Vancouver Police Chief Makes Bold Statement on Policy
I think that it is a huge development for Vancouver Police Department Chief Jim Chu to in essence state that he will not be enforcing BC Minister of Housing and Social Development Rich Coleman’s new legislation on the homeless.
“If there is overt resistance, then we will back away and disengage. There will be no further physical contact. They will be allowed to remain where they are.”
The ministry is trying to put their best foot forward in response:
“The policy that the VPD has put in place appears to be a reasonable interpretation of the act. We appreciate the VPD respects the spirit of the act and we respect their position,”
but the VPD have passed a debilitating judgement on a piece of legislation that is not only controversial with Charter and homeless advocates, but is also unrealistic and nearly impossible to properly enforce.
In spite of what some have suggested, I genuinely believe that the spirit of the legislation had a noble intent behind it. In contrast to his previous incarnations in serving as Housing Minister, where he would snub opposition critics from Ottawa because of their partisan affiliation, or not show up to a national meeting of his provincial and federal counterparts, I really think that Coleman has grown into the role and performed exceptional under difficult circumstances.
That being said, the concept of arresting those individuals who refused to go to a shelter on nights of extreme cold, has always been an unworkable plan.
Let me give two reference points as to why I think Chu’s decision and subsequent public announcement are so significant.
First is the example of former Liberal MLA Lorne Maynecourt’s ridiculous Safe Streets Act from 2005. Now at that time, there were tales of police not being diligent on enforcement, or not even responding to calls about “aggressive panhandling” because the legislation was little more than a thinly veiled attempt to suppress the homeless.
The best example of this has to be when Maynecourt went rogue and turned into a vigilante by fighting with a homeless man precisely because police allegedly didn’t show up after his phone calls (I still to this day call bullshit on that story). Regardless, there was definitely a number of examples of the police not embracing the legislation because they thought it was unworkable (fines to people without an address? Give me a break).
That was at a time where police officers would turn a blind eye or use selective enforcement because former Chief Jamie Graham was not willing to come out and insulate his officers by issuing a firm and public declaration.
Secondly, I draw upon my work with former West Vancouver Police Chief Kash Heed, who is of course now Solicitor General of the province.
Now back in the days when Heed was the province’s most high profile advocate for regional policing, taking on other municipalities and the RCMP alike, I played a role in creating a province-wide debate.
I worked with Heed to craft his oped for the Globe and Mail as well as the Vancouver Sun on the need for regional policing for Metro Vancouver, which caused the Solicitor General at the time John Les to go crazy and then in short order back down.
I will keep Heed’s comments about both Les and the current provincial administration at that time to myself, as they wouldn’t do him any good in the present.
Now of course, with Heed now at the top of the system that he rallied against just two years ago, talk of the idea is little more than a bargaining position to maintain the status quo. Premier Gordon Campbell has always been dead set against it, and I highly doubt that that has changed just because Heed has been welcomed into cabinet. In fact, part of his cabinet appointment might (and I stress the word might) have been contingent on his abandonment of the idea altogether.
Bottom line? Chu deserves kudos for taking a stand against a law that he sees as unacceptable, for whatever reason. Now some will argue that it isn’t his place to do such a thing, as he is an appointed authority figure that does not have to answer to the electorate, thereby eliminating his right or ability to set policy.
I disagree. I feel that if a law (particularly in its application towards the homeless) gets lost in translation between the legislature and the streets, the police have the right to make a decision on the best way to enforce it. And, if it is determined that wrestling matches and forceful attempts to move people to either a shelter or jail are helpful to nobody, then why go further with it?
The Housing Ministry’s response is also very telling. What amounts to acquiescence on the part of the province indicates an understanding that without the police on board, the legislation is dead – at least within the jurisdiction of Vancouver.
I have always thought of Chu as the ultimate political operator in his role as Chief. But now I can see that there is a hell of a lot of substance to go along with the skill in which navigates through the system.