(This column was published in the North Shore News on June 30, 1999)


Confidence job required

By Leo Knight

DESPITE the glacial-like meanderings of the Vancouver Police Board, they finally reached a decision on the status of erstwhile Chief Constable Bruce Chambers. Not a moment too soon by any measuring stick.  


Chambers has been a lame-duck chief for much of the past year in reality. That impotence was underlined by the police board last month when they overruled Chambers in an internal staffing transfer of a senior staff sergeant. From that point on, the writing was clearly on the wall. What truly surprises is the length of time it took for the board to announce the inevitable.  


Vancouver mayor and board chairman, Phillip Owen, soft pedalled the reasons for the dismissal of Chambers in his press conference on Friday. Despite prodding from the media, Owen refused to cite the real reasons for the termination. He alluded to morale issues as the motivator for the board while extolling the virtues of what Chambers has done in his tenure here.  


The failure of Owen to effectively lay his cards on the table did nothing to quell the controversy raging internally and publicly. By trying to be publicly nice to Chambers, Owen left the door open for Chambers to spin his version of events, which he did in the Sunday Province. The result of that leaves many people believing the police board acted improperly in not renewing the contract.  


The Vancouver Sun jumped on this opening in their lead editorial on Monday defending Chambers' record and suggesting he had the support of elements of the community, citing the Chinese business community and the gay population.  


All rhetoric aside, the reality of the Chambers era is one of autocratic and inefficient management. Chambers messed up from the get-go and did nothing in the subsequent period to correct his failings and his only achievement was to alienate the vast majority of the Vancouver Police Department.  


His management style, if indeed it can be called that, can be summed up in a quote from a team training day early on in his tenure. In explaining his "vision" to the officers at the meeting, he left no room for consultation. "If you're not on the bus, you'll get run over by it," said Chambers according to several people present.  


Chambers claimed in The Province interview that he was done in by a small minority of the "old guard" who resented an outsider being brought in as the boss. He said in reflection, he "underestimated the resistance to an outsider." This statement alone shows just how out of touch he was with the situation within the department. The practical reality is that the vast majority of police officers, including those of commissioned officer rank who make up the senior management structure, did not support Chambers. It could hardly be described as a "small cadre" of officers.  


When Chambers arrived he had the opportunity to heal the scars caused by the political machinations of those who were manoeuvering for the corner office. The rift created within the department begged for a leader who could rise above the furore and bring the various factions together. This was the one thing he failed to do.  


In trying to gauge the department's feeling, the one thing that came through was the overwhelming sense of relief from all I spoke to. The official spokesperson for the Department, Constable Anne Drennan said as much on Monday morning. "There is an overall sense of relief that we are at the point that a decision has been made. The public should have complete confidence that the level of policing will not be affected by what has been going on internally," said Drennan.  


Those comments were echoed by Director of Public Affairs Ken Hardie. "The decision has been made and it's time to get on with things. We're still open for business and the public can be confident in the job we're doing," he said.  


Unlike Owen, Hardie was at least reflective in what brought about Chambers' demise. "If I can say there's one thing the chief did not do, he did not validate what had gone on in the past," a nice way of saying Chambers paid no attention to those who had worked the streets of Vancouver for a long time and knew what was really going on.  


Another officer, a senior sergeant with 30 years service, summed up the reaction in this way: "Everybody is relieved that this guy is gone. There was too much tension. Nothing was getting done."  


Owen and the police board is spending approximately $200,000 to replace Chambers. At the very least he owes the public more of an explanation for the move than he has thus far provided. The air needs to be cleared so there is no debate about whether the board was right or wrong in its decision.  


The move by the police board was the correct one, albeit somewhat belated. Chambers was clearly the wrong man for the job and the board needs to state unequivocally why they did not renew his contract and to assure the public they will get it right next time.  


The public needs to have confidence in its police department and at this point nothing has been said to instill that trust. The opportunity is at hand to un-do much of the damage. So far in this melodrama, that opportunity has not been seized.






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