(This column was published in the North Shore News on Aug. 14, 2002)

 

Vancouver's top cop must tread carefully

 By Leo Knight

One of the more interesting stories to take place during my East Coast absence was the announcement of the appointment of Jamie Graham. The former head of North Vancouver RCMP Detachment starts today as the new chief constable of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD).

 

Graham, formerly chief superintendent in charge of the Surrey Mounties, cut his teeth as a commander in North Vancouver. He arrived here as an inspector after spending much of his career in Alberta.

 

When the opportunity arose, he competed for and got the top job in North Van, earning the promotion to superintendent. During his time in North Vancouver, Graham honed his skills as a politician, skillfully and artfully negotiating safe passage through the competing wolf packs that are city and district councils.

 

While it's fair to say that Graham and I did not always agree, it is equally fair to say I don't have to play the political game to tell you stories, analyze events and tell you how things "oughta" be.

 

Any chief of police does not have the option to eschew political correctness.

 

In point of fact, it is that very skill - to be seen to be politically correct while actually getting something positive accomplished - that is so necessary to be the operative head of a modern day police force.

 

In the competition for the top job in Vancouver, Graham beat out VPD Inspector Bob Rich, also a skilled politician, who earned his spurs as the head of the Vancouver Police Union during the tumultuous reign of former Chief Constable Bruce Chambers, who was effectively terminated when the city police board declined to renew his contract.

 

And it is exactly those two years under Chambers' leadership that should inspire Graham to tread very carefully indeed.

 

Chambers came to the VPD after having a cup of coffee as chief in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Prior to that he had been in Niagara Regional PD as an inspector. He was the first chief constable in the past 50 or so years who had not risen through the ranks of the VPD. He was an outsider.

 

Despite all the infighting, backbiting, character assassination, scandal and assorted chicanery that marked Chambers' two years with his hand on the VPD tiller, the police board has gone to the outside well yet again.

 

This time though, they are trying to be proactive in they way they do it.

 

To try and minimize the perception of "parachuting" someone in, the board has circulated a bio synopsis to help introduce him.

 

In the world of policing especially, there is a significant sense that those in charge are so far removed from the reality of the streets that they are making decisions when they haven't a clue. This perception, which may be accurate in some instances, is tempered when the street cops have a history with the anointed one. Be it from having worked a particularly tough case with them or simply from sharing a wobbly pop at choir practice, there's a connection.

 

When an outsider is brought in, that connection doesn't exist and the perception is therefore stronger.

 

In Chambers' case, that perception was ultimately insurmountable. Well, that coupled with some pretty dumb moves like surrounding himself with the least competent, most sycophantic people he could find, thus ensuring he would not hear the criticisms running rampant throughout the department.

 

The Graham bio, distributed by the police board, takes great pains to illustrate the operational experience in Graham's professional history. The bio points out some of the operational changes he made while in GIS, (the Detective Office or DO, as he will soon learn to call it) are still in effect, firmly trying to plant Graham's operational feet in the present.

 

I have spoken to several Vancouver police officers in the past few days and there is a definite "wait and see" attitude. In fact, there seems to be a more positive, "let's give him a chance" attitude. And that is good. The last thing the largest municipal police department needs after the Chambers debacle is another coup d'état.

 

Graham has, by all accounts, politicked well in gaining his new job.

 

He has, I'm told, secured the support of Mr. Justice Wally Oppal, who acts as legal adviser to the police board and swings a very big, powerful political stick.

 

But there are already rumours that Graham has committed to appointing an Indo-Canadian deputy chief constable in return for that support. I certainly don't know if that is true or not. I would like to think it is not. But the rumours have generated discussion as though it is definitely true.

 

The fastest way to lose the confidence of the cops at the sharp end of things is to allow the perception that a senior promotion was made for political reasons as opposed to merit. Study the fall of former chief Bruce Chambers to understand a real life example of what happens if that seed is allowed to germinate.

 

Chief Superintendent and soon to be Chief Constable Jamie Graham is at a crossroads in the history of the Vancouver Police Department and, indeed the history of the City of Vancouver. If his personal history is anything to go by, he will do well. If, however, he does not learn from the history of his predecessor, Chambers, then, as the old adage goes, he is doomed to repeat its failures.

 

Personally, I congratulate the new chief and wish him well.

 

I also urge him to build the appropriate bridges and tread cautiously. The VPD is a great police organization, but it is an entirely different entity than the RCMP.

 

There are a great many dedicated and knowledgeable officers in the VPD who know their way around the problems in the city. They are worth listening to.

 

Bruce Chambers might still be the top cop had he only learned that simple lesson.

 

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