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Indigenous Day: Police chief says VPD values its relationship with Indigenous people

An interview focused on the VPD’s relationship with Indigenous peoples in advance of National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21
Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer being blanketed in 2015 at a ceremony at Vancouver’s Aboriginal Friendship Centre. Photo by Dan Toulgoet

This is the second in a three-part interview series marking National Indigenous Peoples Day. Part 1, featuring B.C. Regional Chief Terry Teegee of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations was published on June 18. Part 3, featuring Scott Fraser, B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, will be released on June 20. 

As Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer tells it, less than a month ago his officers were viewed by many residents as heroes for being frontline workers during a pandemic.

Thank-you cards were being dropped off at the main precinct in appreciation for their work. Officers were being greeted warmly in the streets.

“Then all of a sudden, we’re being vilified in the media because of something that happened in Minneapolis,” said Palmer of the killing last month of George Floyd that ignited a world-wide revolt against police. “Believe me, we’re not perfect by any means, and we’ve got things we can do better here. But all of a sudden, this tide [turned] in the entire western world that is not unique to Vancouver at all. Some of it, yes, we can do better, but a lot of it, quite frankly, is just over the top the way the community has sort of turned in that regard.”

Palmer was referring to the global anti-police demonstrations and “defund police” movement that spread to Vancouver, where officers have been concerned about being targeted because of their line of work.

Palmer discussed this topic as an extension of a wide-ranging interview focused on the VPD’s relationship with Indigenous peoples in advance of National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21.

The relationship has long been tested, with the death of Mi’kmaq First Nation member Frank Paul in 1998 to the department’s inaction on serial killer Robert Pickton’s murdering of several Indigenous women as examples.

Recent events have strained that relationship.

Palmer’s interview was one of three Glacier Media conducted recently via Zoom to gauge the state of Indigenous peoples’ lives and issues in British Columbia in 2020.

B.C. Regional Chief Terry Teegee of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations and Scott Fraser, B.C. Minister of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, also participated in separate interviews, where policing and government affairs were discussed. 

The following interview was condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Back in 2016, when you spoke to Glacier Media, you described the police department’s relationship with the Indigenous community as “very good.” How would you describe it in 2020?

I still think that our relationship is very good. I have to say that it is a relationship that we do put a lot of effort into, and it’s a relationship that is very important to us. It’s something that we want to make sure that we’re always continuing to build on and make it stronger. Recent events have made it difficult. But to be quite frank with you, I know there is a lot of anti-police sentiment right now throughout Canada and the United States. And I’m hearing that over in Australia and in western Europe and Spain and Belgium and the UK — really all over the world right now. It’s a challenging time for police and community relations, which are challenging sometimes at the best of times, and this has made it even more difficult.

When somebody asks me about a relationship with a community, I just think it’s important to remember that it depends on how you define community because there are many individuals in the community and different groups who I have a great relationship with, including members of the Indigenous advisory committee, who are a cross-section of people from the community, as well as Sister Watch, which is a different group and other people that I meet, and those relationships are very positive.

Two of our police board members, Wendy Grant-John and Claire Marshall, are also Indigenous. We do have very good relationships, but the Indigenous community is very large in Canada, in B.C. and in Vancouver.

So believe me, I don’t think you’re going to walk up to every Indigenous person in Vancouver and [hear that] the relationship with the police is great, because that’s not practical. And I think a lot of people — probably people who may not know me, or had a bad experience with police — may not see the relationship as not good. So I do recognize that.

What was the VPD’s relationship with the Indigenous community when you joined the department in 1987?

Completely different back then. We had a different generation of police officers when I came in. And I would say, just generally speaking, given the whole concept of community policing, a lot of things got lost along the way. And I think police, probably through the 50s, 60s, 70s, a bit into the 80s, there was a lot of call response type driven approaches to policing and public safety.

And then the 90s hit, and things did open up better for community relations, and we did focus more on that — paying more attention to what our communities are saying, and I think we do a better job now of it today, in 2020, than we’ve ever done. Comparing it to 1987, which is 33 years ago, it’s like night and day. Back then, I would say we responded for calls for service and we would deal with people from all different backgrounds, but there was no specific community outreach that I was aware of. There may have been, but it didn’t filter down to me as a frontline officer. I didn’t have the impression back then that our relationship was particularly good with the Indigenous community.

