Our Fractured Forces:

Is It Time To Overhaul B.C.'s Police System?


Presented Here By

Bonnie M. Wells

Photograph by: Rob Struthers,

A scathing internal police report into the Pickton case last month revealed a chaotic system of policing in B.C. where jurisdictional barriers, conflicting priorities and poor management might have cost at least 14 women their lives. But it wasn't the first time the policing system was blamed in deadly cases. In a four-part series that begins today, Times Colonist reporters Katie DeRosa, Lindsay Kines and Jack Knox examine the current patchwork system that sees seven police forces in the capital region, and explore whether B.C. should establish regional forces.

Thirty years ago this fall, Clifford Olson began his killing frenzy on B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

Roaming the Lower Mainland in search of young victims, he criss-crossed a maze of police boundaries, raping, murdering and disposing of bodies from Agassiz to Whistler.

Police investigators, unaware at times of what their counterparts were doing in other detachments and departments, were slow to link the disappearances and work together to solve the case.

Eventually, Olson, who was known to drive hundreds of kilometres in search of his prey, was arrested near Tofino on Vancouver Island with two female hitchhikers in his car. It was August 1981. In less than a year, he had killed 11 children -- four of them after a July meeting at which police discussed putting him under surveillance.

In the outcry that followed, the B.C. government resisted calls for a public inquiry, and police and politicians vowed to do better in the future.

But three decades later, that promise rings hollow. The policing map on the Lower Mainland, and across B.C., looks much as it did during Olson's rampage in the early 1980s. Multiple agencies still patrol the metropolitan areas in Greater Vancouver and Greater Victoria, jurisdictional barriers still thwart effective communication, and the tragedies continue to mount.

On Sept. 4, 2007, Peter Lee stabbed to death his six-year-old son, Christian, his wife Sunny Park, and her parents Kum Lea Chun and Moon Kyu Park before taking his own life in their King George Terrace home in Oak Bay. It was later revealed that, in the weeks prior to the massacre, Park bounced among three police departments while trying to get help for spousal abuse. On the night of the murders, the grandmother's 911 call was handled by a maze of dispatchers, while dozens of police officers from Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay responded to the call.

At one point, a Victoria police officer could be heard saying over the radio: "This is ugly. It looks like there isn't anyone taking control at all."

A subsequent coroner's inquest recommended the "continued unification of the various police departments" in Greater Victoria.

Then, last month, the Vancouver Police Department released its Missing Women Investigation Review, which concluded that police likely could have caught serial killer Robert Pickton years earlier and prevented the deaths of more than a dozen women.

In findings eerily reminiscent of the Olson case, Vancouver Deputy Chief Doug LePard blamed jurisdictional barriers, poor management and shoddy analysis of information for the catastrophic failure.

One of the main problems was conflicting priorities. Vancouver police were under pressure to solve the case, but it was less of a priority for the Coquitlam RCMP, in whose jurisdiction Pickton resided. As a result, the detachment allowed the file to languish for months, LePard said.

"Had the Coquitlam RCMP and the VPD been part of a regional force, it is conceivable that many of the jurisdictional obstacles to a successful investigation would have been reduced or eliminated," he said.

Now, growing numbers of current and retired police officers, criminologists and politicians say it's time for B.C. to put public safety ahead of politics, shed the province's fractured policing model, and establish regional forces in major metropolitan areas.

"Policing in British Columbia is not at the level that it should be," says former solicitor general Kash Heed, a Liberal MLA. "The Pickton problem is indicative of the systemic barriers we have because of the current system for policing in British Columbia."

Heed, a former chief of the West Vancouver department and a veteran of 31 years in policing, said it would be impossible "to find a more disturbing example anywhere in the world" than the investigative failures in the Pickton case. But he warned that similar problems will keep happening unless something gets done.

"And the reason that it will continue is there are just too many bosses," he says. "The RCMP have bosses that are beholden way back to Ottawa. You have municipal bosses that have their own little kingdoms. Albeit, I was one of them and you're only concerned about your area. You're only accountable to your police board. You only care, really, what happens within the boundaries of your jurisdiction."

On the Lower Mainland alone, there are at least 15 RCMP and municipal police jurisdictions delivering service to two million people. In Greater Victoria, four municipal departments, three RCMP detachments and three 911 dispatch centres serve just 350,000 people.

By contrast, Toronto's 2.6 million population is policed by a single force, as are all other major metropolitan areas in Canada.

"It mystifies me," former Ottawa police chief Vince Bevan says of B.C.'s balkanized system. "It's beyond me how they can have these series of smaller departments, and think that they're meeting standards."

The B.C. government and some police leaders counter that much has changed since the days of Olson, and even Pickton. They cite, in particular, the creation of integrated units that draw officers from different police agencies in a region to tackle a particular crime or problem, such as homicides, domestic abuse, traffic enforcement or gang violence.

