VPD taciturn about its talking heads

Allen Garr, Vancouver Courier, May 13, 2009

Trying to get information from the Vancouver Police Department is problematic, particularly when what you want information about the VPD’s public affairs section. The folks in charge of communications can be downright uncommunicative.

At the April VPD board meeting, I asked the department’s main money guy, Warwick Wright, for information about how many people worked in that department, what they did and how, and why their budget has changed over the past few years.

Unlike other city departments, the VPD’s public affairs department is the only one that schedules a press conference every day. Indeed, the VPD boasts that it was “one of the first police departments in North America to hold daily press conferences for our local media.”

The VPD is so reliable in this matter, reporting on crime, that their news conferences are a regular part of the diet of local news outlets. This symbiotic relationship allows the cops to keep crime and the need for police on the public mind.

Wright said he didn’t have the numbers at hand but he would get the head of the public affairs department, Paul Patterson, to contact me. Great.

Three weeks later there was nothing from Patterson, in spite of the fact that he apparently kept reassuring Wright that he had emailed me. Not so.

So why the stall over what was essentially an innocuous public matter? Then it occurred to me: the Courier and Patterson have a bit of history. Blame reporter Mike Howell. He wrote a profile of Patterson in the Courier shortly after he was hired by then-chief Jamie Graham in 2004.

At the time, the public face of the VPD was Const. Anne Drennan. Patterson told Howell she had set the gold standard for media cops in Canada. What Patterson didn’t tell Howell, however, was that he and Drennan had been in a relationship for a period of eight years until shortly before Patterson was hired.

Once he was permanently brought on board (without a competition, because, as Graham said at the time, “I liked the guy, so I hired him”), he was Drennan’s boss. Patterson was not pleased with Howell’s story.

So I figured I could get around the problem by filing a Freedom of Information request. But as a number of reporters including me have realized, the VPD screws anyone who makes a successful FOI application. It releases the information on its website even before it releases it to the reporter making the request.

It would have to be quiet diplomacy. This resulted in me being given website coordinates by Wright with a few bits of information. I would have to make do. A request to Patterson’s staff for clarification on the public affairs department went nowhere by my deadline.

So here it is: After Patterson’s first full year on the job, his department’s budget jumped by 50 per cent to $600,000. I have no idea why.

This year his budget will double to $1.2 million, in part because “the Public Affairs Section was asked to assume the added responsibilities of crime prevention, community services and victim services.” There is no indication as to what those additions cost.

What we do know is that the police budget for public affairs is exactly the same as city hall’s, which has about triple the number of employees, a whole range of departments and almost five times the VPD’s operating budget.

We also know that there are 18 full-time and 10 part-time folks working in Patterson’s department. Six of those are sworn officers.

One other thing: the VPD is the only city department that spends a chunk of money on self-promotion. The publication “Beyond the Call” highlights the good works of cops and citizens working for the VPD.

While other city departments suffer from budget cuts and hiring freezes, the VPD and its public affairs section seem to thrive and expand.

That could be another reason why it is so difficult to get them to release this information.

More about the Vancouver Police Public Affairs Section here.