What kind of training do officers get related to the history of Indigenous peoples’ in this province and country? Do they know about the Indian Act? The Sixties Scoop? Residential schools?

The screening process that we have now to become a police officer, even before they get into training, is so extensive in the processes that we put them through to make sure that we’re taking the right people, community-minded people, open and fair-minded people, compassionate people. We don’t want people coming into our organization that may have hatred running through their veins, or people that are against any group at all.

We want people who are open minded, thoughtful and compassionate and care about their community. Once they’re in, we do give them training through the Justice Institute of British Columbia that has a curriculum that does include Indigenous studies.

In addition to that, the VPD provides more training than any other police service in British Columbia. We have had Indigenous cultural competency training here at the VPD. We’ve actually just in 2020 through Reconciliation Canada adopted a new training protocol we’re starting to put all of our recruits through. This training, of course, has been hampered by the fact that COVID-19 hit recently. So unfortunately, that is on hold right now.

But we are looking to run all of our new recruits through additional training. We met with Shelley Joseph from Reconciliation Canada. Her dad, of course, Dr. Robert Joseph, is very well known and respected in the Indigenous community. I think it’s some of the best training that’s out there, and we’re excited to have our new officers go through it. We’re also going to incorporate that training so that even in-service officers will get that training as well.

How many Indigenous officers does the VPD have, and what are you doing to recruit more?

We have 28. It’s roughly split between 15 men and 13 women. It’s pretty close to 50/50. We do want people of diversity, but we want people that are just well qualified and the right personality and right sense of humanity and compassion to be working as police officers and have a service mentality. Specifically to Indigenous, we do specific outreach. We have gone up to Haida Gwaii. We’ve gone to Prince George and other areas of British Columbia.

We also have a really exciting cadet program in Vancouver, where we have youth in grades 10 to 12. That is an extremely diverse group of young people from the Vancouver school system, a lot of kids from the east side of Vancouver, from many, many different cultural backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds, including a lot of Indigenous kids.

In addition to our cadet program, we have an Indigenous cadet program, which is for young adults in the age range of 19 to 25. We bring them in on a summer program where we pay them a salary and they work with us in the police department doing civilian type work, get exposed to the police department and we recruit people through that strain, as well.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this month that systemic racism exists in all Canadian institutions, including police departments. Does that apply to the Vancouver Police Department?

What I will say is that Canadians and Canada, in general, has a very, very long history of racism in this country that we cannot deny. This includes Indigenous folks that have been on this land for 10,000 or more years, people that were the original people of Canada, long before any settlers came from Europe or anywhere else. And I think from the first time European settlers came here, Indigenous people, in many cases, were treated poorly.

If you’re trying to pin me down on the Vancouver police department specifically, what I will say is that I’m not naïve to think that we don’t have some people in this department, or any police agencies, that perhaps have views that are inappropriate, or dark-hearted, or whatever you want to call it — but just a completely off-base way of thinking about race and how to treat other people. That’s possible, and we do have oversight to root those people out. I’m sure we have some people that have improper views and terrible views, but I would say that is a huge minority of our police department.

We have incredible people here. We don’t have racists at the VPD. This is not a racist organization. We’re very community minded and we care about our community and are compassionate to our community.

Earlier this year, many people who watched a CBC report about an Indigenous grandfather and his 12-year-old granddaughter being handcuffed at a Vancouver Bank of Montreal were outraged by the police’s need to take such measures. Was it fair for people to say it was racist, and that the sole reason they were handcuffed is because they were Indigenous?

It’s interesting that you would say that — for the sole reason that someone’s Indigenous. I could see that as perhaps a leap in logic. I could see why people may say that, but I think that for officers responding to a call in progress, based on the information we have, they’re responding to the information in hand. And unfortunately, sometimes when we get to a situation, things don’t always unfold as the information comes through 911. The specifics of that case I can’t talk about right now because it’s under investigation.

But I do acknowledge there’s a number of incidents that you can refer to in our history where we have done things that have happened in our community, but also point out that we learn from that every time we go into a situation. We want to be better. But it is inevitable when you’re responding to hundreds of thousands of calls in Vancouver and have a million contacts with the public, there will be some instances where people will not be happy with that contact 100 per cent. We don’t like to see it, but we know that that will happen. With that particular case, I’m not going to comment anymore because there is an ongoing investigation.

Do you think there’s any merit to “defund police,” and would it lead to better relationships with Indigenous communities and other racialized communities?

