Transit gun plan draws fire

As TransLink special constables brush up on their knowledge of firearms, some critics are questioning why transit cops even need guns. The president of the union representing SkyTrain attendants, community activists, and a man who claims he was assaulted by SkyTrain police have all told the Georgia Straight that they worry about innocent people being killed when transit police start carrying firearms this autumn.

Gerry Cunningham, president of CUPE Local 7000, told the Straight that he hasn't seen any evidence to support allowing transit constables to carry guns. "I know the union is aware of threats and assaults happening on employees and patrons that do use the SkyTrain," Cunningham said. "However, in saying that, the union is not aware of any threats or assaults that included the use of firearms on the SkyTrain system."

Last March, the B.C. Liberal government announced that members of a new Greater Vancouver Transit Auth?ority Police Service will carry guns. The new authority will also be governed by its own police board, chaired by New Westminster police Chief Lorne Zapotichny.

Zapotichny told the Straight that the GVTAPS force won't be created until all the officers have completed training on the use of force and firearms. Unlike SkyTrain's unarmed special constables, the new force is subject to the police complaints commissioner's jurisdiction. "For all intents and purposes, they have the same authority as a regular police officer," Zapotichny said.

However, Cunningham claimed that SkyTrain attendants haven't received any training on what to do if transit police draw their guns on the SkyTrain. "So the chances of one of the patrons getting hit or staff getting hit in the event of the use of firearms or things like that is pretty good," Cunningham said. "That's a huge concern for our staff."

A 38-year-old Nigerian immigrant in Vancouver, Gavanant Avolu, told the Straight that he worries about transit constables carrying firearms. Avolu alleged to the Straight that he was seriously assaulted on June 14 by transit constables at the Patterson SkyTrain station.

Avolu, who is black, claimed he had a monthly pass and was travelling the SkyTrain to school in New Westminster at around 9 a.m. He said that transit constables weren't interested in looking at his monthly pass or its FastTrax sticker, which enables him to travel two-zone distances with a one-zone card.

He claimed that cops ordered him off the train and struck his wrist three times with a baton. Then he claimed that a constable kneed him in the back when he didn't lie flat on the floor at the station.

"If he had a gun, he wouldn't have minded shooting my legs," Avolu alleged.

TransLink spokesperson Ken Hardie told the Straight he couldn't comment on Avolu's situation. Bob Kind, the senior officer with the TransLink police, did not return a call by the Straight's deadline.

Kirby Huminuik, a psychosocial counsellor with the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture, told the Straight that she saw Avolu bandaged and limping shortly after he visited his doctor. Huminuik said that she and the doctor both wrote to TransLink about the incident.

"I'm surprised and amazed that TransLink hasn't been in touch with our organization or with the client," she said. Avolu claimed that the police constable became physically abusive after Avolu suggested he was paying more attention to the colour of his skin than the validity of his transit pass.

On July 22, British police shot a Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, seven times in the head after mistaking him for a suicide bomber. Vancouver community activist Am Johal told the Straight that he worries that someone in the Greater Vancouver Regional District will also be killed unnecessarily after transit police begin carrying firearms.

"We could have somebody, for example, being heavily on drugs, walking around, and appear to be attacking somebody," Johal said. "And somebody pulls out a gun acting in the best of interests, and needlessly shooting somebody to kill them."

Johal, cofounder of a new community group called the Civil Society Development Project, told the Straight that the decision to provide guns to transit police should be delayed pending public consultation.

The GVTAPS board, unlike municipal police boards, has no civilian representation apart from TransLink vice president Ian Jarvis. Johal said the GVTAPS board should be reconstituted to include civilians, and then it should make a decision regarding transit police carrying guns.

"We have a broader issue of democracy here," Johal said. "By raising this issue publicly-criticizing it, critiquing it, and attempting to come to grips with what this actually means-we want to, in fact, raise the broader issue of democracy with the GVRD itself."

Zapotichny said the GVTAPS board will focus on how the new transit police force will integrate its services with municipal police forces and the RCMP. Unlike municipal police boards, the GVTAPS board will have no authority over budgets or labour relations. "I would have to say it [the issuance of guns to transit police] has been significantly discussed and supported by the BC Association of Chiefs of Police," he added.

A grassroots activist group called the Bus Riders Union has also been a vocal critic of the decision to arm transit police. Organizer Jennifer Efting told the Straight that anyone who has been assaulted by special constables won't feel any safer knowing that they will carry guns in the future.