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Police return to Vancouver schools amid controversy

After a two-year hiatus, school liaison officers have been reinstated. We answer your questions on what to expect.
The Vancouver Police Department’s school liaison officer program will begin operating again next week after it was cancelled in May 2021 in an 8-1 vote of school trustees. Photo Dan Toulgoet

Vancouver police officers will be back in schools next week.

The return of what the police department is calling a “reimagined” school liaison officer (SLO) program comes after the school board scrapped the old version in May 2021.

Since then, a new board led by ABC Vancouver trustees voted in November 2022 to put officers back in schools.

The decision to both scrap the program and reinstate it has been controversial.

Glacier Media has reported on why the move has proven to be so polarizing and what students, staff and parents can expect when officers return to schools next week.

Here is a summary of what has happened since the program ended in June 2021.

Why did the school board scrap the program in May 2021?

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.”

Did crime increase or decrease at schools after the program ended at the end of the school year in June 2022?

Deputy Chief Fiona Wilson told the police board that since 2017, calls to schools “had continually decreased.” That pattern changed in 2022 when the schools were without officers, she said, noting calls overall increased 16 per cent.

“And they're not small numbers,” she said. “They went from 414 calls to 480. Violent crime increased 19 per cent, assaults increased 27 per cent.”

The deputy chief said VPD records show 7,000 “encounters” between school liaison officers and young people, between 2015 and 2019.

“Of these encounters, only 224 cases resulted in any form of recommendation within the Youth Criminal Justice Act, and 197 of these were successfully resolved through alternative measures. So in real numbers, that a total of 27,” she said.

Why was the program reinstated?

The program was brought back after ABC Vancouver elected four trustees in October 2022. Christopher Richardson, a former ABC candidate, also got elected. All five campaigned on reinstating the program and made good on their promise in a 5-4 vote in November 2022.

During the campaign, ABC candidate-turned-trustee Preeti Faridkot said: “A return of the school liaison officer program is something that many students, parents and educators have been calling for. Reinstating an updated version of the program will be an excellent step towards creating safer, more welcoming schools while addressing concerns that led to the program being cut in the first place.”

How will the new version of the program be different than the old one?

Insp. Gary Hiar told the Vancouver Police Board in April 2023 that the department had been working directly with school board deputy superintendent David Nelson and the VPD’s Indigenous and African descent advisory committees. The VPD is also reviewing the Argyle report to design the new program.

Consultations with students, parent groups, teachers and principals were ongoing, Hiar said at the time.

“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.

Will police wear a uniform? Carry guns?

Yes, and yes. But the uniforms and guns won’t be the same as those worn by most officers in the department. The program will be staffed by two sergeants and 15 constables, who will wear golf shirts with VPD crests instead of uniforms and “hiking style” pants.

The guns 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.

Why do school liaison officers need to carry guns?

Deputy Chief Fiona Wilson told the police board at a meeting earlier this year that there had been numerous incidents over the past years where there have been “significant threats to schools.”

In most cases, Wilson said, “we've been able to interdict those incidents.”

“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.”

Did the Vancouver Police Board hold a vote on reinstating the program?

Sort of. In November 2022, the board approved the VPD’s overall budget for 2023, which board vice-chairperson Faye Wightman said included funds dedicated to the school liaison officer program.

The board’s 2023 public documents, however, do not show a line item for the SLO program, or an attached budget, which the department has yet to publicly disclose, despite previous requests by Glacier Media.

Also, Wightman had indicated at a meeting in April that there would be a vote June 15 on the program. At that June 15 meeting, Wightman apologized for what she described as misunderstanding, saying the board had already voted on the program in November 2022.

What was the response from board members at the June 15 police board meeting?

Board member Rachel Roy announced her resignation at the meeting, saying she felt she had been lied to about a vote occurring June 15.

“The breaking point today was when we were deprived of the opportunity to vote on this — we came here expecting that,” Roy told reporters after the meeting.

“A decision was made — apparently — that the board could not vote on this. It's a serious governance issue. In my view, it's a dereliction of our duty as board members under the Police Act.”

Was that the only controversy at the June 15 meeting?

No. Members of the Vancouver police’s African descent advisory committee, including Parker Johnson, walked out of the meeting.

Two of the committee’s members are former VPD officers.

“We've met with the board, we've met with your research group, and we assume that there's going to be some engagement with what we had to share,” Johnson said from a lectern at the meeting.

“What we're hearing now though, is that despite us sharing this information, a decision has already been made. So it's merely going to be filed, and so we are quite disappointed.”

Added Johnson: “What is being done right now, in our minds, is a fiasco. And you wasted our time asking us to come to a meeting, which you've already made a decision on. And so it seems like a bold-faced lie.”

Wasn’t there supposed to be a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the school board and VPD — and shared with the public?

Yes. David Nelson, deputy superintendent of schools, told members of a policy and governance committee June 14 that he was working with VPD to draft the memorandum. He promised it would be circulated with trustees.

As of Wednesday, the committee’s chairperson, Janet Fraser, had not received a copy, which is supposed to include information on regular reviews of the new program and mechanisms for students, parents and others to register any complaints.

“They've been working on it for quite a while, but they're coming down to the wire,” said Fraser, noting schools open next week. “Until it comes out, I don't know how those [concerns about reviews and complaint process] will be specifically addressed.”

Does Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim, who doubles as the police board’s chairperson, have a position on reinstating the program?

Sim shared during a police board meeting that he was “personally preyed on” by the Lotus and Red Eagles gangs when he attended Churchill secondary school.

“You were either on the program, or you got the crap beaten out of you,” the mayor said. “For me personally, if it wasn't for the SLO program, I would have had some serious physical harm, or in a gang, or I'd be dead.”

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