Clayton Pecknold, president of the B.C. Association of Police Chiefs says the integrated units have "eliminated borders" between police departments.

"It's now subject-matter based as opposed to based on a geographical area," says Pecknold, who is deputy chief of Central Saanich police. "That's why the border doesn't matter anymore."

But critics say the integrated units only highlight the problems. With so many chiefs trying to find consensus on key crime-fighting issues, the units often take months to establish. They add more layers of bureaucracy, and attempt to blend the different RCMP and municipal cultures -- sometimes with mixed results.

There are also glaring omissions when one department or another refuses to participate or pulls out after several months.

Greater Victoria has more than a dozen integrated units, ranging from the 18-officer Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit to a single officer working with exploited youth. Yet there are only two locally developed teams with participation from all capital region departments: the new domestic violence unit, and mental health mobile crisis response team.

Heed argues that integration is a smokescreen to protect the status quo and obscure the types of problems that led to the Pickton fiasco.

"These type of incidents will continue to happen no matter how often these police leaders get out there, and say, 'No, we've fixed it. It'll never happen again. Integration is the way to go,' " he said. "That's just a Band-Aid approach. A complete Band-Aid approach to policing here in British Columbia."

Saanich police Chief Mike Chadwick, a 35-year veteran of the force and a staunch defender of the status quo, argues that individual municipalities have the right to "direct the level of service ... from their police department" and that municipal taxpayers should have a say on the type policing they want.

"I'm not so sure if you had a regional department that would be the case," he says. "In Saanich, people pay for a service that we have provided for over 100 years now and they come to expect that.

"Saanich taxpayers don't expect to pay for what goes on downtown."

Chadwick says the current model of integrated units provides "another layer of investigative excellence."

"It's not a Band-Aid," he says. "Integration is an enhancement of an existing service."

Saanich Insp. Bob Downie says he's puzzled by arguments in favour of a regional force.

"You rarely hear people talk about what it is they're fixing," he said. "This whole conversation is around solutions that are looking for a problem. But you never really hear any specific problems that are being remedied.

"In this area, we have traditionally brought people together when we've identified a need to do that. There haven't really been examples of where that hasn't been the case."

But Victoria Chief Jamie Graham, a strong proponent of police regionalization, thought the jurisdictional confusion around the Oak Bay murder-suicide would be the impetus needed to force regionalization on the Lower Island.

"Every officer here that was involved in that Lee incident all said 'this is it.' " Graham said.

"This will trigger a regionalization discussion or amalgamation. And even to this day we all shake our heads and say 'I wonder why that just died.' "

Graham, who also served as chief of Vancouver police, said it simply makes sense to have a regional force chasing and apprehending criminals who don't respect political boundaries.

"This isn't about cost," he says. "This is about the ability to deploy more effectively."

He says Victoria police continue to be crushed under the weight of policing a downtown core which is the destination of club-hoppers, concert or festival goers and of course, criminals, many of whom live in the surrounding municipalities.

"Most of the major offenders we pursue don't live in Victoria," Graham says, adding that they opt to shelter themselves in less dense bedroom communities.

The department's 241 officers have the highest case load among municipal police officers in the region and Graham says he would have to hire 60 officers to reach the provincial standard.

Graham noted that, under a regional model, a single chief would have the ability to deploy resources where they are needed most. If there was a brawl downtown or a major crime in Oak Bay, police officers, including those with specialized training, would be able to flood the area and control the situation.

Those who resist regionalization point to the creation of PRIME -- the Police Records Information Management Environment -- as a tool that's improved communication and information sharing between police agencies across the province since it was made mandatory in 2003.

"No matter how big you create different regional entities, there's always going to be a border," Pecknold says. "What PRIME does and what integration does is it eliminates borders."

But while B.C. is ahead of the rest of Canada in sharing police reports, not all departments use the same software to investigate major cases like the Pickton investigation. Officers admit privately that there is a risk that the information needed to solve a case is buried in another agency's file.

In addition, there are no provincial regulations or framework to overcome the fractured system and ensure that agencies work together if a predator is crossing from one police jurisdiction to the next.

"The lack of a regional police force in the Lower Mainland means that there are competing priorities, and decisions on regional issues are delayed while consensus is sought,"

LePard wrote in his review of the missing women case.

"While the level of co-operation is usually good among police leaders in the province, this situation would be enhanced with better structure that would support police decision-making on regional basis, rather than the fragmented system that exists now, and which played a key negative role in the missing women investigation."

LePard's chief, Jim Chu, puts it more succinctly: "If we had to design the ideal structure for policing in the Greater Vancouver region, we wouldn't design what we have now."

The same holds true in the capital region, says Victoria police Insp. Clark Russell. "If someone told me this is the best possible model ... I wouldn't believe them."





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