There’s good reason
to keep an eye
on the VPD

A guest column by David Eby in the Vancouver Province, April 16, 2009

Police officer Mark Tonner, who writes regularly in this paper, wondered in a recent column why organizations like the B.C. Civil Liberties Association are concerned about how the Vancouver Police Department and other police departments release information to the public.

Perhaps we can assist.

The “Public Affairs Department,” the PR department for the VPD, has six sworn officers and 11 civilian members. This department is headed by former CBC journalist and provincial news manager Paul Patterson, who also has extensive experience as senior marketing manager for ICBC. He works directly for Chief Jim Chu.

Mr. Patterson’s team daily works hard to put the best possible face forward for their client. It is his team’s job, and they do it well.

Unfortunately, at some point putting the best police face forward can interfere with accountability and transparency. These situations arise most frequently where police use lethal force, or are alleged to have misconducted themselves.

The public needs to know when things go badly, as much, and perhaps more, than we need to know when things go well. Without honest investigation and reporting on police-involved deaths or misconduct allegations, corrections of policy or training simply won’t be made, and our police force and the public will suffer for it.

Let’s start with the case of Frank Paul, who according to Vancouver police statements to the media and the public, left VPD custody under his own power.

But the video of the incident, released years later, showed the barely-conscious homeless aboriginal man being dragged soaking wet to a waiting police wagon to be dropped off in an alley on a winter night.

Recommendations on improving the handling of intoxicated individuals were delayed for 10 years as a result.

In the case of Paul Boyd, shot by the Vancouver police in summer 2007, Chief Chu announced to the media within hours of the shooting that his officers had taken “the option that they had to take.” The VPD investigation of its own officers had barely started. Two years later, and there is still no coroner’s inquest for the public or Mr. Boyd’s family to know if the officers took the option they had to take. There is no final investigation report from the VPD on whether policy changes could have saved Mr. Boyd’s life.

Just silence.

When Paul Hubbard [correction: Michael Vann Hubbard] was shot by police weeks ago, Chief Chu released select details from a surveillance video he had reviewed to his entire staff of both officers and civilians, announcing “incontrovertible” proof that his interpretation of the video was correct. He also failed to ask staff to keep the memo details confidential.

The memo went to officers who witnessed the shooting and to the officer who fired the shot, or shots. Most alarmingly, the memo went to VPD officers subordinate to Chief Chu who are conducting the investigation of the shooting under the supervision of the Abbotsford Police Department and who are still trying to reconstruct what happened.

How will these investigators react to the “incontrovertible” proof provided by their chief officer? How will this “proof” affect their investigation reports? Pivot says Abbotsford police still aren’t allowing the family to view the video, citing concerns of the impact it might have on the investigation if the details leaked out. In putting his force’s best face forward, the chief apparently did not share Abbotsford police’s concerns.

Given the history of the VPD in releasing misleading information and releasing information that risks prejudicing investigations, in particular around police-involved incidents, surely Sgt. Tonner understands the concern of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

Even if he doesn’t, perhaps we can agree that the conflict of interest of the police investigating themselves has to come to an end, if only to avoid the public’s perception of problems with information release and investigation-tainting.

— David Eby is Executive Director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association
More about the Vancouver Police Public Affairs Section here.
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