Policing


Gregor, Gregor, Gregor…we really want to vote for you, but you’re making it damn hard.

Robertson’s Vancouver mayoral campaign needs a platform, it needs an issue, maybe two, that defines his candidacy and tells us who he is and what he would do and how he would be different from Peter Ladner. His missteps, although minor in essence, expose a deeply concerning lack of focus and conviction. First, he floats the idea – one largely regarded as legally impossible – to force landlords to rent out vacant strata condo units to help house the homeless, then flip flops when it becomes apparent the concept isn’t feasible.

Which brings us to the 2-fare SkyTrain boner Robertson pulled this week: Robertson received a $173 ticket for mistakenly buying an inadequate fare ticket and, when it became public, announced he was outraged at the amount he called an affront to the poor and vowed he would be taking the matter to court in December to bring attention to the injustice. Immediately, critics pounced on the story, charging Robertson was only making fighting the ticket a political issue because he was caught with an unpaid fine. For several days, his campaign veered dangerously off-track and the debate raged over whether he should have just paid the fine and moved on. It appeared Robertson’s campaign was so lacking a foundation that he tossed this line out in the water to see if maybe this could or would be the soapbox he’d been searching for.

Enter someone with some PR or political savvy to inject some sense into Robertson’s floundering run for mayor and the befuddled candidate paid the fine, decided against the court fight, apologized and cited the need to move on. Could Gregor not have worked this all out in his own head when he got the ticket – the receipt of which is not, as many seem wont to suggest, some sort of indication of low moral substance or underlying criminality on par with, say, giving an addict money to buy drugs and driving them to do it? Come on, people.

He has also come out with several half-baked ideas intended to solve homelessness and other local problems, but can’t give specifics on the cost and how the city would fund them – an ominous thread that seems to run through his presentation of new initiatives each time he raises one. Vancouver taxpayers still remembering the long garbage strike of 2007 and recent tax hikes wonder how the City will fund Robertson’s plans if he doesn’t even know – this does not exactly inspire the voters’ confidence when choosing a new mayor. We want to elect the good-looking, bike-riding, soccer-playing, business-building, socially-progressive, stick-up-for-Cambie-Street father of four, but is he up for the job?

Remember the Federal Election? Substitute “Anyone But Harper” for “Anyone But Ladner” and you sum up the feeling of many Vancouverites uneasy with the idea of electing a candidate who supported the vast majority of soon-to-be-sunset-riding Mayor Sam Sullivan’s wide-ranging and often bizarre initiatives, but only long enough to put himself in position to stab Sullivan in the back and deep six any future in politics (we hope). One can argue we don’t know or haven’t seen who Ladner is, either – is he the conservative, BC Liberal-linked, Olympic bedfellow, Machiavellian Sullivan-ite or the new and improved politico willing to revisit the Burrard Street bike lanes and achieve a homelessness solution that is respectful and supportive to all stakeholders? We just don’t know. All we do know is Ladner has proposed a tax freeze and many voters vote with their wallets, often to their detriment.

Gregor, here’s some advice: you will win if you get on Ladner about his knowledge of the City’s Property Endowment Fund and the use of that money to prop up the floundering Olympic Village project without public knowledge. Ask how this got approved and what likely scapegoat and fall girl Estelle Lo’s resignation means. Stay off TransLink or you’ll have the likes of venomous bullies such as Porvincial Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon on your back, making sure you don’t step on his carefully guarded turf. You obviously struck a nerve with him, but leave that dragon to sleep for now.

Use the gift you’ve been given today because we really want to vote for you.

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Metro Vancouver residents reacted with shock, sadness and outrage this week at the news that two Lower Mainland police officers crashed while allegedly driving drunk – one of them tragically striking and killing a much-loved 21 year old motorcyclist from Delta and the other hitting a road sign on the Upper Levels highway.

The RCMP member involved in the Delta incident was identified as Corporal Benjamin Montgomery Robinson, a 38 year old currently assigned to the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit (ISU). It was quickly disclosed that Robinson was one of four RCMP members present – and the supervisor in charge – when Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski died at Vancouver International Airport after receiving jolts from a police taser in October 2007.

