The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) will once again be rolling out its recruitment van at this year’s Pride Parade, but the number of gay male candidates who have joined the force since the van’s first appearance remains a mystery.
Though the recruitment unit has participated in the annual Pride Parade since 2002, its officers have no way of knowing how successful their efforts to draw more gay men to the force have been, since they won’t ask their applicants’ sexual orientation.
Consequently, no one knows how many out gay men and women currently serve on Vancouver’s police force. Anecdotal reports from past and present officers suggest there are several out gay men on the force, and many more lesbians, but Xtra West was unable to find a single gay male officer willing to come forward for an interview.
Still, the acting head of VPD recruitment says the unit’s Pride appearances have been successful. There are now some out gay men on the force, says Sgt Larry Melnyk, though he can’t say how many.
The Pride Parade is just one of many outreaches the unit does with various communities throughout the year, Melnyk adds.
Though the VPD has been sending its recruitment team to community events and career fairs across the province for years, it resisted going to Pride until 2002.
“It’s more of a Mardi Gras affair,” explained the unit’s then-head, Sgt Ron Fairweather, when asked why the unit refused to attend Pride in 2001. “It’s not the typical type of forum that we would attend. We’re not going to find individuals focused on a career in policing.”
The Dragon Boat Races, in contrast, offer many potentially “good quality candidates” because “here you have a number of individuals very dedicated in their physical fitness level,” Fairweather added.
The following year, the recruitment unit relented and sent its van to the Pride Parade.
Now the co-founder of West Enders Against Violence Everywhere says the VPD could do more to recruit openly gay male officers.
Actively recruiting more gay officers would make the force more responsive to the community’s needs, says Ron Stipp. “Police forces around North America that recruit in gay communities are police forces that people feel comfortable approaching. The more out cops there are, the more comfortable people may be with them.”
It’s not just the number of gay officers, he explains. The recruiting itself sends a message that the police force is interested in minority communities traditionally under-represented in its ranks. Plus, if more gay men join the force, they’ll change its composition and theoretically make it more sensitive to gay issues and more responsive to the community’s needs.
“If it’s just optics, it means nothing,” Stipp warns. “If it’s actual recruitment and training, then it will make the police [more] responsive and a more effective police force.”
Melnyk agrees that police services need the confidence of the communities they serve.
“I think police departments reflect the community they police,” he says. “I think right now there’s a pretty strong relationship with the gay community compared to years gone by, and that’s reflected in the community policing centres, including in the West End.”
But if the VPD is not recruiting officers who are open about their sexuality to the community that they serve, and if the force doesn’t know how many gay officers it employs, how is the community to have confidence that it is reflected in the police force?
“We don’t keep statistics on that. It’s not an issue,” says Melnyk. “I don’t know if it ever has been. We don’t ask people their religion either. It’s a privacy issue.”
Vancouver is not the only Canadian police force to struggle with the privacy issue. The Toronto Police Service does not ask its applicants about their sexual orientation, either.
Tracey Latimer, a Toronto recruitment officer and out lesbian, says there may be legal, privacy, and perception issues with asking officers and recruits about their sexual orientation.
“We can’t even ask people what their race is unless they tell us, let alone sexual orientation,” she says. “We’re working on having that option to state who you are on a form, but there’s legal questions about how to put that on a package.
“I think that as a candidate just coming through the door, they might be leery of answering the question, because they might feel that there may be discrimination even though there’s none,” she continues. “If anything, it moves you up a level for interviews because we’re looking for diversity in our classes.”
Though Vancouver and Toronto are reluctant to ask recruits about their sexual orientation, the Ottawa Police Service surveyed its officers last year on a host of personal issues, including sexual orientation, race, and religion.
The results of that census show 3.8 percent of Ottawa’s officers identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, two-spirited or questioning.
Staff Sgt Silvio Gravel, of Ottawa’s Outreach program, is happy to hear he has officers comfortable enough to come out on his force. “If I had no officers that admitted that they were of the GLBT community, I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying that our officers don’t face harassment,” he says.
Ottawa police are currently working on a follow-up survey to ask officers if they’ve ever been harassed or discriminated against on the job.
In addition to gauging how tolerant Ottawa’s police force is as a workplace, Gravel describes the census as a self-diagnosis of its attractiveness to diverse communities.
“We realised that we had to count ourselves, so that we could acknowledge where we are now,” he says.
“The question of ‘how many people of my group [are officers]’ came up with every other group that considers itself not in the mainstream,” he continues. “Now that we have these data, these communities can know if we are welcoming to them.
“One of the things that’s interesting about the policing community is that it’s not good enough to say we have black officers,” Gravel reflects. “In the policing community, we have to realise that we’re dealing with communities. If all my black officers are Jamaican, then the Ethiopian community, the Haitian community, the Somali community would feel that they’re not taken care of.
“The GLBT community is very complex,” he continues. “We don’t just look at if we’ve got gay officers. We look also that we’ve got transgender/transsexual officers, lesbians, etc. Some of these issues they deal with are very personal issues, and we have to have our officers trained to deal with that sensitively.”
Even before it conducted its census, the Ottawa police force overhauled its hiring and public complaints processes to make them more sensitive and accessible to the communities it serves.
“When we decided that we were going to put a great deal of effort into reaching out into the city of Ottawa–recognising that the city of Ottawa was undergoing a lot of change faster than we were–we asked the communities what we needed to do to make the service more attractive to them,” he explains.
Gravel also notes that the Ottawa police managed to avoid legal and privacy issues in its census by emphasising the reasoning behind conducting it and keeping the census anonymous and voluntary.
“We spent about an hour with all the middle managers and the [police] association, answering any questions and explaining the importance of the survey,” he says. “We were very up front. On every question on the survey we validated why we were asking it.”
Murray Billett, vice-chair of the Edmonton Police Commission and an openly gay man, praises Ottawa’s efforts.
“I think our community has moved along well, and only by having the courage to ask the tough questions,” he says. “Those kinds of statistics are important to tell the people of our cities that the police reflects the communities they serve.”
Ottawa police officers also hold regular meetings with gay community leaders through its Community-Police Action Committee and the GLBT Liaison Committee.
In Toronto, police officers host biweekly information sessions geared specifically toward the gay community, too. And the Edmonton police force has made a goal of recruiting among queer teens, most recently making a presentation at Camp Fyrefly, a leadership camp for queer youth.
Though Vancouver’s recruitment unit appears once a year in the Pride Parade, it doesn’t hold any additional public outreach meetings with the queer community during the rest of the year.
Still, out police officers both serving and retired say the VPD is a positive and welcoming workplace for gays.
“My experience of coming out in the police department was positive–100 percent supportive by the department and other officers,” says retired detective Ross Pascuzzo.
“If you look at our police department now, it’s a very young department. The majority have less than five years on the job. These are people who grew up with gay friends and gay people on TV. It’s a totally new generation,” he points out. “It’s probably even more accepting than when I was there.”
Pascuzzo argues that a focus on recruiting gay officers may miss the point.
“Policing is a calling. It’s about recruiting men with integrity and who have a passion for that type of work, not about recruiting gay men or straight men,” he says. “There’s just as much opportunity for a gay man to become a police officer as there is for a straight man or woman.”
Retired detective Roz Shakespeare, the VPD’s first out transsexual officer and a lesbian, also thinks the VPD is a queer-positive work environment.
The lack of out gay male officers on the force comes down to the officers’ personal preference, she says. “Whether or not someone decides to remain out at work is their choice. We have to allow the individual officers to have some privacy in their lives. Not everyone wants to be the gay and lesbian poster child and be way out there.”