Last year, less than three months after Jim Chu assumed command as chief constable, the Vancouver Police Department did something that would have been unthinkable under its previous chief, Jamie Graham. After years of fighting a series of complaints of abuse by its officers against poor people in the Downtown Eastside, the department issued a formal apology to the neighbourhood’s residents.
The department expressed “regrets” that “positive changes” in policies and procedures were not in practice at the time when the complaints were filed. The VPD stated in a news release in November 2007 that “this marks the beginning of a new era of improved service to the residents of the Downtown Eastside”.
Will the Vancouver police department be any different under Chu?
On the seventh floor of the VPD headquarters at 2120 Cambie Street, overlooking Downtown Vancouver, Chu, 48, occupies the same office as four chief constables before him. An insider who rose from the ranks, he recalls the succession of leadership within the department: Ray Canuel, Bruce Chambers, Terry Blythe, and Graham.
“There’s lots of continuity,” Chu tells the Georgia Straight. “I was part of Jamie’s executive team. As a team, we moved forward with our crime-fighting objectives. The decisions we have made over the last four years are things that we want to build on.”
He cites the VPD’s chronic-offenders program, which started in 2004 and targets repeat offenders. The chief also mentions “smaller changes”, like his “Con-Air” program wherein the department flies out people wanted for crimes in other provinces. “We are trying to send the message out that if you have a warrant for your arrest, don’t think you can come to Vancouver and walk our streets,” Chu says.
Con-Air won the support of former British Columbia solicitor general John Les, who last month contributed $40,000 of provincial funds two days before resigning because he was the subject of an RCMP investigation. But lawyer Jason Gratl, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, questions why police are parading in front of TV cameras people who may never be convicted of anything.
Saying that he’s not personally criticizing Chu, Gratl notes that the high-profile media drive of the VPD to promote Con-Air fits the pattern “in the past decade or so that police departments have taken it upon themselves to mould and shape the idea of crime in the minds of the public”.
“The emphasis on media and police communications also involves an increase in executive power on the part of the police to justify police immunity powers, more expansive search powers, [and] powers to use new weaponry,” Gratl tells the Straight.
Chu says he considers the VPD to be a nonprofit organization, and when he sits down for an interview with the Straight, he shows a book he recently picked up.
“When I see a good nonprofit management book, I like to grab it and read it,” Chu notes, displaying a copy of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits (Jossey-Bass, 2007). “One of the things you see in this book is how organizations realize what they do well. What we do well is crime fighting and catching criminals. What we don’t do well is be frontline mental-health-care workers. It takes us away from our core purpose, which is crime fighting.”
Although his predecessors have often fought city hall for funds to hire more officers, Chu hasn’t had such a tough time.
Over the next two years, the force that previous Vancouver police chiefs have marshalled into one of Canada’s biggest municipal forces will grow even bigger, thanks to a pledge by Mayor Sam Sullivan for the City to hire 96 more officers. An internal departmental memorandum places the VPD’s strength as of February 2008 at 1,342 officers.
A study released in November 2007 by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics shows how the VPD evolved as Chu made his way through the organization, starting as a 19-year-old rookie constable in 1979.
Police Resources in Canada, 2007 shows that Vancouver has the sixth-largest municipal police force, after Toronto (5,558), Montreal (4,406), Peel (1,686), Calgary (1,604), and Edmonton (1,364). The paper places Vancouver’s police strength at 1,309, using an actual police-officer count as of May 15, 2007.
However, quite a different picture emerges once these numbers are calculated to achieve a police-officer ratio per 100,000 people. The study shows that Vancouver has 222 police officers per 100,000 residents, second only to Montreal, which has a 235-to-100,000 ratio.
Stated another way, Vancouver has one police officer per 450 residents, and Montreal has one officer for every 425 people.
The same study also indicates that while the VPD’s total operating expenditures of $189.6 million in 2006 were less than those of the five abovementioned police forces, Vancouver’s policing costs appear to be the highest in Canada.