The question on many minds is this: why was this man, who remains under investigation for and will quite possibly be charged criminally in Dziekanski’s death, showing such a reckless and wanton disregard for public, his own, and possibly his children’s safety? Details from the incident seem to indicate Robinson had two or three children with him in the Jeep he was driving when it struck victim Orion Hutchinson and that Robinson handed his driver’s license to a witness at the scene and ran off carrying the children in his arms, claiming the scene was inappropriate for them – gee, do you think? – and he would return.

Anyone – like a police officer or a criminal defence lawyer – who deals with impaired driving cases knows that unaccounted-for time between when the accident occurred and when dealing with police provides the accused with an excellent defense to impaired driving because he can claim, honestly or otherwise, that he was so rattled by what just transpired that he ran home with the kids, belted back a few stiff ones to calm down, then ran back to the scene to face the music. The court will not be able to ascertain whether Robinson was drunk before the accident or began drinking immediately afterwards unless witnesses are found who can put him drinking somewhere in the time leading up to the accident. Assuming he may have been drinking with work pals, good luck getting any of them to testify to this and if it’s a local cop watering hole, there won’t be too many waitresses willing to put their necks out, either.

So, he could walk, which will be extremely difficult for the family, but there is a bigger picture. As long as there have been police, there have been those that believe they are above the law. More alarmingly, though, is the number of police that don’t believe they are above the law, but do fall prey to a police culture that tells them they are special people on the one hand and on the other, tries to reinforce to officers that they are just regular people like the rest of us. Police officers languish in this no-man’s-land and many can’t hold up to the pressure of this higher standard.

Added to this is the problem inherent in the very nature of police work: the emotional demands of policing and the stress police officers work under every day erodes their ability to make accurate judgments about ethics and what it means to be held to this higher standard, because most police officers are merely trying to survive the job itself and the emotional fallout it brings.

Society rightly has a higher expectation of its police officers; we expect if they are out arresting us for impaired driving they aren’t going home loaded themselves, but unfortunately, for too many, this isn’t the case. Police people don’t drive drunk any more than any other group of people, but they certainly don’t do it any less and because society reinforces to them constantly how capable and competent they are and how they do things the rest of us can’t even imagine, these super heroes of our society begin to believe they can drive drunk and they’re “okay” to do it because they have so many special skills and abilities. But, they can’t – they’re human just like everyone else. And when they do get caught and there’s no accident or injury, many get a break from on-duty “friends”, perhaps a ride home or no charges, sparing them the “humiliation” of a lesson that might ultimately save their life or the life of someone else.

Clearly, these officers made bad choices and – as is likely in the case of Robinson and New Westminster Constable Tomi Hammer, described as a well-respected school liaison officer – were dealing with various stressors, as most people do every day. The responsibility is on the individual to hold themselves to a higher standard but also on police managers and human resource professionals to do more than ask members like Robinson, who have been involved in a critical incident, if they are doing okay and leave it to them to ask for help if they need it – few police officers will admit they need anything. They may take counseling for marital problems or vague complaints, but very few will acknowledge that the day to day seemingly mundane demands of policing are wearing them down and rendering them incapable. Even the notion that they have to have been involved in a “critical” incident detracts from the reality that many types of seemingly innocuous events haunt many police people.

This is not to say that police aren’t responsible for their actions or can be excused because the job is tough, but we must understand the toll their job takes on them and avail them of the kind of help they really need, before they end up hurting anyone, rather than after.

As Vancouver’s major civic parties prepare to nominate candidates for the upcoming election, concern mounts surrounding the sheer volume of people throwing their hats in.

The wide array of interested people has even the most seasoned and savvy watchers of 12th and Cambie more than mildly confused and questioning how the average uninformed voter will react at the polls November 15. Frances Bula ventured bravely where no one dared go before by compiling this list of prospective hopefuls for the Non-Partisan Association (NPA), Vision Vancouver, and Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) – a herculean and no doubt thankless task. Bula’s list serves to highlight several incongruities such as why Jamie Lee Hamilton – the woman who never met a board or committee she couldn’t single-handedly join and destroy with her pettiness and instability – warrants a mention when she hasn’t officially announced anything, while environmental activist Betty Krawczyk came out months ago as a candidate for the Work Less Party, but seemingly can’t buy a line in anyone’s coverage. She may be 80, but she’s a fighter and shows no fear.

