It's January, 2028 – two years to the day after the launch of the Greater Vancouver Police force.
From the 54th floor of the force's downtown headquarters, on the site of the former Vancouver Art Gallery, the GVP chief looks out onto a region under his command, with deputy chiefs in West Vancouver, Burnaby, Coquitlam and other municipalities helping to bring order to a region of some five million residents.
Thousands of officers now wear one uniform, carry one model of handgun, and write in one brand of notebook. They drive the same model patrol cars emblazoned with the same GVP logo. There are now regional investigative units across the Lower Mainland. That means one regional homicide squad, and a single emergency response team. When a riot broke out in June, 2027, over yet another Stanley Cup loss by the Canucks – the third in the team's history – it was dealt with by the GVP's regional public-order squad. Eliminating the overlap of duplicate departments among the police forces of the past has led to a cheaper yet more efficient policing service. The RCMP – as a municipal force in B.C. – Vancouver Police Department, New Westminster Police Department and all the rest are history, consigned to museums and textbooks.
The Case for Regional Policing
While the above scenario seems like a far-off fantasy, the issue of regional policing in Vancouver has become a hot topic in recent weeks, especially in light of Wally Oppal's Dec. 17 report on the missing women of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
The head of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry recommended a brisk move toward the creation of a regional force, arguing serial killer Robert Pickton was not stopped earlier because of a lack of a co-ordination between the Vancouver Police Department and RCMP in Port Coquitlam, which were investigating the case.
Discussing the issue this week, Mr. Oppal – B.C.'s former attorney-general – said he was on his third interview in one day about an issue he has championed since 1994 when he first officially called for a regional force in a report on policing.
"I see a greater debate taking place now than ever in the past. The Pickton case has highlighted that debate."
But other regional power players are pushing the issue.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, a proponent of a regional force, says the matter should be an issue in the May. 14 provincial election, with voters across the region pressing MLA candidates for their position on it.
That said, the mayor has not been specific about how he will advance his view with other mayors, or the province. "Ultimately, it's up the B.C. government. The leadership will have to come from the Premier," he says.
But action before the election is unlikely. Premier Christy Clark was non-committal this week when asked about the issue. She said her government was "prepared to have a conversation" with municipalities on the subject, but that there appears to be a lack of consensus. In a rarity in B.C. politics, NDP Leader Adrian Dix is echoing his B.C. Liberal rival. Regardless of who wins the election, there doesn't appear to be any drive to act.
Criminologist Curt Griffiths is co-ordinator of the police-studies program at Simon Fraser University and co-author of a 2008 overview report on regional policing for the Vancouver Police Department.
Mr. Griffiths called it incredible that there has been no study that crunches the numbers on a Vancouver regional force, assessing how the current system would be reworked, what would happen to current staff and equipment and how, in a very precise way, a new force would work. "Nobody has ever done a comprehensive economic model – and I am no economist – about regionalization. The dollar costs, efficiencies, effectiveness.
"A lot of this debate you're reporting on is coming off the top of people's heads," he said. "It's the same people making the same arguments without any information."
The Case against Regional Policing
While Mr. Robertson is pushing one way, other municipal leaders are pushing back – most notably Delta Mayor Lois Jackson, whom Mr. Oppal cites in his report as a key critic of regional policing, along with her police chief.
Delta, a municipality of about 100,000 located south of Vancouver, pushes the model of community policing – having officers on the ground and available to respond to even minor inquiries or complaints, closing the gap between police and citizens.
Not long after Jim Cessford became Delta police chief in 1995, a local resident called police to report that the frogs in his backyard were too noisy. It was a call most dispatchers would dismiss as a nuisance – a waste of emergency resources. But in Delta, where the municipal police force has a "no call too small" philosophy, the complaint was deemed valid and the department sent two officers.
"Our police officers were choked," Chief Cessford recalled. "They said, 'You're dispatching us to a noisy frog complaint?' "
But when officers arrived, they discovered the caller was wildly erratic and "in dire need of psychiatric services," Chief Cessford said. The officers took him to hospital that day, under the Mental Health Act.
The chief refers to such events when making his case for municipal policing. Chief Cessford, the longest serving police chief in Canada, is a subscriber to the "broken windows" theory – the idea that cracking down on minor offences can forestall more serious crimes.
"If we don't deal with the little things, if we don't go to that call, we don't identify that problem with him and get him the help that he needs … does he then go to the McDonald's restaurant with an AR-15 and start shooting people?" the chief posed. "If you don't sweat the little things, the little things become the big things."
It is a sentiment shared by Mayor Jackson, who encourages Delta residents to contact her or the police chief should trouble arise.
"Our police chief is available," she said. "You can't get in touch with one person that is in control, like I'm talking about, on a daily basis [with a regional police force]. Big cannot do that. Small can do that."
This kind of attitude is not exclusive to B.C., but has come up elsewhere against a push for regional policing.
Provincial governments are often the drivers of change. In Ontario, Metropolitan Toronto was knitted together from 13 municipalities in 1953; that led to the creation of the Metropolitan Toronto Police in 1957 (later rebranded the Toronto Police Service). But as the then mayor of Milton, Ont. – quoted in Prof. Griffiths's 2008 report but not named – observed: "If the province hadn't forced us, we wouldn't have done it."
Still, Prof. Griffiths says a regional force is inevitable, partly because municipalities are taking a new look at the policing costs. "The economics and sustainability of policing will maybe drive this agenda more than it has in the past, and demand creative solutions – whatever that looks like for the Vancouver region."
But it may come as a result of "creeping regionalization" such as, for example, a regional force on the North Shore, or alliances among some communities. "It's more likely to be incremental."