Downtown Eastside sergeant Kalwinder Dosanjh aims to build community rapport
To serve and protect. To go beyond the call. These are not just slogans to Vancouver police sergeant Kalwinder Dosanjh. On a recent late-night walkabout with the Georgia Straight in the Downtown Eastside, the veteran street cop and part-time power-lifter demonstrates how he’s trying to do policing differently.
The tour begins with a friendly exchange with a group of people in their early 20s standing outside the No 5 Orange strip bar at the corner of Main and Powell streets. One drunken fellow remarks that where he’s from in the Kootenays, police don’t shake hands while out on the beat.
Moments later, a female drug addict approaches the 35-year-old Dosanjh, who’s in uniform, and says, “Excuse me, honey. Are you a cop?”
She wants to know about the meaning of a no-contact order. That’s because a man who broke her nose recently walked by her. Dosanjh offers a polite and detailed response, eliciting a gracious “Thank you.”
After greeting an intoxicated man further down Powell Street, he tells the Straight that he wants to develop a better rapport with people in the neighbourhood.
“If you start building bridges, that’s when you become an effective police officer,” he says.
The Vancouver Police Department is also attempting this through a television program called The Beat, which airs on Citytv at 10:30 p.m. on Saturdays. It tracks Vancouver cops in the Downtown Eastside, including Dosanjh, as they apprehend criminals and interact with business owners and residents.
He says the show reflects the principles of the father of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel, who emphasized that police officers are part of the community they serve.
“We’re here for them,” Dosanjh says. “So if we have a sense of compassion for them—and we’re here for them—then we can be successful at what we do.”
The show frustrates some. Jen Allan, cofounder of the citizens’ group Copwatch, tells the Straight by phone that even though she believes that Dosanjh is a “pretty humane police officer”, she claims that The Beat exploits poor people to boost the VPD’s image.
Doug King, a lawyer at Pivot Legal Society, tells the Straight by phone that his office has received numerous complaints from people who’ve alleged that they didn’t provide consent before they were filmed.
“The biggest bone we have with the way they’ve been policing is the use of this television show,” King says.
Dosanjh, however, stresses The Beat’s value in presenting positive messages to young people. He also readily admits to exasperation when he reads news reports of another South Asian gang member dying.
“The small segment of these gangsters that belong to the Indo-Canadian community were destroying it for all of the hardworking South Asians who immigrated to this country so they could give their children a better life,” he declares. “We do need more good role models in this community. I consider it a personal obligation to step onto the platform. I was given this opportunity to be on mainstream media not only as a police officer to show the challenges we face, but also to represent our community—and show our youth that if you continue your education, you can become a professional in a respected field and you can give back to society, as opposed to just taking from it.”
He does this not only by chasing down the bad guys in front of TV cameras. After a Filipino-Canadian teenager was stabbed to death near the Main Street SkyTrain station several years ago, Dosanjh set up a sports program for inner-city kids to help them develop a sense of camaraderie. It has grown from 100 to more than 400 members.
With the Sahara Services Society, he created a soccer program for South Asian young people that has been running for a couple of years.
And early next year, Dosanjh says, he’ll join the domestic-violence unit because he wants to reduce spousal abuse in the South Asian community. He notes that many women come from traditional family backgrounds in Punjab, but when they arrive in Canada from distant villages, they don't have the same support networks in place.
"Their husbands will abuse them physically, mentally, and psychologically," he states. "That has bothered me a lot."
In the meantime, he’s got his hands full overseeing a squad of 10 officers in the neighbourhood. Walking along Water Street, he explains how they’re about to arrest a drug dealer who beat his girlfriend when she broke up with him.
“Under the attorney general’s domestic-violence policy, we have a responsibility to the victim to ensure her safety,” he says. "We're going to go ahead and pick him up and arrest him for the assault, and take him to jail and impose conditions on him."
Dosanjh studied psychology and criminology at SFU with a view to attending law school. His life took a turn when he joined an RCMP summer-student constable program. “Let’s just say I became addicted to the adrenaline rush,” he says with a smile.
Now, he calls the streets of the Downtown Eastside his "office".
During the walkabout, Dosanjh stops a drunken young man who has kicked over a sign outside a pub on Cordova Street. After checking his smartphone to determine that the suspect has no criminal record, Dosanjh brings him back to apologize to the staff rather than booking him on a mischief charge.
"At the end of the day, this is how we like to resolve situations," Dosanjh says, noting that it's not going to bring the judicial system into disrepute if the business owner is satisfied with the man saying he's sorry.
Later, Dosanjh explains how officers shut down a Hastings Street grocery called the Van Lye that was selling illicit narcotics.
"We located secret compartments built into the store where large items could be kept, such as kilos of drugs," he reveals. "We also noticed other paraphernalia...and lots of cash."
Moments later, he stops three young people at the corner of Hastings and Carrall streets. He suspects they are "supervisors" for high-level drug dealers.
Dosanjh says the gangsters prefer recruiting people young enough so that they can't be charged as adults under the Criminal Code. "They load up drug dealers—the drug dealers are addicts," he states. "Once the money is made, they [the supervisors] take it."
In this instance, these young people are not carrying any drugs or weapons. A fourth man is a convicted dealer, who's willing to talk to the Straight about his occupation.
It turns out that he has had a long-term stable relationship with his girlfriend, and he has two children, ages 11 and six. He doesn't want to reveal his name, but readily concedes that he grew up in foster care, bouncing between about 20 different homes, and was cut off any assistance at the age of 19.
"My mom and dad used to beat me," the man says, adding that he and his brother would hide in closets without food and water until the social workers would show up.
As for drug dealing, he says it's not worth the time and it's not worth the money.
"Out of all these programs that they have for people who do drugs, why not have a program for rehabilitating drug dealers?" he asks.
At that point, Dosanjh pleasantly asks him if he would stop dealing drugs if he were given an opportunity to attend school and if his bills were being paid.
"I would do it in one second," he replies. "I would just run out of here."
Sgt. Kalwinder Dosanjh talks about the drug issue in the Downtown Eastside.
Dosanjh’s job has its risks—he says he’s chased down numerous people who were holding guns. He also recalls a time when he had to point a gun at a man as he held another man at knifepoint in Gastown.
"It went on for 10 seconds," he says. "He dropped the knife."
Dosanjh says he learned his work ethic from his parents, a mill worker and an airline employee. And he acknowledges that in doing this work, he has also been inspired by Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru of the Sikh faith.
Gobind Singh created a military order called the Khalsa to protect Punjabis from the tyrannical ruling Moguls in the late-17th and 18th centuries.
“He fought against injustice; he worked to help the poor and the impoverished,” Dosanjh said. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s exactly the type of person I want to be—I want to take those principles and ingrain them.’ ”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.