Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Q&A: Vancouver police chief talks decriminalization, Heiltsuk Nation apology, crime trends

Adam Palmer: "I've definitely got some good years left in me, and I'm not ready to retire yet."
Police Chief Adam Palmer will be on the job until September 2025 after the Vancouver Police Board announced last week that it extended his contract, which was supposed to expire in June.

He was supposed to retire in June.

That’s what Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer’s last contract said.

Now, he’s signed on for another three years and will have been on the job for more than 10 years as chief when he calls it quits in September 2025.

Mayor Ken Sim announced Palmer’s contract extension at the Jan. 19 Vancouver Police Board meeting, saying that he and the rest of the board members were “incredibly fortunate” to have Palmer as chief.

“It’s been a very challenging time over these last couple of years for a whole host of issues…and the leadership that you’ve displayed for the VPD and the city has been absolutely amazing,” said Sim, who doubles as the board’s chairperson.

What that leadership looks like over the next three years, why he’s sticking around and what he has to say about the need for more officers, crime statistics, decriminalization of drugs and other issues facing the VPD were in play during a wide-ranging Glacier Media interview with Palmer Thursday.

The following is a condensed and edited version of the interview, which occurred via telephone.

You’ve been chief since 2015 and working as a police officer since 1987. Why not retire in June when your contract was originally supposed to expire?

Yes, it is a long time [to have served with the VPD]. But I love what I do. I love the profession. I love the great work we do in the community and I’m really proud of the members of the Vancouver Police Department. It’s an honour. It's been really challenging the last couple of years for sure. But I think we're in a period of time where I think sustained leadership is good. I’ve definitely got some good years left in me, and I'm not ready to retire yet. So I'm looking forward to the challenge.

Regarding Mayor Ken Sim, he and his ABC Vancouver colleagues committed to hire 100 officers, reinstate school liaison officers and are big supporters of you and the Vancouver Police Department. The party also received a rare endorsement by the Vancouver Police Union in its election campaign. Did the election victory of Sim and his ABC Vancouver team last fall have anything to do with you wanting to continue as chief?

Well, let's put it this way, the discussions for me to get my contract extended — and the three deputies — started before [election day]. So that all started before the ABC party was elected and we had the new mayor and council. But what I will say is that with the new mayor and council, there is a real positive attitude around the police department right now. I wish [former mayor] Kennedy Stewart well, and thank him for his service, but I know we're heading in a bit of a different direction now. I think that positive things are on the horizon for the next four years.

Ken Sim is the third mayor you’ve worked with since becoming chief. How do you like having a politician as chairperson of the Vancouver Police Board? Do you see advantages? Disadvantages?

If I was in the debating club, I could probably make an argument for you either way. But what I'll say is, I think what is misunderstood both in the media and probably by the public at large is we're not like the United States, and chiefs of police in Canada do not report to a mayor. They don't report to a politician. I've made comments like that in the past in the media, and people say, ‘Oh, what's he talking about?’ But the reality is, that's the Canadian model of policing. And no chief in Canada reports to a mayor or to a politician.

And the board is who I report to. They're the employer, and they're actually put in place to prevent political interference. So that's a huge difference between Canada and the United States that I don't think is well understood by the public here in Canada. It's a nine-member board chaired by the mayor, with seven provincial appointees and one city appointee. So those are the nine members that I report to. I have a great working relationship with the mayor and with council and with the city manager, but they're not my bosses.

Let’s talk about the most recent crime statistics posted on the VPD’s website for 2022. Property crime continues to plummet, whereas assaults and robberies continue to increase. What should residents make of these statistics?

2020 was obviously a significant year with the worldwide pandemic, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and all the civic unrest and everything that happened. We did see a change of behaviour in the city, we saw a change in crime patterns. Violent crime did go up. In particular, serious violent crime has been on the rise over the past few years.

Stranger random assaults, violent shoplifters — assaults against police officers are on the rise, as well. We’ve had more hate crimes. We did see property crime plummet during the pandemic. People were working from home, working remotely, fewer cars downtown, and more people at home. So it did affect the crime trends. But we’re starting to see property crime creep back up to more traditional levels. People have returned to sort of a sense of normality of how they're living their lives. A lot of things are getting back into a regular kind of rhythm.

Back in November, city council unlocked $8 million towards hiring 100 new officers. Why does the department need more officers when property crimes such as break-ins to cars, businesses and homes continues to plummet?

What’s important to remember is that you can't staff any police service anywhere based on year-to-year fluctuations in crime. So if crime goes up one year, and it goes down another year, you don't keep adjusting the size of your department every year. These are longer-term, strategic initiatives that we're talking about here.

We have very good analytics here, and we've got really good research capabilities. And we use outside academics for a lot of research. We have done a couple of operational reviews and we're still down 60 staff.

