Urban general Jamie Graham's tough approach wins praise from VPD troops

Comments0

When it comes to measuring the power of the police over the public, it's worth stealing a line from Vancouver's Chief Constable Jamie Graham: "If I was to tell you what I know," Graham told a CKNW radio audience last year, "I tell you there would be some sleepless nights."

Graham wasn't talking about the behaviour of his troops, either in his current post with the Vancouver police or in his previous jobs as the commanding officer of the Surrey (2000-2002) or the North Vancouver RCMP (1992-2000).

He was discussing what intelligence reports were saying about Vancouver's appeal for terrorists. But he could just as easily have been talking about the tales told by victims of police misconduct.

Graham has the distinction of being the man that many VPD officers, both current and former, claim is the best chief to have ever led the department. But for some of those outside the brotherhood, it's a different story.

But the political acumen that took a high-school kid from small RCMP detachments in Alberta to top cop in Vancouver's 1,200-member department will probably see him through yet another skirmish.

There's little recourse for people who feel themselves wronged by the police. The B.C. Police Act shields individual officers from civil suits as long as they can persuade a judge their actions were taken in good faith in the course of their job. Complaints can be made to the police complaints commissioner, Dirk Ryneveld, but the police will investigate themselves.

Chief Graham is the final arbiter on what is acceptable behaviour for his troops in his role as the "discipline authority". Since arriving at his post in August 2002, he has seen between 169 and 186 public complaints against his department annually and found that the majority are baseless.

"After investigating, seven or eight are found [to be legitimate], and I discipline two or three a year," Graham says.

If there continues to be a public clamour over an incident, and Ryneveld determines it is in the public interest, the police complaints commissioner has the power to call for an investigation or a costly public hearing.

Graham asked the RCMP to review mayor-elect Sam Sullivan following Sullivan's admission that he gave money to people several years ago to buy drugs. Sullivan also let a crack addict smoke up in his van. (See page 58.) Currently, Graham, the man who usually does the investigating, is under scrutiny himself from the RCMP due to a complaint made by a senior member of the department. (See story below.)

The VPD's ability to deflect and diminish criticism by limiting cooperation with investigators was noted in Ryneveld's report last month on the investigation of complaints of police misconduct made by the Pivot Legal Society. Ryneveld reported instances of officers refusing to provide evidence, or even interfering with the RCMP investigators' work.

"The end product was an ethos within the VPD of hyper-vigilance, extreme defensiveness and outright resistance," Ryneveld wrote. "This was an ethos which, if it was not actively shared by senior management, was not challenged or quelled in any effective way by management."

Which raises the question: is Jamie Graham the guy to fix those problems?

To call Chief Constable Graham charming is perhaps an understatement. When the phrase "an officer and a gentleman" was coined, Graham was the kind of guy they had in mind. At 56, what's left of his hair is grey and he wears glasses, but his powerful, broad-shouldered, 6-foot-3-inch frame is still drill-sergeant straight. In the event of a riot, he's just the man you'd want between you and the angry mob.

He's warm, funny, and likely to make jokes at his own expense: the lacklustre grades that kept him out of the Royal Military College at Kingston is a favourite target.

"I always thought I'd be a soldier. I thought they were joking when they told me they didn't take students with grades like mine," he says, recalling that he'd already lined up a spot on the football team.

He even tried to argue his way in by giving them his view of a soldier's job: "I said, 'Just point me at the bad guys.'?"

Graham had already had a taste for the military due to his Nova Scotia boarding school, King's College, where the curriculum mixed morning classes with afternoon athletics-he played rugby and basketball-and compulsory time in the military cadets.

"It was like something out of Charles Dickens. The headmaster was tough; all the instructors were British and Scottish-God forbid if you had a problem."

But he flourished. "I had grown up with famous Canadian soldiers around the dinner table telling stories," says Graham, whose father was a colonel and a military attaché in New Delhi. "I thought being a soldier was romantic."

The teenage Graham would have joined the American army to fight in Vietnam-as his brother Rob, a Green Beret, did in 1967-if the RCMP hadn't recruited him first. "I knew it was the life for me," he says. "Boot camp was like you see in the movies: brutal. A lot of drills in basic, and it broke a lot of young guys who couldn't handle it."

Graham may be as tough as old army boots, but despite that-or perhaps because of it-he's idolized by his troops. It was widely predicted that "the outsider" who beat out then-coroner Larry Campbell for the top-cop job wouldn't last the five years of his contract when he arrived in August 2002 after 34 years with the RCMP.