Comparing the Vision Vancouver hopefuls with those from COPE, especially for City Council, the deck seems clearly stacked in favour of Vision, who will be hard-pressed to chose from the talented field. COPE is a party in decline and has been since Larry Campbell, Tim Stevenson, Raymond Louie and Jim Green broke from the party prior to the 2005 election to offer a more fiscally-conservative alternative to form what became known as “COPE Lite” prior to changing the party name to Vision Vancouver.

Pivot Legal’s David Eby clearly saw the writing on the wall, throwing his support behind Vision Mayoralty candidate Gregor Robertson and announcing his own intention to run for Vision, if they’ll have him, in what proves to be another quirk of this election since his politics appear far better-suited to COPE than Vision. Still, this is a guy who knows how and wants to make a difference and he can’t if ties himself to a dud party. Time will tell whether promising COPE candidates newcomer Meena Wong and veteran Ellen Woodsworth can hang onto the sinking COPE ship long enough to secure council spots and they may be watching Eby secure himself a spot as they ponder their next career moves.

All this confusion and the sheer number of names to juggle works in the NPA’s favour, as they maintain manageable candidate numbers and quietly work toward their September 13th nomination meeting, keeping as much attention as possible off the debacles of Sam Sullivan’s reign and their unflinching support of his whacky initiatives, even when they were wringing their hands behind the scenes, plotting his overthrow. One can almost imagine Sam mouthing the words “Et tu, Peter” as he leaves City Hall that final time in November. Will the public forgive Peter Ladner this subterfuge or question his ethics and commitment to the party that made him what he is?

More on the NPA next time…..

Can the individual save the organization? What makes a good police media relations person? A pleasing on-camera appearance, honesty, sound delivery, obviously, but sincerity is key. It is absolutely paramount to project competence, transparency and to appear as though the organization represented reflects those same qualities. Good intentions and good faith are not enough in this age where viewers are politically savvy and no longer take the word of the police as gospel – far from it, many viewers have an inherent mistrust of the police based on past screw-ups and they demand an accounting of police action from economic, social and emotional viewpoints.

Residents of BC’s Lower Mainland have both enjoyed and endured a long list of police media relations officers. The VPD has had more success in this area than the RCMP. Sgt. Anne Drennan attained an almost cult-like following for her ease and sincerity in front of the camera and down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach, but too many years in that job rendered her impatient and snappish near the end of her tenure.

Cst. Tim Fanning and Sgt. Howard Chow salvaged the office after the departure of Cpl. Scott Driemel, the media man – who channeled used car salesman – forced to transfer after allegations he told a sexist joke at a conference. Driemel notwithstanding, the VPD seems to follow a plan and give careful consideration to their media strategy, largely due to their hiring of BC media veteran Paul Patterson as their Public Affairs Section’s Senior Director.

Municipal member Sgt. Shinder Kirk, who speaks for BC’s Integrated Gang Task Force, does a fantastic job in this role, as he did when he spoke for the Abbotsford Police. He is articulate and forthright and as an Indo-Canadian man, can speak to issues of violence in that community without saying the wrong thing. New Westminster’s Sgt. Ivan Chu is another notable municipal mouthpiece.

The RCMP appears to lack a strategy, both in terms of what is said and who they chose to say it. Historically, they seem to vacillate between very attractive female talking heads such as Cpl. Catherine Galliford and hard-headed old boys like the aforementioned Pierre Lemaitre. Shields (see previous post) and Cpl. Dale Carr of the Integrated Homicide Unit are the exceptions, but Carr – who oozes confidence and competence – has been notably absent from the airwaves since the Robert Dziekanski tragedy.

Scott Driemel and Catherine Galliford

Individuals can only do so much. The RCMP’s mishandling of the Air India investigation illuminated their hubris in a way not previously seen. An inability to work with CSIS is at the heart of both this and the Mahar Arar affair and much of it stems from the RCMP perception that they are in charge, they are the smartest kid in school and everyone else should bow down in gratitude for their presence. Unfortunately, their record over the past several years doesn’t warrant this reception and let’s be honest – those CSIS kids probably all captained their Reach for the Top teams before going on to the likes of Dartmouth and Yale while the Mounties were playing beer league softball and taking junior college criminology classes.

