5 min

Police ourselves: meeting

Police failure should lead to own initiatives

Credit: Xtra West files

Almost a year after Aaron Webster’s fatal gay-bashing in Stanley Park, about 60 people packed the Central Presbyterian Church on Thurlow St to vent their anger and frustration at the increasing number of bashings in the West End-and the Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) failure to do much about it.

And they called for community-based measures to police ourselves until the force takes gay-bashing seriously.

No one should have to endure another bashing, says Velvet Steel, who organized the Nov 11 meeting after she was bashed two months ago and initially brushed off by the VPD.

The post-op transsexual and founder of Vancouver’s Body Perve Social Club was attacked by a group of nine teenagers on Sep 17, as she and her husband were walking home through the West End. Steel has since filed a complaint against the VPD for its response to that incident. She says the officers were rude, uncooperative and unwilling to properly identify themselves at the scene. They also refused to provide Steel with an incident number so she could monitor any progress on the case.

This type of police response has got to stop, Steel says. Too many queers are getting bashed and the VPD isn’t doing anything to stop it.

“Nothing is being done,” she says, “and I want to know why. I want to get to the bottom of this. I’m very angry.”

She’s not alone. Stories of inappropriate, negligent and even blatantly homophobic police responses permeated the Nov 11 meeting.

Many people recalled getting bashed in the past and receiving virtually no help at all from the VPD. Others told more recent stories of young men in cars yelling “faggot” out their windows on Davie St. One man says he now drives the five blocks from home to the PumpJack Pub because he’s afraid to walk alone.

The level of fear, anger and frustration with the bashing situation in general, and the VPD in particular, quickly became palpable.

“We need to take back our streets and our community now,” says Dwayne Bryk. Before the next person gets hurt.

Steel agrees. “We need to stand up for ourselves and not be intimidated anymore,” she told the increasingly vocal crowd.

“Today, I have less confidence in the police department than I’ve ever had,” says Jack Herman, who has been single-handedly running the Bashline for the last six months.

Herman is particularly disgusted because he’s been compiling statistics and tracking bashing patterns in the West End for months. Now, he says, his efforts may have been in vain. He doesn’t know if any officers are even reading his reports, let alone acting on their tips-including tips that he says might solve Aaron Webster’s murder.

Police never even returned his call when he tried to follow up on Steel’s case in September, he says.

He left 18 messages with the Yaletown and Davie Community Policing Centres (CPCs), and the gay liaison officer, and didn’t get a single response back.

The gay community needs to protect itself, Herman says, because the VPD can’t be trusted.

Agreement rippled across the meeting room. Some people pushed for a march to VPD headquarters to demand more appropriate responses to gay-bashings.

“Until we park ourselves” in the VPD’s offices, the force won’t change, Colin Brownlee says.

Others suggested taking matters into their own hands and starting community patrol groups.

One woman recalled San Francisco’s old gay patrols where volunteers walked in groups with whistles and walkie-talkies in the high-bashing zones. The suggestion spread quickly.

It could be as simple as putting stickers in the windows of our homes and establishments that say “I’m watching,” says Pat Tucker.

“People do these things [attack queers] because they think nobody’s looking.” Walk each other home, support each other, put a sign in the window, Tucker suggests.

A strong community presence patrolling the streets could really deter potential gay bashers, agrees Randy Atkinson, the new president of the Davie Village Business Improvement Association (BIA).

Humiliation could also be a powerful tool, adds Gordon Fraser from the Knights of Malta. He wants to see bashers’ licence plate numbers posted on poles throughout the West End. And the Knights will help fund actions from within the gay community, he pledges.

Others advocated a more moderate, work-within-the-system approach.

Barney Hickey, who is running for council with the vcaTEAM, says the VPD should be more present on Davie St.

The gay community needs to see more officers patrolling the West End, Hickey says, urging people to demand a change in policy. “I believe all of us should get loud about it and get mouthy.”

Silva Tenenbein has her eye on the Davie CPC. Community policing centres are run by volunteers, she pointed out to the crowd. The gay community could take over the Davie CPC if enough people volunteered, she says. Then the CPC might start to reflect the gay community’s priorities.

That CPC needs to stay open later, for starters, Hickey says. It should be a safe haven for people being threatened or chased.

Lawyer Garth Barriere says the time has also come to start filing complaints against police officers when they fail to respond well.

Police officers are public servants, he says. They have an obligation to serve the gay community, too. And when they fail to fulfill that obligation, they should be held accountable.

Though Barriere admits that the process for filing a police complaint is flawed in favour of police, he says it’s still important to hold the force accountable. A cop with a history of complaints can be reassigned by management, he notes. Barriere is representing Steel in her complaint against the VPD.

A few people also suggested launching anti-bashing campaigns in local schools and several mentioned the upcoming municipal election.

“We have, as a community, an incredible opportunity on Nov 16,” Atkinson reminded the crowd, urging people to vote for candidates who care about gay-bashing and the needs of the gay community.

Conspicuously absent from the meeting were any members of the VPD. Steel says they refused her (albeit last minute) invitation to participate because they prefer to work with the gay safety committee. And she’s angry about it.

“I have to go through a committee to have them attend?” she asks disgustedly. That makes her feel like her contributions aren’t valid, she says.

In an interview with Xtra West, Insp Dave Jones says the VPD would rather stay focussed with the group it’s been working with than “go off in a new direction.”

The gay safety committee is a good group, Jones says. “I would encourage her [Steel] to join the existing gay safety committee” or bring any suggestions she has to the committee.

But safety committee member Jim Deva says the VPD’s refusal to work with anyone but the committee is “totally inappropriate.”

The committee did not endorse the VPD’s refusal to attend Steel’s meeting, Deva says. “I think we need as many initiatives as we can get going.”

Steel says she’s eager to compile everyone’s suggestions and help launch as many initiatives as possible for improving safety in the West End.

“We have to start initiating things on our own,” Steel told the crowd, because the community has to do something to protect itself. “I can’t stress this more,” she says.

Steel plans to call a follow-up meeting in the next month or two to further refine a community response.