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Vancouver police board questions why new school liaison officers need guns

Rachel Roy: "My question is, 'Why firearms at all?'"
The Vancouver Police Department is preparing to launch a new school liaison program for September 2023.

A Vancouver Police Board member sparked a debate Thursday over why the police department insists officers belonging to a new school liaison program scheduled to launch in September should carry guns.

Rachel Roy asked the question after hearing a presentation at a board meeting from Insp. Gary Hiar, who provided an update on the new program and how it will be different from the one scrapped by the school board in May 2021.

“It's a really important question,” Hiar said. “Our team did discuss it. But we do feel it is necessary for officers to have their tools — their firearms. Our concern is public safety. First and foremost, they have to be able to be in a position to react if something was to happen in the school, in around the school or to and from the school.”

Faye Wightman, the board’s vice-chairperson, then asked Hiar if he could provide examples where school liaison officers have had to use their guns in the past 10 years, prior to the program being scrapped two years ago.

“From what I know, I haven’t heard of any,” replied Hiar, who is in charge of the department’s youth services section and mental health unit.

Wightman: “So why is there a need to have them, then?”

Deputy Chief Fiona Wilson responded to the question, saying there had been “numerous incidents over the past years where there have been significant threats to schools. In most cases, we've been able to interdict those incidents.”

'A very difficult scenario for us'

Roy questioned why an unarmed school liaison officer couldn’t call 911, if a serious incident were to occur at a school. Wilson said it would be the responsibility of the school liaison officer to intervene in an incident.

“If a member was not armed, there may actually be implications in terms of their liability under the Police Act for neglect of duty, quite frankly,” the deputy chief said. “Because if they were in a school setting, and there was an active shooter situation, and they were unable to respond to that effectively, it would be a very difficult scenario for us.”

Deputy Chief Howard Chow recalled an incident at a school that occurred more than two years ago where a school liaison officer was first on scene for a call of a person going into a school with a knife.

“Those incidents happen,” Chow said. “I just can't fathom the thought of not having a program like that where you don't arm your officers.”

The police board has yet to approve the new school liaison program, with a vote expected in June. The VPD began working on a new program after the ABC Vancouver-led school board reversed a decision in November 2022 of the previous board to scrap the program.

Systemic racism, oppression, abuse of power

The previous board cancelled the program, which had been in place since 1972, after hearing from Black and Indigenous students who felt threatened by officers’ presence — concerns that were reflected in the Argyle consultant’s report released in March 2021.

“Students who self-identified as Black and Indigenous were more likely to mention police as symbols of larger societal concerns, including systemic racism, oppression, and abuses of power,” said the report, which heard from more than 1,900 participants via interviews, meetings, surveys, written statements and focus groups.

“These comments often reflected personal, lived experience with [school liaison officers] and policing in their communities.”

Hiar said police have been working directly with school board deputy superintendent David Nelson, the VPD’s Indigenous and African descent advisory committees and reviewing the Argyle report to design the new program.

Consultations with students, parent groups, teachers and principals are ongoing, said Hiar, who provided a glimpse Thursday of what the new program will look like, if approved by the board in June.

“We acknowledge that the voices of the students, specifically the voice of racialized students — Indigenous and Black students — really needed to be highlighted when we were going to reimagine this program,” he said.

Smaller guns, no uniforms

Hiar said the program will be staffed by two sergeants and 15 constables, with a selection process expected to start Friday. Former teachers are some of the applicants, he said, adding that “our intent is to ensure that there is diversity amongst the members.”

The officers will wear golf shirts with VPD crests instead of uniforms and “hiking style” pants. The guns they carry will be small enough to fit in a holster inside an officer’s pants. Smaller batons and pepper spray will also be part of the outfit.

The cars they drive will no longer be Dodge Chargers but possibly a Honda Civic or KIA sedan, which will still be equipped with lights and sirens.

The police board is scheduled to decide on whether to approve the program at its next public meeting June 23.

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