We’re also seeing emerging crimes connected to technology, different scams, thefts of catalytic converters, violent shoplifters, ghost guns. Five years ago, most people wouldn’t have known what a ghost gun is. Now, we're seeing those in Canada on 3D printers. So crime trends have changed.

Can you give citizens a sense of when these 100 officers will be hired and where they can be expected to be deployed?

We are recruiting heavily right now. What you have to remember is that there's the 100 new officers, but there's also 50 to 75 retiring this year through normal attrition. So we're going to be looking at hiring 150 to 175 officers. We just put in a class [at the police academy] of I think 23, because that's how many seats we had. Then we've got May, September and then next January.

Once a new officer goes to the academy, then it's nine to 10 months of training before they graduate and they’re out on the road. Hiring experienced officers [from other departments], we have a little more control over when they get hired. Of the new officers coming in, probably about 60 per cent of those will go to operations. So frontline patrol officers. And about 40 per cent would go to the back end — investigators, detectives, people working behind the scenes that wouldn't be as visible to the public.

Have you seen VPD officers who left the department to join the Surrey Police Service return to the VPD?

Yes, I just swore one in a couple of weeks ago. So that officer is back and we've had some other ones that are kicking the tires and making inquiries about coming back to Vancouver. We're heavily recruiting experienced officers right now. It is a very competitive market because the RCMP, Surrey Police Service and all the other municipal departments — and across Canada — everybody is looking for good qualified police officers. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.

I’ve heard you say numerous times that Vancouver is a safe city. At the same time, we hear violent crime is up and stranger assaults are averaging four per day. What’s your definition of a safe city?

Having been a police officer here for 35-plus years, I’ve seen the city change over the years. It's one of the biggest cities in Canada, and also in North America.

I remember back in the late 1980s, I was in New York City on a ride-along with NYPD, and one of the officers asked me where I was from, and I said Vancouver.

He said, ‘Where’s that, I’ve never heard of that.’

I'll guarantee you if you go to New York City today, most people have heard of Vancouver and know where it is. We’ve got big-city issues here on a national and international scale — drug trafficking, different types of fraud and cybercrime and importation of firearms across the border and things like that.

We're a city of about 700,000 people with a Metro area of about 2.8 million. But we are the epicentre for everything in the province — tourism hub, the IT sector hub, entertainment, professional sports. The bars are open later down here and young people flock to the city for the fun, the excitement.

We want Vancouver to be a fun city. But it does bring policing issues, as well. That is a challenge that you don't face in suburban or rural policing. So we have our challenges, but it's still safe.

By the way, I’m curious about the term “stranger assaults.” I’d never heard police use that term until the last year or so. Hasn’t there always been random, unprovoked attacks in Vancouver?

A lot of these terms — stranger, random — they're kind of interchangeable. Sometimes you'll hear the term repeat offender, chronic offender or prolific offender. But the sense of it is still the same. So when we're talking about stranger or random assaults, I've been a police officer in Vancouver for 35-plus years. Over the years, there’s always been cases where people will be randomly attacked by a stranger, but not to the magnitude that we have seen in recent years. On those types of files, many of them do have a mental health component, which is concerning.

Are police still seeing an average of four of these types of assaults per day?

I don't have a more recent number from January for you right now, but I know the last time we looked, it was four.

As you’re well aware, decriminalization of personal possession of select illegal drugs kicks in next week. What has your department done to prepare for the exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act?

The thing about Vancouver, in particular, is it's important to remember that we've had de facto decriminalization here for over a decade. We haven't been charging people for simple drug possession for over a decade. So it really will not be a wholesale change for police in Vancouver, but it may be in some of the smaller communities.

Decriminalization is controversial, for sure. You’re not going to get 100 per cent buy-in across the country from everybody. Some people support it, some don't. I would say here we've kept a pretty open mind to it, and are supportive of trying it because the old school ways of doing it haven't worked.

Do you think it will lead to fewer overdose deaths?

I sure hope so. I hope that it does.

I know there's going to be an evaluation framework, and it's going to be studied and all that, which I think is good. So let's try it and hope that we do get that outcome. But we have to remember that even with decriminalization, people will still be getting drugs that will be laced with fentanyl. People will still be getting it from an illegal source, they will be getting it from a drug dealer on the street, who's selling them, in many cases, a poisoned drug supply.

People will still have to be committing crimes to support their habit — breaking into your car or neighbour's car, or breaking into a house to support that drug habit. So a lot of those bigger picture issues are not solved by decriminalization. But if Vancouver Coastal Health and the provincial government get more people on a pathway to a better life, that's a good thing. So we'll see how that plays out.

I'm going to keep an open mind to it. But I'm not going to make projections that overdose deaths are going to reduce by a percentage, because it's still a poisoned drug supply.

