9 min

Wrong direction

Chief's policing plans don't measure up

COMMUNITY POLICING OR PUBLIC RELATIONS? Vancouver Chief Constable Jamie Graham plans to centralize more power at police headquarters-and reduce community input to policing. Credit: Robin Perelle

Vancouver’s version of community policing lacks substance-and it’s about to get worse.

Sounds harsh? Well, Xtra West did a little digging and consulted some experts. The answer, in a nutshell: Vancouver’s community policing program just doesn’t measure up.

Beneath its appealing façade of community consultation lies a powerless structure with only limited ability to initiate new programs and very little influence over policing priorities overall.

And that was before Chief Constable Jamie Graham began restructuring. Though his plans are still in the discussion stage, they don’t bode well for the future of community policing in Vancouver. But more on that later. First a look at what community policing is all about and how Vancouver measures up.


David Bayley has been studying policing for 40 years. His work has taken him around the world, exploring a wide variety of policing topics, from tactical operations to accountability to misbehaviour and, more recently, to community policing. He wrote his 1994 book, Police for the Future, after four years of intensive research in five different countries: Canada, the US, Great Britain, Australia and Japan. Here’s what he found.

Modern society has changed a lot since the first cop walked the beat in London, England in 1829, Bayley writes. But policing has failed to keep up with the times.

The result: police spend almost all their energy reacting to crime and very little genuinely preventing it.

The key to preventing crime lies with the community, he writes. Police need to work with the people who live in each neighbourhood because they know more about local problems and needs than anybody else.

But the term community policing has been so over-used and misused that it has become a meaningless buzzword, he says. It’s not really community policing unless there’s community consultation and mobilization, adaptation and problem solving. And it’s not really community consultation unless new mechanisms for input are established-preferably elected, grassroots committees.

Still, as important as regular community consultations are, it’s the department’s willingness to adapt its strategies to meet local needs which ultimately determines how far community policing will go.

It’s all about reshaping command structures so that decisions can be made from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.

“Rather than relying on generic strategies formulated at headquarters and applied force-wide by subordinate commanders, the new initiatives call upon local commanders to devise plans and adapt resources to local needs,” Bayley writes. “This involves decentralizing commands geographically as well as placing decision-making responsibility farther down the rank hierarchy.”

Of course, without the staff and resources to carry out the initiatives, they still won’t get very far. “The only way crime prevention can be made a core function of policing is by assigning a large number of frontline officers to it,” Bayley writes. And he doesn’t mean rookies, either.

Police departments tend to promote officers quickly off beat patrols into more prestigious positions such as detective, Bayley says. That leaves the community level with rookies, non-promotables and officers awaiting promotion, he says, and that’s a problem.

Working with the community should be a position of special status, Bayley says. It should be taken seriously and valued and these officers, in turn, should be given more respect and responsibility.

“Community policing is not simply a change in tactics,” he concludes. “[It] represents a re-negotiation of the social contract between the police and society.”

It’s a re-negotiation that many police forces are reluctant to undertake. Only in Japan, he writes “has community policing in the full sense become institutionalized-that is, become the operating tradition of the department. In most forces, implementation of community policing depends almost entirely on a few senior leaders; when they change, its future becomes uncertain.”


So, where does that leave Vancouver?

Jim Deva, of Little Sister’s fame, joined the Davie St Community Policing Centre (CPC) last spring to address gay-bashing and the growing violence problem in the West End.

Located in the heart of the Davie Village, the Davie CPC with its elected board of directors is, by all accounts, one of the best run of Vancouver’s 18 CPCs. It is also the potential key to the gay community’s policing needs.

That’s why Deva joined the CPC’s board of directors in the first place: to re-align its priorities, to make sure they’re meeting the safety needs of the neighbourhood’s sizeable gay community.

So, how much has he accomplished?

Deva, now the vice-president of the CPC board, points to its new response to drug dealers on the corner of Bute and Davie. He also points with pride to a recently launched street kid study focussing on counselling rather than law-enforcement. He calls it “an on-the-concrete analysis of the young people on our street.”

Despite his enthusiasm, his answers show that priorities have not actually changed much since the CPC’s last annual general meeting in June 2002. Before the meeting, many complained that the Davie CPC was too focussed on drugs and panhandlers and not interested enough in gay-bashing.

It’s almost year later. Where are the bashing prevention programs now?

“I don’t know what we’ve done to solve bashing on our street,” Deva finally admits, when pressed.

But the need for a bashing prevention program hasn’t diminished. If anything, it’s increased in the last year.

Ask gay community members about the Davie CPC and the same themes surface again and again: they want police to get to the root of the bashing problem, to stop bashers before they strike. Failing that, they at least want more protection from gay-bashers on the street.

And they want to be able to run to their village CPC for help. They want to be able to file a bashing report at the CPC, rather than being told by the volunteer on duty to go home and call 911.

Deva himself said last year, before he got elected to the CPC’s board of directors, that the Davie CPC should be the point of first contact, where bashing victims can file reports in a less intimidating setting staffed by volunteers specially trained in gay issues.

That hasn’t happened.

Granted, the Davie CPC volunteers have become more sensitive to gay issues in the last year and the office itself now sports a pride flag alongside its police flag. But the volunteers still lack the power to take reports; they still have to tell distressed people to go home and call 911-unless they happen to stop by when the officer is in.

CPC volunteers can only take stolen property reports (and only when there’s no suspect and no chance of finding one); organize property registration programs; and run powerless foot and bike patrols, which then call 911 themselves if they run into any suspicious activity in the neighbourhood. They don’t have the power to intervene.

How does that affect the CPC’s overall ability to adapt police priorities to local community needs?