Vancouver spends $322 on policing per resident, compared to Toronto’s $320, Montreal’s $260, Peel’s $211, Calgary’s $244, and Edmonton’s $273.
The VPD isn’t a big fan of these police-to-resident ratios. The department’s 2008–2012 strategic plan, drawn up under Chu’s leadership, notes that such ratios are “not sufficient by themselves to assess the adequacy of police resources, as the actual population policed in Vancouver is far greater than the official residential population”.
The same strategic plan pointed out that although the city has approximately 588,000 residents in a 144-square-kilometre area, some 1.6 million residents from neighbouring suburbs gravitate to Vancouver for various reasons, from business to recreation to protests. According to the plan, these exert an “incredible influence on VPD workload”.
Efficient management is a prime concern for Chu. He was promoted early to the rank of inspector, in 1997, and he notes that he is now the longest-serving manager among his peers in the department. Chu, who was raised in East Vancouver, began his career as a beat cop. He then became a detective and was promoted to patrol sergeant in 1991, a post he held for five years.
As the city’s top crime fighter, Chu was pleased that, earlier this year, the VPD hosted a conference of police chiefs from major cities in North America. It gave Chu the chance to speak to one of the attendees whose approach to fighting crime has influenced him: William Bratton, head of the Los Angeles Police Department.
It was in New York during the 1990s that Bratton gained prominence. He was picked by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani to become New York City police commissioner after being credited with restoring public order in the city’s subway system as chief of the transit police. Bratton had developed a close working relationship with, and implemented the ideas of, criminologist George Kelling, who developed with another academic the “broken windows” theory of public order and policing in 1982. Essentially, the theory is that taking care of minor law infractions—such as littering, graffiti, and loitering—will pay off in later reductions in major crime.
Although New York City’s crime rate plummeted during Bratton’s term, some social thinkers, like economist Steven Levitt, don’t think the broken-window theory is the answer to crime. In his bestseller Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (HarperTorch, 2005), Levitt wrote that there was “frighteningly little evidence” that the theory is a panacea. He noted that crime rates fell across the U.S. during the 1990s, including in areas that didn’t employ this approach.
An article jointly written by Bratton and Kelling in the February 28, 2006, edition of the National Review magazine sought to answer such attacks. “We’ve argued for many years that when police pay attention to minor offenses—such as prostitution, graffiti, aggressive panhandling—they can reduce fear, strengthen communities, and prevent serious crime,” they wrote. They cited the “demonstrable success” of the theory as implemented by Bratton with both New York’s transit and city police.
Bratton also implemented what is known in police circles as CompStat, which is basically the use of computerized statistics to guide law enforcers in discerning crime patterns, allocating resources, and setting performance targets for officers. This approach to crime fighting was first developed in 1994 by Jack Maple, a former deputy commissioner with the New York Police Department, and is a method that has been adopted by the VPD.
Chu cites Bratton’s 1998 book The Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic, and Maple’s The Crime Fighter: Putting the Bad Guys Out of Business as important works.
“It [Maple’s book] talks about how you have to be relentless,” Chu says. “That’s something I like to drive our organization towards: you’re hunters out there, catching the criminals, all acting within the rule of law.”
For years, there had been tension between the VPD and British Columbia’s office of the police complaint commissioner, demonstrated by the department’s noncooperation in some investigations into complaints against its officers.
Bruce Brown, a deputy commissioner at the OPCC, tells the Straight that Chu has “certainly indicated to us that he is more than willing to work with our office to ensure quality internal investigations” by the VPD of complaints lodged against its members.
Brown also says that Chu has taken things a step further by asking outside police agencies to conduct external investigations of complaints filed against VPD officers to ensure transparency. “To me, that’s a positive approach,” Brown says. “We have the same goal in mind, and that’s to ensure that the public has an effective mechanism for dealing with complaints, and that those complaints are investigated thoroughly. He has shown a commitment, as far as I can tell, that he’s prepared to do that.”