But among VPD officers present and former, it's surprising how many of them describe Graham as the best chief the VPD has ever had. Kim Rossmo, a former Vancouver police officer who developed a computer program for profiling serial killers, had a number of grievances against the previous regime but he says Graham is exactly the strong leader the force needed.

"He has a presence, he's a gentleman, and he's knowledgeable," says Rossmo, who now teaches at Texas State University, in a phone interview. "The chief's job is very political and Graham does a good job of balancing both his constituencies, the public and the police."

Last month, an internal morale survey showed that Graham had the highest approval ratings since the exercise began in 1998. Forty-nine percent of staff filled out the anonymous form-only 29 percent bothered in 2002-and, of those, 75 percent rated their satisfaction on the job "somewhat high" or "very high". Even some of the less positive employees indicated support for the chief-as always, their biggest grievance was with the justice system not giving them more power.

Lawyer Cameron Ward is one of the people who has lost sleep over police power, and he would argue with Rossmo about the public being well-served. Ward describes Graham as "loyal to a fault" in protecting his troops from public scrutiny.

"From where I sit there's a culture within the VPD of plain old bullying like you find in the schoolyard," says Ward, 48, who was arrested by Vancouver police in August 2002.

According to Ward, he stopped in Chinatown, which is near his office, to watch then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at a ribbon-cutting for the Millennium Gate. A trio of officers asked for his identification. He says they asked if he had a pie. Ward, a slim, soft-spoken man with thick, prematurely grey hair, asked why, repeatedly, which prompted them to slap cuffs on him. He says he asked, repeatedly, if he was under arrest, and he recalls being told that if he didn't shut up they would charge him with assaulting a police officer. Ward says they refused to let him call a lawyer and relieved him of his cellphone. He was strip-searched.

He spent about six hours in a cell he describes as a filthy, windowless concrete box without access to a phone before they released him.

"I realized how completely powerless I was-after several hours I was ready to confess to anything just to get out of there, and I'm not claustrophobic. It was an eye-opening experience, and I think everyone in the judicial system should experience it."

Ward made a complaint: he wanted an apology from the police. What he got was the police spokesperson making well-reported comments implying that he deserved to be arrested. Angry, Ward filed a suit in 2003 claiming they violated his Charter rights.

Lawyers for the VPD attempted to have the claim against the officers struck, arguing that the officers were protected under Section 21 of the Police Act because they were doing their job. Allegedly, they had a reasonable suspicion that Ward might have plans to assault the prime minister with a pie.

When asked why, if it was a case of mistaken identity that got out of hand, the police wouldn't consider apologizing and at least save the legal costs, Graham says he doesn't recall the case and wouldn't comment until all the facts had been heard in court (the trial is scheduled for November 2006).

"But you know he [Ward] is a lawyer who has acted against the police?" Graham asks.

Ward has represented complainants in some high-profile public hearings, including the ones into the deaths of Jeff Berg and Robert Bagnall. The B.C. Supreme Court judge who upheld Ward's right to make a claim also drew attention to this.

"From the statements," Judge Selwyn Romilly wrote in his reasons for denying the VPD's application, "”¦there would seem to be an irresistible inference that the Police Defendants, all of whom knew the identity of the Plaintiff [Ward] and his past history with the police, sought by their actions to embarrass and punish the Plaintiff. In so doing they infringed a number of the Plaintiff's Charter protected rights. In this regard, I cannot help but question the purpose of the alleged strip search of the Plaintiff. Did the police officers really expect to find a pie hidden beneath the Plaintiff's clothes?"

Ward's experience of being transformed from an innocent member of the public to what Law & Order has taught us all to think of as the "perp" was an eye opener for him. But it wouldn't surprise Walter McKay, whose description of the hazards of the police's paramilitary culture looks like a blueprint for Ward's experience.

McKay spent 12 years with the Vancouver police before his PhD research into police culture and ethics took him to the Los Angeles' Police Assessment Resource Center, which studies police behaviour. He believes it's the paramilitary subculture, that begins with their training, that gives officers a sense of danger that is out of proportion with the facts and that makes them overreact.

McKay believes the public is at greater risk from officers who see danger where it isn't than from some of the so-called bad apples.

