.

But the West End’s top cop says he’s committed to ironing out the bugs.

Velvet Steel says the officers she dealt with on Sep 17 were uncooperative and rude, harkening back to the bad old days when cops routinely dismissed gay complaints and refused to investigate gay-bashings.

In this case, the lead officer neither gave Steel a file number nor made any arrests at the scene, even though the suspects were still present. The officer also refused to hand over her business card and even suggested that Steel was the one breaking the law, Steel says.

Steel, a respected small business owner and post-operation transsexual, says she no longer feels protected by the Vancouver Police Department (VPD)-particularly since the attack could have been prevented.

The evening of Sep 17 began ordinarily enough for Steel and her husband, Ray Pichette. They had dinner at Andale’s Mexican restaurant on Davie St, then took their usual route home at around 10 pm. As they approached the little park at the corner of Cardero and Comox, they ran into a group of about nine teenagers loudly calling people “fags” and “dykes.”

Steel immediately called 911. Though an officer arrived within minutes, all he did was disperse the teens. He did not ask them for any identification, Steel says disgustedly. “The officer basically huffed his shoulders at me, got in his car and drove off.”

Minutes later, the teens re-grouped and converged on Steel and her husband. They allegedly called the couple “fucking faggots”-and then they lunged.

Insp Dave Jones, the VPD’s top cop in the West End, admits that the officer who responded to that first call should have done more. He should have asked the teens for identification and filed a report, Jones says. That is policy in a situation where people are making hate-biased comments.

When asked if the attack was therefore preventable, Jones pauses. “We’re talking chicken and egg, I guess,” he finally says. “I don’t know.”

He says he plans to ask the officer why he failed to follow policy.

Steel is not appeased. Three of her fingers are broken and the bruises on her cheek, leg and foot have yet to completely fade.

One teen, she says, ripped her purse and grocery bag from her shoulders and scattered their contents across the road. When she grabbed him to hold onto him until police could arrive, Steel says two more teens attacked her husband, hitting him until he fell to the ground and lost his glasses.

Hearing the commotion, a neighbour called 911 and minutes later, officers once again arrived on the scene.

But once again, Steel says they failed her. The officers refused to arrest the teens for assault. Instead, one officer told Steel that she could be arrested for holding the teen until they arrived.

Steel was furious. “This is garbage,” she told the officer.

“There’s nothing we can do about it because it’s a he-said-she-said situation,” Steel says the officer replied.

When Steel asked the officer for her business card, the officer turned hostile. “This is my badge number, I’m sure you can remember that,” Steel says the officer told her with a sharp gesture at the patch sewn onto her uniform. “Then she turned on her heel and walked away.”

Steel was outraged. How dare she walk away when “I’m standing there shaking?” she asks.

Jones says officers are not actually required to give out their business cards but concedes that in this case, she “should have done it.

“I suspect some of the interpersonal dynamics going on at the time may have interfered with that,” he says. It was a chaotic scene with a lot of people yelling and giving different accounts of what transpired, he explains.

The whole scene was “a mess,” he admits. “I wish it could have had a better initial outcome.”

The bashing has fuelled skepticism in the gay community about the quality of police protection queers receive. Vancouver gay e-mail lists buzzed with accounts of the bashing.

West End resident Colin Brownlee says he doesn’t think the VPD has made any progress since Aaron Webster was bashed to death in Stanley Park almost one year ago. Investigators have yet to make an arrest in that case.

“I’m tired of the PR demonstrations that they give us all the time,” Brownlee says. “They show up at these [community] meetings but when push comes to shove absolutely nothing is done.”

Lawyer Garth Barriere agrees. “What incidents like this demonstrate is that the community has to be vigilant,” he says. “It’s not enough to say, ‘thank you.’ We have to sit on their backs. We have to find a way to hold them accountable.”

It would be a “huge error,” Barriere continues, to dismiss cases like Steel’s as isolated incidents of police failure. These incidents are part of a historical pattern of poor relations between the VPD and the gay community, he says. And changes in policing are “glacially slow.”

Barney Hickey agrees. “We have an unsolved murder in our community,” says the TEAM candidate for city council. “Where is the progress?”

Jones maintains that the VPD is making progress. It’s progress when members of the gay community are not only calling 911 and reporting bashings, but demanding a decent level of police protection, he says.

“I really want to emphasize that police officers are very attuned to the risks this community faces,” Jones says. “We hope to do it right more often than we do it wrong.”

Still, he regrets his officers’ response in Steel’s case. “I feel bad,” he says. “For whatever reason it went off the rails.”

Jones says he now has a report on the incident, including the names of three of the teens, and he intends to pursue it to see if any charges can be laid. He has already met twice with the complainants to hear their version of the event and is urging all witnesses to come forward.

Steel says it will take more than that to restore her confidence in the system. “I still think it’s going to take a long time for me to regain my trust in the police.”

If you witnessed the alleged assault against Velvet Steel and Ray Pichette call VPD Insp Bob Meanley at 604.717.2764