According to figures from its latest available annual report, the OPCC opened some 1,260 complaint files against VPD officers between 2001 and 2006. The number of complaint files peaked at 269 in 2006, compared to the lowest figure of 148 in 2001.
After working for 12 years as a constable, Walter McKay resigned from the VPD in 2002—just when Chu’s immediate predecessor, Jamie Graham, became chief constable—so he could pursue PhD studies on police culture and training.
In an interview with the Straight from Mexico, where he has been working for two years as a consultant on police reforms, McKay suggests that the VPD had been loosening up its paramilitary orientation in the years before Graham came in and reinstituted such culture. This orientation, according to McKay, is one that is opposed to civilian oversight and is geared toward a hierarchical command-and-control system.
“When you have command and control, you have more of a secret society,” McKay says. “It’s easier to keep secrets and hide things behind that paramilitary wall.”
Insp. John de Haas, head of the VPD’s diversity-and-aboriginal-policing section, believes that the department has evolved through the years along with the changing social and legal environment. He cites the passage of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 as one factor.
De Haas explains that prior to the charter, police would advise people placed under arrest about the reasons they were being taken into custody more as a matter of courtesy, and because it made sense to do so.
“Those are now obligations in law under the charter,” De Haas tells the Straight. “Now it’s embedded in the charter. The consequences are far greater now if we fail to abide by the charter”¦which has meant a lot of cases not going ahead because there’s a lack of compliance to the charter. Prior to the charter, it was less of an issue.”
The people who make up the force have also changed, according to De Haas, and he gives a profile of the typical VPD officer in the ’70s or ’80s.
“Tall, male, white Caucasian, Grade 12 education, moralistic, knows right from wrong in their own mind, judgmental, and authoritative. The job was clear: ”˜You’re the authority.’ ”
Retired constable Al Arsenault was Chu’s classmate in the police academy. Talking to the Straight by phone from Thailand, where he is writing a couple of books about his days in the Downtown Eastside, Arsenault puts it this way: “The days of the old, big, knuckle-dragging policeman—all brawn and no brains—are gone.”
De Haas asserts that the contemporary VPD officer is most likely university educated and open-minded. “I think they’re understanding that there are underlying realities why people are the way they are,” he said. “Homeless people are not bad people. Years ago, you’d be judged for your sexuality; you’d be judged for your race, perhaps. By having a diverse police department, and a very smart police department, we don’t have that culture anymore.”
Pivot Legal Society lawyer David Eby says that Vancouver has a “better police department now than we did 10 years ago”.
In an interview, Eby notes that the VPD stopped its practice of “breaching” two years ago, in which people are taken by the police from one area and left in another. However, the activist lawyer suggests that there’s a lot of room for the VPD to improve the way it deals with the poor.
“For every two steps forward, they take one back,” Eby said, citing the VPD’s 2008 annual business plan as an example. “There are forces in the department advocating the broken-windows approach to policing.”
The business plan calls for a 20-percent increase in the number of charges to be laid by the police against people under the Safe Streets Act and the Trespass Act compared to 2007. “Members will receive training to use existing legislation to specifically combat behaviour and activities that contribute to urban decay, including aggressive panhandling, squeegeeing, graffiti, public fights, open-air drug markets, unlicensed street vending, the scavenger economy, and sleeping/camping in City parks and other public spaces,” the VPD plan stated.
Jim Deva, a staunch advocate for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, recalls that acts of homosexuality were illegal in Canada until 1969. “We were not treated with a whole lot of respect by most officers before that point,” Deva tells the Straight. “We were mistreated for a long, long time.”
Chu headed the VPD’s diversity-relations unit for six months. During that time, he wrote the first draft of B.C.’s anti-hate-crime policy, which is still being used by police and Crown prosecutors.
