Community activist Alicia Barsallo remembers the 1990s as a difficult period to be a Latino.
Combing through old files in the basement of her East Vancouver home, Barsallo recalled that Latino men were targeted by the police as part of a crackdown against Honduran drug dealers. This didn't spare Luis Calderon, whom Barsallo described as a writer and poet from El Salvador. Calderon, then Barsallo's colleague at the now-defunct B.C. Latin American Congress, was beaten up twice in one night by the police in 1999.
But Barsallo also noted that police harassment wasn't only directed against Latinos. "It was any young, poorly dressed man standing or walking in particular areas of town, like the Downtown Eastside," she told the Georgia Straight. "They would be treated in a disrespectful manner."
Vancouver police chief–designate Jim Chu was rising through the department ranks during the '90s. This August, Chu will replace outgoing police Chief Jamie Graham, who even in his retirement will be dogged by a complaint that he obstructed an RCMP investigation into police abuses on the Downtown Eastside. When Chu's appointment as incoming VPD chief was announced on June 21, Chu said during a news conference that he looks "forward to meeting with our external stakeholders".
One of those stakeholders is Dave Jones, an ex–police inspector who used to play rugby with Chu when he was still on the force, and who recently had breakfast with the incoming chief. Now director of crime-prevention services for the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, Jones told the Straight that Chu's challenge is dealing with a criminal justice system that he likens to a "dysfunctional, alcoholic family".
"You have a whole bunch of agencies who are out there apologizing and defending people whose behaviour is a problem for the community, on the basis that they had a bad childhood or they're addicted or they have a mental-health problem that's untreated," Jones said. "For instance, you have a bunch of criminals who are creating problems and the first line of defence is to attack the police when they take that person into custody. Those are the deniers; those are the apologists. Then you have other groups rushing off to do all these good things to build supports and to mitigate the damage caused by these people instead of dealing directly with what is the problem."
Jones noted that on July 27 he heard about a petty thief who had been arrested six times in the previous 16 days, and that the man had been set free again.
"If he [Chu] can get the attention of the courts to break out of this death spiral of not dealing with individuals who are criminals, I don't care if the underlying cause is mental health or addiction," Jones said.
He also defended the VPD against complaints of heavy-handedness. "The police department, last time I did the count a few years ago, had about four million contacts per year with human beings and out of those had generated 220 complaints per year," he said. "I put that up against any organization as an outstanding ability to deal with people."
Another of Chu's stakeholders is the Pivot Legal Society. In October 2002, the society published To Serve and Protect, a report that compiled affidavits from 50 people detailing accounts of beatings, torture, unlawful detention, illegal strip searches, illegal entry into homes, abusive language, and unlawful confinement by police on the Downtown Eastside. Pivot cofounder John Richardson told the Straight that Chu can institute some reforms.
One is increased compassion training, which Richardson said will result in a "constructive dialogue with people on the street in a way that doesn't further marginalize them". He pointed out that the Downtown Eastside is a complex area to police and that the VPD must drop its practice of pairing rookie officers for assignments there.
"I don't think it should be a place where rookie officers are put to cut their teeth," Richardson said.
Following the 2004 Boxing Day shooting death of Nisga'a man Gerald Chenery by two constables who had just finished training, a coroner's inquest recommended that the Vancouver police no longer allow rookie officers to be partnered. (Chenery was hit with 12 bullets, 10 of them in the back, according to inquest testimony.) "The police department rejected the coroner's inquest recommendation," Richardson said.
Richardson said that Chu can also adopt the integrity-testing system, which is a proactive system of monitoring police conduct. In New York, police officers are placed in actual situations to determine if they're bad cops or corrupt.
"The analogy here is bait cars," Richardson said.