Deva admits that the Davie CPC is still in its “embryonic stage” but it’s elected, community-based board is a good start. “It may not meet [Bayley’s] criteria but it’s the best that we have at the present time. We do have consultation. We do have the ability to create programs and we have the ability to problem-solve in our community. I’m not saying we’re doing excellent work but the foundation is being set up.”

But even Deva reluctantly acknowledges that the Davie CPC lacks the power, money and staff to truly create new programs.

Take the CPC’s new drug program, for example. It simply involves a squad car driving by the main trafficking area on Bute St at peak dealing hours. Hardly a radical new approach specially tailored to local needs.

It’s no secret that the VPD is tough on drugs, so when the Davie CPC told officers where to look in this neighbourhood, they readily accepted. But what about implementing something truly innovative? What about thinking outside the usual policing box and tackling the root of the neighbourhood’s bashing problem-before the next person gets hurt?

Deva admits that the board hasn’t done that. The board hasn’t even tried to ask for a second officer at the CPC, let alone more officers to walk the beat on Davie St at peak bashing times, such as Friday and Saturday nights.

A second officer would certainly help establish a continuous police presence in the neighbourhood, Deva acknowledges. The current system leaves the CPC without its assigned officer for up to four days at a time when the officer goes off duty.

For that matter, even a first officer who doesn’t transfer out every year would be an improvement. The CPC’s Const Steve Rai joined a string of briefly assigned officers when he left the centre in February, almost a year to the day after he arrived. He is now a sergeant in another district.

The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) obviously doesn’t value its CPCs, Deva concedes. If it did, officers “would be lined up to get in,” not asking to transfer out the minute they arrived.

Before he left, Rai said it would take a management decision to change the structure of Vancouver’s CPCs to give them the staff, money and power they need to implement and run their own programs.

It doesn’t look like that’s about to happen anytime soon.


In fact, Chief Graham may be about to strip the community out of Vancouver’s community policing program.

Graham is restructuring the city’s CPCs, a move precipitated by the provincial government’s recent funding cut. The province used to give the CPCs $150,000 a year, which the city would then match for a total of $300,000 a year. When the province cut its share last fall, the city agreed to foot its share of the bill alone, but the money is not expected to last past this summer.

Enter the chief and his restructuring plans. Though the VPD is planning to take over CPC funding, it’s unlikely all 18 CPCs will still be standing when the dust clears. “Clearly the funding cannot sustain 18 CPCs,” Graham readily admits, in an interview with Xtra West at his office. “The well is only so deep.”

But the Davie CPC’s future looks “very solid,” he hastens to add. “It’s a good centre and I think it serves a very good purpose.” Namely, it delivers services to the gay community.

But what will it look like when the restructuring is complete?

The VPD is not getting out of community policing, it’s just making it better, Graham replies. “We’re very committed to the concept of those centres. It’s a crucial part of the Vancouver community policing initiative. Without the public’s ability to respond and interact with the police we simply cannot deliver our programs.”

But how will that interaction take place? Will the community still have the ability to elect its own representatives to an independent board of directors? Probably not. Graham says he is seriously leaning towards replacing the elected boards with police-appointed advisory boards.

And Deva is extremely upset. “I don’t think it’s community policing without an elected board,” he says. The board members have to be accountable to the community, not the police.

Graham admits that the new advisors would be accountable to the police hierarchy, rather than to the community. Of course, he notes, the VPD is ultimately responsible to the police board, which is appointed by the provincial and city governments, and therefore sort of accountable to the public.

“It sounds like a different model in terms of community involvement but I can assure you there’s nothing nefarious to be read into this,” Graham says. Just because the police will soon control the CPCs’ purse strings and appoint their decision-makers, doesn’t mean they’ll “dictate everything that’s going on” inside. “But it means I’ll have a say in the management of the centre.”

How much of a say?

Well, he soon admits that all new programs will have “a strong component of police opinion.” And, he says, new programs “won’t be developed independently of [police] goals.”

Deva is beside himself. That won’t be the community setting priorities in partnership with police at all, he says. The VPD might as well call it the Police Community Centre. “My worst fear is that the CPCs will just turn into precincts run by the VPD without the partnership of the community,” he says.

Deva, for one, has no intention of joining an appointed advisory board. “I don’t want to advise. I want to work as a partner to solve problems.”

Graham says he has no choice but to dissolve the CPCs’ independent boards of directors and the non-profit societies they report to. It’s a question of liability, he explains. The city’s legal department is worried about the CPCs getting sued.

Deva admits that the city, which has covered the costs of the societies’ liability insurance until now, has been trying to find a way out of insuring the CPCs for a long time, due to its fear of lawsuits. So he’s not surprised it’s seizing this opportunity to back out. But it’s hardly coincidental, he suggests.

The city pulling its coverage now “solves a couple of problems,” Deva explains. It lets the city off the hook for the CPCs’ liability and gives the chief a good excuse to replace the independent boards with advisory committees.

The loser, says Deva: the societies, which won’t be able to pay for their own liability insurance and will have to bend to the chief’s will and fold. And the communities, of course.

This restructuring is going to be bad news, Deva predicts. “The chief could very well be destroying the most effective part of policing.”

Xtra West asked Graham if he would be willing to consider a different restructuring approach: keep the Davie CPC’s elected board and give it the money, staff and decision-making power it needs to initiate locally tailored strategies.

Anything is possible, Graham replies. The restructuring is still in the discussion stage, after all.

If only Graham would maintain the Davie CPC’s existing embryo of community consultation and build on it, giving it the resources, power and autonomy it needs to truly meet local needs, he could spearhead a huge step towards genuine community policing in Vancouver.

Instead, it looks like he’s about to take a plunge in the opposite direction-and dismantle the fledgling embryo entirely.