Defund the police is a hashtag, it is a movement but it really is a hashtag, and there is no plan behind it. It’s all basically built on emotional reaction coming out of something that happened in Minneapolis. Having said that, we are open to listening to what our community says. When you’ve got thousands of people — tens of thousands of people, in many cases — that are having an outcry for police to do things better and police to do things differently, I’m totally fine with that and on board with that.

If the community wants to see us do things differently, then I’d love to be at the table. I want to be part of those discussions, but it has to be an informed discussion and it has to be evidence based and a thoughtful discussion. It can’t just be a reaction to let’s all of a sudden just cut the police and see what happens.

The things that we hear consistently with folks talking about this movement are things like the police not responding to mental health calls, the police not responding to domestic violence, the police not responding to calls like that. I’ll remind the community that the people who have been calling for police not to go to mental health calls for years and to put a better system in place is the police.

I’m a big fan of dealing with upstream drivers of crime or social disorder, things related to poverty and homelessness and addiction and mental health issues. But I think people have to be pragmatic and realize it’s fine in some of the lower level things, but not in the more serious cases where people are dealing with severe mental health issues — the cases where people are a danger to themselves or others. I’m all in favour of taking away the lower level ones, but I don’t want to see a social worker or a psych nurse be put into danger in a situation they’re not trained to deal with.

As you’re aware, Mayor Kennedy Stewart called on the provincial government to conduct a review of policing in B.C., including the Vancouver Police Department. The provincial government says it’s already doing that. Do you think it’s necessary?

If the community and on our police board and the province believe we need an overhaul — and there are things we can definitely do better, I’m convinced of that — we would be all in, and really happy to participate in any kind of review. But it has to be something that’s done in a thoughtful process, listening to community but also from an informed perspective, evidence based with good data.

Because people sometimes in the community have the best intentions but they don’t necessarily know the business. Just like I may know a cursory bit about engineering or forestry, but I really don’t know the forestry industry or the engineering profession that well to have an informed discussion on it.

So we’re happy to participate and I would love to see other levels of government or other agencies take on some responsibility, quite frankly, that should have been theirs to begin with, but they didn’t take on and have fallen to police.

In this time of demonstrations against police, you don’t often hear from those people who support the police. I read a tweet from one of your officers recently saying she had been a police officer since 1995. She wrote that she had never felt “such hatred toward my profession as in recent weeks, and it hits me to my core.” What should the public take of that assessment from one of your officers?

I know that officer and she’s a highly respected, outstanding police officer. I take what she says very seriously, and I’ve heard from other officers as well. On the racism issue, I’ve asked officers in our department – male, female, Black officers, Indigenous officers, Chinese officers, South Asian officers — I ask them what’s their take on all this racism stuff because, you know I acknowledge I’m a white guy and being the chief sometimes you can be removed from the frontlines.

But people I’ve known for a long time and I trust and I respect, they tell me that when they came into this profession, they weren’t coming into it thinking it’s a racist profession. And they have not had those experiences. They’re treated very well by their co-workers, and it’s a very welcoming and open organization that respects people from all different backgrounds. And when they’re out on the streets, they’re not seeing their co-workers treat people with racist attitudes, either. So I just think it’s an interesting observation.

I have a lot of respect for my frontline officers and our civilian members – everybody in this department—and I don’t want to work around people that don’t have great morals and ethics, and people that have bad views. I don’t want to be around people like that, and I don’t think that I am. I’m in an organization with great people, and I feel for them, and I do defend them. If someone does something wrong, then they have to face the music and pay the consequences.

Are you optimistic that the VPD’s relationship will improve with the Indigenous community and other racialized communities? You’ll probably say yes, but what do you base that on?

We have connections with so many people form so many different backgrounds. And , yes, some relationships are easier than others, and I recognize the Indigenous one is one we’re going to have to continue to work hard on, and make even better inroads. We have more people working on Indigenous issues than we ever had. We have four full-time officers, and that is their job. That includes an Indigenous protocol officer who advises the chief’s office on issues happening in the community, but also on cultural ceremonies and protocols and things like that to make sure we get things right.

There’s going to be a lot of things that we’re going to have to continue to do. We cannot rest on our laurels on this issue. We have to be front and centre, let our community know that we care about them. The feedback l’m getting from a lot of Indigenous people I know that are part of our committee has been very positive. Sometimes it’s easy to listen to the negative rhetoric.