“I found him to be extremely respectful,” Deva says about his experiences working with Chu in the aftermath of the beating death of Aaron Webster, a gay man, in 2001. “I would hesitate to use the word gentle, but I find that’s the way he is. That’s a very unusual thing for a senior police officer, to not strut in and sort of take over a room and be the head dude.”
As a recruiting sergeant in 1996, Chu hired the first Vietnamese-Canadian officer to join the VPD. When Chu, the son of immigrant parents from Shanghai, joined the ranks in 1979, there was only one other Chinese Canadian in the force.
At present, there are 181 male and 37 female visible-minority officers in the department. They hail from the Chinese, South Asian, Japanese, Filipino, Hispanic, African, Persian, Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese, Korean, and Indonesian communities. There are 21 First Nations police officers.
During the 1990s, Vancouver residents of Latin American backgrounds complained that they were being targeted by police officers as part of a crackdown on suspected Honduran drug dealers. In 1997, then–BC Lions linebacker Eddie Thomas, an African-Canadian, said he was beaten up by Vancouver police officers and that one called him a “stupid nigger”, a claim denied by a department spokesperson at the time. Chu, then an acting inspector and head of the VPD’s diversity-relations unit, questioned Thomas’s claims in an interview with the Straight, saying that most VPD officers are from Vancouver, where the word nigger isn’t generally part of the vocabulary, unlike in the United States.
A friend of Chu, Vancouver lawyer Frits Verhoeven notes that the chief’s unassuming personality will serve the department well in establishing better relations with various communities.
“Clearly, the police need to be seen as part of the community, rather than the police force for the community,” Verhoeven tells the Straight. “If they’re going to do an adequate job with all the ethnic communities that exist, they shouldn’t be seen as the enemy.”
For Dave Jones, a veteran police officer who retired as an inspector in 2003, Chu has done a good job so far in making stakeholders in law-enforcement issues aware that the VPD chief is interested in knowing their particular concerns.
“He’s brought the sense of the police who listens, and that they’ll be involved in process and they won’t exclude people because of ideological reasons,” Jones tells the Straight.
The 2005–2006 annual report of the VPD recruiting unit, prepared by Sgt. Steve Rai, noted that the number of recruits from visible-minority communities in those two years represented “nearly a two-fold increase” from those recorded in 2003 and 2004.
Now an inspector and Chu’s executive officer, Rai also reported at the time that 40 to 44 percent of recruits in 2005 and 2006 had “degrees and diplomas”, slightly up from the 35 to 37 percent of postsecondary-educated recruits in 2003 and 2004.
Chu relates that in 1990, the VPD upgraded the minimum educational requirement of applicants to 30 credits of postsecondary schooling.
The minimum height requirement of 5-9 for men and 5-4 for women was done away with in 1985, according to Chu.
“That was the mentality in those days, that you need big, burly cops to break up fights in bars,” Chu said. “The police department has changed over the years. The first option for using force is presence, just being there. The second is dialogue. When we train people, our objective in every type of situation is to not use force. Unfortunately, in our line of work, sometimes you do. But that’s the perspective of our training.”
Chu’s life as a police officer started the day he heard about a VPD recruitment drive on the radio as he was driving to SFU to attend class as a first-year commerce student.
“I turned my car around, skipped school that day, drove to 312 Main [Street], and then went to the recruiting area and said, ”˜Can I get an application form?’ ” Chu recalls. While working as a police officer, he got a bachelor’s degree in business administration at SFU, and he later obtained a master’s degree in the same field at UBC.
It could be said that Chu’s policing career actually started much earlier. As a student at General Wolfe elementary school, Chu worked at the corner of King Edward and Ontario as a school safety-patrol officer under a program that continues to be jointly administered by the VPD and the Vancouver school board.
Chu says all he ever wanted was to prove that he could be a good police officer who just happens to be someone of Chinese descent.