Jeff Shantz: The Vancouver Police Foundation and the class footings of policing

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      By Jeff Shantz

      Two events over the past week brought from the shadows an aspect of policing that has generally received little attention or public comment: the police foundation.

      Last week, new Surrey Police Service chief constable Norm Lipinski announced that a Surrey Police Foundation “should be set up and going ‘full on’ by early next year”.

      Then, only a few days later, on February 22, came a news report that Vancouver real estate developer Peter Wall had made a $1-million donation to the Vancouver Police Foundation (VPF), to be directed at police services in the Downtown Eastside. The response to news of Wall’s donation to the VPF, and especially his plans for how that money should be used, has been sharp and negative.

      Critics have raised the very real concern that donations of this type, coming from wealthy business interests, raise the spectre of a pay-to-play policing system in which police do the bidding of corporations and major property owners. And where police are beholden to their business donors.

      For some, it also suggests a shadow policing system without even the limited democratic oversight of municipal governments and police boards. Funding allocations from the VPF are based on decisions of a small committee, which includes police representation. And the funds are outside of city budget allocations, raising questions about accountability.


      These concerns are all valid, and it is important that communities are paying attention to the role of police foundations and, more importantly, the relationships between police and private businesses facilitated through the foundations. Yet in many ways, the police foundations merely continue the social class foundations of modern policing and the connections between business interests and police that were once more open and formal.

      The Vancouver Police Foundation

      Modern police foundations have their origins in New York in the 1970s, an earlier time of public opposition to policing and police funding. Since then, they have spread far and wide across North America, with eight such foundations operating in Canadian cities, including Vancouver.

      The Vancouver Police Foundation has been around for 40 years. Over that time, it has built relations with a number of major corporate partners. According to the VPF website, donors who made financial contributions between May 1, 2019, and April 30, 2020, include LNG Canada, London Drugs Ltd., Cactus Club Café, and various real estate companies.

      Businesses can become a Corporate Partner in three specific ways. Through corporate sponsorships, through annual corporate memberships, and/or through “in-kind” gifts. The highest regular-donor level is the Chief’s Circle ($25,000+), which includes Admiral Ventures Inc, Cates Bay Investments Ltd, and TA Global. Obviously, Wall’s donation is substantially beyond that.


      Questions have been raised by critics about the nature of VPF spending on police. A 2020 investigation by Martin Lukacs and Tim Groves found that the VPF “has given the city’s police more than $3 million in the last five years, paying for a patrol boat, night-vision binoculars, and a drone program…The Vancouver Police Foundation...has also funded an armoured vehicle and a $500,000 SWAT mobile command truck for the Vancouver police.”

      Surrey’s new chief as much as confirmed the role private donors and businesses can play. Lipinski noted in his report to council “that donations from private citizens and the business community can have ‘significant impact’ on policing programs”. Critics ask what this actually means: does it imply businesses influencing which programs are pursued? As always, the devil is in the details, but this is not a relationship that is subject to democratic oversight.

      Further muddling things, the VPF cannot be viewed as an arms-length group. VPD chief Adam Palmer is a foundation voting member. According to VPF board member and former chair John Montalbano in an earlier "message from the chair": “A small committee that includes Chief Constable Adam Palmer, decides on which grants will be funded each year, taking into consideration funding in previous years and the VPD’s strategic plan.”

      Vancouver police chief Adam Palmer is a Vancouver Police Foundation voting member.
      Vancouver Police Foundation/Instagram

      The issue that is stirring much of the present outrage in Vancouver is the targeted nature of the $1 million donation from Wall. What jumped out immediately for people was how this appears to put business considerations, even biases, in place of evidence-based, peer-based, insights into community health, safety, and well-being.

      Class Foundations of Policing

      In class societies, policing has always both reflected and reproduced systems of social inequality. Policing of urban centres has been conceived and carried out not on behalf of the “general public” but on behalf of privileged-class strata (property owners, businesses, etcetera). As one source puts it: “By the mid-19th century, middle-class frustration with the deterioration of the cities had led to the passage of laws regulating public behaviour and creating new public institutions of social control and coercion—penitentiaries, asylums, and police forces.”

      This sounds entirely contemporary with regard to the frustrations of property owners in parts of Vancouver. And critics of recent targeted policing practices would certainly describe those as elements of social control.

      The first full-time publicly funded police force in North America was founded in Boston in 1838, as shipping businesses sought to protect their property and move it out of port. They figured out they could save money by having the public pay for it by pitching it as a “public good”.

      In the U.S. in the second part of the 19th century, states enacted laws that gave corporations the authority to develop their own private police forces or to contract with existing police agencies. One of the most notorious examples is the Coal and Iron Police of Pennsylvania, a company police force that became infamous for its union-busting and strikebreaking violence.

      Pinkerton National Detective Agency guards—here shown escoring mine strikebreakers in Ohio's Hocking Valley in 1884—supervised the Coal and Iron Police of Pennsylvania.
      Wikimedia Commons/Joseph Becker; John Hyde

      As one labor historian put it: “In the aftermath of these [laborers] movements, the police increasingly presented themselves as a thin blue line protecting civilization (by which they meant bourgeois civilization) from the disorder of the working class."

      And this is not only an American thing. The British Empire Steel Corporation (BESCO) in Nova Scotia had its own company police force, which was used to break strikes. They killed mine organizer Bill Davis in 1925. In addition to their colonial role, the RCMP have regularly been used against striking workers.

      Recent Vancouver Examples

      We do not have to go far back in local history to find policies or practices of criminalization that have been driven by business interests around securing public space for their own property. The so-called safe-streets acts in both Ontario and B.C. were pushed in no small part by downtown businesses and their business improvement associations.

      Vancouver’s BarWatch program puts police in partnership with private businesses, a relationship that even the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner has concluded is problematic. The OPCC found “this relationship places them [police officers] in a conflict of interest whereby they are simultaneously acting as private citizens and peace officers.”

      The Granville Entertainment District's BarWatch program works in partnership with the Vancouver Police Department.
      Travis Lupick

      This year in Vancouver, we have seen controversies over both the VPD's newly launched Neighbourhood Response Team, targeting so-called street disorder in the Downtown Eastside, and its Trespass Prevention Program. A VPD report to the police board describes the TPP as follows: “A Trespass Prevention Program initiative was recently launched which gives police written consent from the property owner to move along unwanted parties from private property. Custom designed decals are used to visibly identify these premises.”

      Do developers make donations or investments? One might well ask at which point public policing becomes private purpose.