The problem lies in a rush to some sort of judgment, a desire to tell Canadians what great thing they did today. It seems they can’t stop themselves: in the Robert Pickton investigation and subsequent convictions, the RCMP represent their involvement in the file as a rescue, a life preserver tossed to the beleaguered and under-manned Vancouver Police Department when their own investigation into Pickton stalled. This is another instance where the RCMP spoke too much and too soon, despite evidence that will make their words appear false or disingenuous. There will be a public inquiry and, once again, the public will lose confidence in the nation’s police force.

What makes their mouths write cheques their investigations can’t cash? Organizational flaws and a history of arrogance leaves these spokespeople twisting in the wind every time they step in front of the camera. If they want to right the Good Ship RCMP, they need to plan what they say and start saying the right things.

Like a punch-drunk fighter, the RCMP keep dragging themselves up off the mat, staggering to their feet, and inexplicably thrusting out their jaw to take yet another unprotected blow. They lack strategy, forethought and any long-term vision of how to project a public image Canadians can trust.

This time, emails collected through a Freedom of Information request reveal RCMP officials feared a public relations crucifiction for The Force’s handling of the Robert Dziekanski incident at Vancouver International Airport last year. Several media outlets “broke” this story over the past few days, but in reality, this isn’t news. This tragic incident highlights everything wrong with a police force in crisis, both at the street level and in the upper ranks.

Historically, the RCMP media people shoot from the lip first, only to backpedal when they are found to be wrong or have misspoken or the situation proves more complicated than at first glance, which is almost always the case. They so clearly – almost naively – want to be seen as forthright, rushing to comment, reassuring Canadians their society is still safe and the Nation’s police are in control, but they are completely unaware of the two words that could save them embarrassment and elevate the public’s confidence in them: no comment.

Really, talking isn’t such a bad thing if they could just say the right thing. BC’s Staff Sgt. Tim Shields knows the media game, and he brings those much-needed skills in his return to the media gig after several years absence, likely in an effort to clean up the mess left by recently-departed Sgt. Pierre Lemaitre, a man who never met a rush to judgment he didn’t like. Where Shields commiserates with other British Columbians while discussing a fellow member accused of workplace harassment, Lemaitre presented pure indignation whenever a member of the pubic dared question the actions of any RCMP member. Shields presents an earnest, almost geeky honesty, Lemaitre channels back alley bully.

The RCMP culture remains firmly rooted in a simpler time, when red-serged Dudley Do-Rights rode the prairies, tipping their hats to the women and earning the man-crush admiration of the men. The culture continues to this day at the RCMP training academy, or Depot, as it is known in Regina. Recruits are indoctrinated – not trained – in The RCMP Way, not to be confused with the Right Way or the Wrong Way. They are told from the moment they walk through the door they are part of Canada’s history and, collectively, they are special, part of something far bigger than any individual. A wannabe Marine Corps, sans the night jumps. It is this indoctrination that makes them unable to view Canadian citizens – mere mortals – as their equals. One can’t accuse the RCMP of discrimination, however; they treat other police agencies and CSIS the same way.

What the RCMP individually and collectively fail to grasp is that Canada doesn’t want special, it wants people who can competently manage disorder, investigate crime and present an image that engenders confidence and communicates compassion for all – not only the families of fallen members or victims of crime. Not only must the justice system be fair, there must be a perception of fairness. The RCMP have survived by keeping this “us and them” view of society tucked in firmly under their Stetsons. Make no mistake, this is a survival mechanism: to allow that we all might not be so very different or that maybe a few lucky breaks or a bad day are all that separates the good guys from the bad guys throws much of the traditional para-military police culture into a knee-shaking, stomach-wrenching panic.

Municipal police forces aren’t immune to these problems, certainly. However, they don’t seem to carry the baggage of Canada’s national police force, the weight of history and the expectation that they be all law enforcement things to all people. Municipal forces have to some degree responded to a changing world and this isn’t lost on the RCMP, who have always viewed Municipal forces as weak sisters and poor cousins. Those days are gone and the Mounties can’t compete with the better-educated, better-trained and more community-based officers emerging in Canada’s cities. The RCMP view of society is reflected in their own workplaces, where female, visible minority, gay and lesbian officers fare far worse than in Municipal police departments in terms of peer acceptance and opportunities for advancement.

In British Columbia, balance eludes the RCMP media strategy, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Policing is a reactionary business – bad stuff happens, they respond. Nowhere is a plan more important than in public relations for a Force recently decimated by cries of racism, ineptitude, corruption and poor training.