Back in October, there was a lot of media coverage about the two officers involved in the handcuffing of Heiltsuk Nation man Maxwell Johnson and his granddaughter not attending the apology ceremony in Bella Bella. Why didn’t they go, and what has happened since then?

So there's still a lot of discussion going on with that with our board and the Heiltsuk Nation and there's various legal counsel involved. I'm not going to get into the backroom discussions of what's going on there.

We do want to move forward in a positive way with the Heiltsuk Nation and try and work through all of this. Myself, all the deputy chiefs and members of the police board all attended Bella Bella in good faith and do want to work with the nation on positive solutions.

As far as the two officers go, there's different reasons [they didn’t attend]. The huge media involvement was a factor. That was something that we didn't anticipate. We originally were under the impression that it wouldn't be a big media event. We thought it was going to be more of a personal intimate type event.

There's also other issues at play with the status of the officers and how they're doing. So I think I'll just leave that one there. But we are working earnestly with our board and legal counsel to try and come up with positive solutions.

Making news this week is the inquest into the suicide of Vancouver police department Constable Nicole Chan. I know you’ll probably tell me you can’t discuss the case, but what are you doing to ensure something like this never happens again to one of your officers?

The death of Nicole Chan is a tragedy. It was heartbreaking. It was something that impacted our whole department. Very, very sad tragedy. It's something that, of course, we never want to see again. When a person dies by suicide, it's a very sad and tragic situation. So my heart always goes out to her whole family and her friends.

I'm not going to get into specifics about that particular file because there is an ongoing inquest. But I will say that we do have good policy in place. We do have training. We do have an inclusive workplace committee. We have civilian professionals in human resources and legal counsel and people reviewing our policy and police board oversight.

We have made changes over the years on our policy to make sure it does protect people. Having a respectful workplace is of paramount importance.

The one thing I'll just say is that you can have all the policy in the world, in any organization, but human beings are still human beings. And you never know how individuals are going to act under given circumstances. You can policy the heck out of the place, but we still have to rely on people to abide by policy, and give them proper training. But individuals may stray from that, and sometimes, that's hard to anticipate.

I know the VPD is on a recruiting drive, but what do you say to those people considering becoming a police officer but may have concerns about taking that step when they read about the suicide of Constable Nicole Chan or have questions about cases such as the police-involved death of Myles Gray?

Well, I haven't heard that come up. I haven't heard people coming up with concerns or asking that question. But I'm sure if they are questions, our recruiters would be answering them to the best of their abilities.

There will be cases that sometimes use of force is used. And use of force is never a pretty thing. You can't lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with dangerous dynamic situations that are not black and white. And they're stressful situations.

There's a lot of uncertainty in these situations going into them because many times officers have limited information. And it's very easy, months or years later to kind of armchair quarterback. You don't hear about the 99 per cent of calls that go swimmingly. Officers just do absolutely amazing work under really, really challenging circumstances. I don't want the public to lose sight of that because our officers are providing an incredible service every day and it's not an easy profession.

Assaults on police officers. You mentioned it earlier in the interview and I’ve heard Deputy Chief Howard Chow mention the trend several times at police board meetings. Why are more police officers getting assaulted?

Vancouver is not alone. We have seen that in other places throughout Canada and North America.

A lot of the assaults we're seeing are from people resisting arrest, kicking, punching, a lot of spitting, hair pulling on female officers, biting. The spitting and the biting is particularly troubling. I think I'd rather be pushed or punched than have somebody spit on me or bite me. It’s just a really degrading and disrespectful kind of assault.

The officers put up with a lot out there. And the number of assaults have gone up without a doubt, particularly in the north half of the city where we have seen more violent crime. Sometimes it can be people with mental health issues, it could be that somebody's high, or it could just be a violent person that's committed a crime that doesn't want to go to jail. There's many different reasons for it.

After I posted a story this week about the most recent crime stats, and pointed out abandoned calls continue to be an issue for VPD, many people commented on Twitter with their personal stories of frustrations with trying to report a crime. Some said it was a waste of time. What do you say to that?

Well, I'm very frustrated by the process as well. It's important to remember that E-Comm is not the VPD, it's a third-party service provider who we pay tens of millions of dollars to every year to provide that service for us. The call takers and the dispatchers do an excellent job. They're really devoted people. It's a stressful job, and they're trying to do their best out there. But there are issues.

I don't have the final numbers in yet for 2022, but it's going to be ballpark around 100,000 calls for service [on the non-emergency line] that were abandoned. We are working with E-Comm.

Just recently, I did meet with the CEO, and I know that they do have some technology in the works that is going to be implemented in 2023. Vancouver is actually going to be the pilot city for that. The information I've received on it so far it that it looks very promising and looks like it will be a positive addition to the structure of the way they handle calls.