Vancouver’s new police chief: Prioritize accountability and community enagagement

When the Vancouver Police Board approached us last month asking Pivot Legal Society to participate in the decision-making process for the city’s next police chief, it struck me how far we’ve come as an organization.

Increasing police accountability

Years ago, when this organization was just finding its feet, our relationship with police was, at best, a contentious one. Then-police chief Jamie Graham was outright hostile to us, to our clients, and to our vision of fair policing that recognized the rights and safety of all our community members.

When Jim Chu took over as head of the Vancouver Police Department, we saw significant changes. He immediately made efforts to engage with Pivot and the community we represent, seeking input on how to improve police practices.

In my interactions with Chief Chu, he was very willing to listen to the concerns I had about policing the complex social issues in our city. Even if you always wondered what he might say about you behind closed doors and despite the ever-present and strong force that is the Vancouver Police Union, at least he came to the table. Always the politician, he approached conversations with other community members similarly, and began to re-establish a relationship with both the residents of the Downtown Eastside and the organizations that work on their behalf.

These conversations led to significant victories for Vancouver’s most marginalized communities: the VPD implemented policies informed by conversations with sex workers that prioritize their rights and safety over enforcement; they have also been a strong voice in support of harm reduction interventions that save the lives of drug users.

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During Chief Chu’s tenure, the independent investigations office was created, and when asked about whether or not all complaints should one day be investigated independently, Chief Chu agreed, even if his track record for cooperation with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner was less than stellar. There is an urgent need to make even more improvements in this area, as recent events involving the use of force have illustrated.

When the Police Board asked me what challenges the next police chief would face, I wrote that this issue, police accountability, coupled with the department’s approach to policing this city’s marginalized communities, would be the greatest challenges and must be priorities.

With the last week’s announcement that Vancouver Deputy Chief Adam Palmer will take over the role being vacated by Chief Chu this spring, I hope he will agree that oversight and accountability of our police are critical to a properly functioning democracy.

Palmer brings a reputation as an operations guru to his new role, and has spent significant time as a patrol officer in East Vancouver. As Chief, he must find a way to strike the delicate balance required to protect the rights of those under his command, while ensuring that their actions are transparent and accountable to the public they serve.

One of the ways he can do this is by introducing body worn cameras to patrol officers, on the dashboards of police cruisers, and to officers on the dog squad. Body worn video has now been endorsed by a bi-partisan legislative committee, and is the inevitable future of police accountability. How Palmer reacts to this reality, and whether or not the VPD chooses to embrace it, will tell us a lot about his style as a leader.

Accountability is only one part of effective policing, however. Palmer’s approach to community engagement and policing Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside will also determine his success as police chief.

Despite changes to the treatment of sex workers, under Chu the VPD has continued to practice a philosophy of “proactive policing,” which has recently come under fire for its impacts on marginalized communities.

Proactive policing, and the use of bylaw offences to gather information and express control on a section of the population, has long been shown to adversely effect people of colour and marginalized communities. Much-publicized police shootings and subsequent racial tensions have been fuelled by this practice. In major Canadian municipalities, it has led to disproportionate application of the law. And in Vancouver, it has resulted in one of the worst relationships between the VPD and residents of the Downtown Eastside in recent memory.

Criminalizing low-income people for behaviour caused by social condition does nothing to alleviate poverty. Findings from the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry have reinforced this, but the VPD has displayed a reluctance to make substantive changes in how minor offences are prioritized.

If he wants to change this relationship, Palmer must step back from this philosophy and move towards a model of policing which responds to the specific needs of marginalized communities. He must encourage the department to understand the lived experience of the people we all want to help, and prioritize their safety and health over uncollectible fines and ineffective enforcement practices.  

I hope the relationship Pivot and our clients have with Palmer will continue as it was with Chief Chu, and that he is committed to listening and acting upon the advice he hears. The health and safety of the most vulnerable members of our community will depend on it.

Read Doug King's Vancouver Sun opinion piece on policing priorities for Vancouver's new police chief.