The question is this: can the RCMP adapt to a changing Canada and a changing law enforcement landscape before they destroy themselves in the eyes of the public they serve?

Stay tuned.

Tents dot the landscape of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, a Downtown Eastside (DTES) green space on the edge of ground zero in Canada’s poorest and most marginalized neighborhood. Drug addicts, the mentally and/or physically disabled, the working poor and underage runaways managing to fly beneath police radar share the dry grass as a marginally safer alternative to braving the violence on city streets and in the limited space in homeless shelters. A few short blocks to the west, developer Concord Pacific prepares to break ground on their latest condominium offering, inviting prospective buyers to consider the Greenwich Project, “a collection of modern flats surrounding the lush greenery of two interior courtyards”. Such is this latest scene of incongruity in a neighborhood under siege by the gentrification machine known as the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

If dodge ball or hot potato were Olympic sports, local and provincial politicians, housing activists and police would share in the medals, each group denying – to some degree understandably – responsibility for the ever-growing problem that is homelessness. To be fair, the disaster is so entrenched in systemic and societal missteps, no one can fully accept blame, nor is blame particularly useful as a means to a productive solution.

Typically, the micro has won out over the macro and the argument seems to be over whether to approve the development of more shelter beds or allow a tent city to exist in Metro Vancouver as a means to deal with growing numbers of homeless. Local activists focus their attention on developers like Concord Pacific and the City’s Development Permit Board – both easy but inappropriate targets. The City of Vancouver Parks Board bizarrely sits squarely at the centre of the Oppenheimer Park debate, merely because the tent city exists in a city park. The police hover on the perimeter, tentative, but obliged to act, nonetheless, because enforcement of Parks Board By-Laws falls into their duties if the job is too fraught with potential danger or public safety concerns for Parks’ staff to deal with. These two entities assume the role of judge, jury and executioner while the Province and City Hall sit back and hope the problem will disappear. But, like Britney Spears’ breakdown photos, it is here to stay, etched on the permanent record of our society. Mayor Sam Sullivan and his Council continue their silence, while relatively powerless Parks Board Commissioner Spencer Herbert twists in the wind with calls for more shelter beds or a real City-run tent city somewhere outside the downtown core. Where, exactly? Point Grey? Too close to the Premiere’s house and too far from the open drug market of the DTES. Whalley? Undoubtedly, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts would mount a gigantic NIMBY campaign to keep the tents away.

Comparing shelter spaces to affordable or supportive housing is like brushing your teeth with baking soda instead of Crest – you can do it for a day or two, when nothing else is available, but it’s never intended as a permanent solution. Early this year, advocates from the DTES Women’s Centre invited the Mayor and Council to participate in a housing swap, an invitation that was largely ignored and ridiculed by bureaucrats quick to cry “that is SO not the point!”. Seeing the likes of Kim Capri, Gordon Campbell, Rich Coleman and Geoff Plant bedding down under Science World – well, it’s impossible to imagine because they would never, ever do it, not even for one night. Because if they did, they would have to change their position, or at least break their silence. Wouldn’t they?

Vancouver needs a commitment to build respectful, affordable housing, not the ongoing smoke and mirrors show where we purchase more rundown rooming houses that will never be converted over to house the currently homeless – and it needs to happen now. Prior to the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, authorities bused street vendors, buskers, homeless and other so-called undesirables out of the region – hopefully to a spa or cooking school somewhere in Tuscany, but that appears doubtful – in the weeks leading up to the Games. VANOC members expressed shock and disbelief when informed this was not possible for police to do in Canada because of a little paper called the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. VANOC officials continue to scratch their heads over that one. Why can’t we do that, again? I don’t get it. A lasting, sustainable solution to the homeless problem has to happen and it has to happen now.

Only by bringing together all the stakeholders – the homeless, the Provincial Ministries of the Attorney General, Aboriginal Relations, Health Services, Housing and Social Development, Children and Family Development, Community Development, Public Safety and Solicitor General, City Council, the Vancouver Police, and all of the DTES organizations who work so tirelessly to hold the band-aid on the profusely bleeding wound that is homelessness. The only sound politicians hear is that of money talking, and the mounting evidence showing homelessness is more of a financial burden on our province than the cost of building affordable housing may just be the linchpin needed to move this project into reality.