"There's a conflicting ethos [for police]: they are servants and protectors who are part of the community, but there's also the paramilitary ethos, that you are part of a brotherhood and there are enemies out there and you are there to combat the bad guys. ERT [Emergency Response Team], when they're kitted up and kicking in doors, they don't looking any different than soldiers, and they train back and forth with the Canadian military.

"It's an urban army. And ask yourself this: if we were developing a police force from scratch, now, would we think of dropping an army into the middle of a city?" McKay says. "In many ways it's the antithesis of [modern] policing, which is about problem-solving. In general, police are trying to evolve to that, but the military culture keeps overriding it."

He adds that the more militaristic the police subculture, the more likely it is there will be abusive incidents.

Part of the subculture, McKay says, is to exaggerate the danger as a way of increasing the hiring budget. He adds that although he spent time as a detective on the Downtown Eastside, he didn't find policing in Vancouver dangerous.

That's something Graham and his soldiers dispute, but the facts support McKay.

Since the VPD's inception in 1886, 16 officers have died in the course of their job; most recently, Sgt. Larry Young 18 years ago, in 1987.

Compare that with the B.C. jobs most likely to lead to death. The Workers Compensation Board keeps statistics in 10-year blocks. From 1994 to 2003, 373 people working in primary-resources industries died on the job. In construction, there were 284 fatalities. Transportation and warehousing killed 266 workers; manufacturing 221. A total of 1,525 claims for work-related deaths were made in this period.

As for on-the-job injuries, the WCB reports that nurses score much higher than municipal police in racking up claims for violent attacks. From 2000 to 2004, nurses made 537 claims due to violent attacks; police in B.C. made 331.

(Although the VPD doesn't keep records of how many people die in custody, a quick glance at the Web site of the office of the police complaints commissioner (opcc.bc.ca/) shows four deaths in conjunction with VPD arrest and custody since 2003.)

Graham attributes the VPD's safety record to good training, professionalism, and a "proactive approach" to safety. "We seize a lot of firearms and replicas on the job," he says.

But McKay's research triggers that culture of defensiveness that Ryneveld mentions. The chief dismisses McKay's views as "extreme", and, later, his executive officer, Tony Zanatta, takes the defence a step further, dismissing the man himself: "I knew Walt McKay; he wasn't a policeman," Insp. Zanatta says, refusing to elaborate.

And Graham bristles slightly at the suggestion that what is necessary to keep this paramilitary culture in check is tougher civilian oversight, beginning with independent complaints investigators.

"I'm in the investigating business, I put my reputation and those of my investigating officers behind everything I have done," he says, adding that he has done some of his toughest investigating on the police.

But the chief would rather dwell on his "core message" that the city needs more officers to do their dangerous job. "Maybe we could turn this into a recruiting piece," he suggests with jocularity.

Graham says he doesn't enjoy being the public-relations frontman; he only does it because it was made clear to him that part of how he earns his $224,000 annual salary is by wooing the public. Nevertheless, he's a PR director's dream, not least because he created the marketing and public-affairs office and hired Paul Patterson, a former news director at CBC television news, to run it.

"I think we're the first police department to have a marketing department," Graham says proudly, adding that Patterson's advice has been invaluable. "We have been sending [TV news outlets] eight-second clips. What you see on the news is what we have been sending them."

As an antidote to stories of cowboy cops, the VPD is printing its own tabloid: Beyond the Call: Celebrating Outstanding Achievements of the Men and Women of the VPD.

On December 12, the VPD is launching a public-service campaign in partnership with ICBC and Kwantlen College to educate the public on thwarting thieves.

And then there are the gushing car stories written by Rob Rothwell-who also happens to be a VPD Inspector-in American Auto Press that feature Graham endorsing various vehicles.

So is Jamie Graham the guy to fix the VPD? Not likely, according to his critics, but Walter McKay expresses it best. He doesn't know Graham, and he too hears that the troops revere him, but he expects that Graham's own love of military standards and values will only reinforce the culture that leads to police-misconduct complaints. McKay says it's part of military culture to protect "honourable officers" at all costs. "You can bet that when they take suspects to Stanley Park and beat them up they think they're doing the right thing," McKay says.

McKay points out that this isn't a personal judgment: his research tells him that no chief schooled in traditional police values could solve the problems uncovered by the office of the police complaints commissioner.

Chief Graham and the troops won't even admit there is a problem with applying 19th-century values and solutions to 21st-century problems.