5 min

Sincere-but under-trained?

Meet the VPD's new gay liaison, Const Chris Smith

GENUINE ENTHUSIASM. "Although I may not be gay, I am 100 percent committed," says the Vancouver Police Department's new gay liaison, Const Chris Smith. But his predecessor warns he may have a steep learning curve to climb. Credit: Robin Perelle

Const Chris smith looks me earnestly in the eye. “You’re the reason why [I sought this position],” he tells me. “The people in the community are the reason why. I’ve worked in this community for approximately eight months and I’ve been completely blown away by the pride this community has.

“They take pride in everything,” he continues. “Community involvement, policing. And they truly believe in a safe, non-violent place to live.”

Smith is the Vancouver Police Department’s (VPD) new official liaison to the gay community. He’s a straight man from the Kwakiutl nation near Campbell River, BC and a status Indian. He has three children and a girlfriend who is studying to be a police officer. He’s been in law enforcement for 11 years.

Last month, he volunteered to trade in his regular patrol shifts for a special assignment and became the VPD’s new gay-programs coordinator.

It’s a position that’s been in and out of the headlines ever since Det Roz Shakespeare created it about a year and a half ago to build trust between the community and the VPD and make Vancouver safer for queers.

Shakespeare originally planned to hold the position for two years, then find a successor to replace her. But a sudden change in the VPD’s pension plan forced her to retire early-and unleashed a battle with the union over whether or not she could return on contract for four months to help find and train a successor.

As the negotiations dragged on, it seemed the position may not live to see its second birthday. Then Insp Val Harrison, the new top cop in the West End, stepped in and announced she would make the position permanent and prioritize finding someone to fill it by the end of April.

All she had to do was find somebody suitable. So she put the word out, urging gay and lesbian VPD officers to come forward and apply for the job-to no avail. It was disheartening, she says, but she refused to give up.

Then Smith arrived. “I sought the position out,” he says.

Why would a straight man want to devote all his professional time to the gay community? We have a lot in common, he replies. “My ancestors have been faced with laws that discriminate, a government that discriminates. I, too, have faced that. I know what it’s like to be hated or not liked because of my background. I take that to heart.

“Although I may not be gay, I am 100 percent committed,” he continues. “I fully believe in my position and want to work hard for the community.”

Little Sister’s co-owner Jim Deva is delighted. “I think it’s going to work,” says Deva, who is also the president of the Davie St Community Policing Centre’s board of directors.

“There is a direct link between First Nations and the gay and lesbian community, and I strongly think that he’s a very good choice.”

Even though he’s not gay? “If he was a straight, white, six-foot-two officer taking on that position, I would be extremely concerned,” Deva replies. “But he’s not.” He’s First Nations and his upbringing and heritage should make him more sensitive to gay issues.

Plus it could help build bridges between the VPD, the gay community and First Nations people within the gay community, Deva adds.

Shakespeare thinks Smith will do a good job, too. “I think he’s genuine in coming forward and wanting to do the work.”

But he may have a steep learning curve ahead of him, she warns.

“I think he’s a little under-trained at the moment,” she explains. Shakespeare only got to train Smith for three full days. Due to scheduling conflicts and the last-minute nature of the transition, she did not get as much time with him as she wanted.

Still, she’s confident that he’ll be able to pick up the skills he needs on the job. After all, she points out, Smith wants to do the job. “On that basis alone, he gets kudos from me.”

Like his predecessor, Smith says he plans to focus on building trust between the gay community and the VPD. He wants people in the community to get to know him, he says, and to feel comfortable approaching him for assistance.

He also wants to target the roots of homophobia and plans to work with the Vancouver School Board’s queer advisory committee to do so.

And effective immediately, Smith will now play an active part investigating all hate-related incidents affecting Vancouver’s gay community.

Smith will become the VPD’s gaybashings expert, Harrison predicts. She says she’s looking forward to having a specialist to investigate gaybashings-better than a general detective “who may or may not have expertise in that area.”

The VPD needs to do a better job investigating gay-related hate crimes, the inspector notes.

Smith says he’s hoping to spend some time teaching both community members and officers what counts as a hate crime and how to recognize one.

But he’s reluctant to teach his fellow officers how to respond to gaybashing victims at the scene of an attack.

In the last few years, several gays and lesbians have criticized officers for failing to characterize incidents as gaybashings, despite evidence suggesting the attackers were motivated by a hatred of gays. Officers have also come under fire for not listening to gaybashing victims at the scene, not taking their statements and not pursuing suspects when the opportunity arose.

Smith seems uncomfortable with the idea of telling his fellow officers how to do their job at the scene of a crime. “My primary mandate is to work with the community, not to do training with the department,” he says. The VPD’s training section takes care of training issues, he adds.

That’s not necessarily true, Harrison says.

Smith can train officers on the proper way to respond to a gaybashing if he feels it’s needed, she explains. She’s confident that, as Smith gets to know his new role and the community, he’ll figure out what’s needed and take appropriate action.

And if that action involves gaybashing-scene training, Harrison will “absolutely support him,” she says. “We’ll work to fill gaps, fix problems, whatever.”

But Smith says he doesn’t think his fellow officers need gay sensitivity training. “It’s not a big issue,” he says. “We’re all a big family” at the VPD.

“That’s because he’s not gay,” Shakespeare retorts. She still hears homophobic jokes and comments in the VPD, she says. “I can tell you, there are still people who are uncomfortable around me. I think there are some people who are uncomfortable with gay and lesbian issues.”

Still, she’s confident that Smith is sincere in his desire to learn about the community-and its needs.

So are Harrison and Deva.

Harrison also says initial concerns over Smith’s new title were unfounded. When Smith first took the gay liaison job Apr 19, the title on his card read: “Davie Street Neighbourhood Officer, hate crime investigations.” The word gay had been dropped.

Harrison says she was not trying to dilute the gay focus of the position-“not even slightly.” She was just trying to make the position more enticing to gay and lesbian officers reticent to attach the word gay to their title. But she never intended to dilute the position or add non-gay matters to its purview.

“The focus is the gay community,” she says firmly. “It always has been.”

For his part, Smith says he never intended to keep the non-gay title. As soon as he could, he changed it to “LGTB Liaison, hate crime intelligence.”

And that’s how it will stay, he promises.

“The gay community has fought long and hard to bridge the gap between the community and policing,” he says. And part of that battle has been to secure a permanent, full-time gay liaison position dedicated to gay issues.

“I respect and honour that,” he says.