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Does bigger mean better? Officials square off over policing in small-town B.C.

DELTA, B.C. - Size need not dictate quality of service.

DELTA, B.C. - Size need not dictate quality of service.

That was the key message delivered by law enforcement authorities to citizens of a small British Columbia municipality Wednesday night that's been staunchly defending its no-call-is-too-small policing philosophy as debate ensues over amalgamation.

Proponents of merging Metro Vancouver's oft-described "patchwork" of police forces into a single regional unit told attendees at a forum in Delta they will only gain by opening their minds to other options.

"You can have big police departments that are extremely connected to their community," said Doug LePard, deputy chief of the Vancouver Police Department.

Former B.C. attorney-general Wally Oppal added that citizens could have both localized service and a regional approach.

"I know that's always a fear in communities such as Delta," said Oppal of the possibility citizens would lose the personal touch their officers deliver. "But I think we need to understand those two concepts and principles are not mutually exclusive."

Officials for the 100,000-strong municipality convened the panel in light of a high-profile report by Oppal that exposed the policing flaws which allowed serial killer Robert Pickton to hunt women for years in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The two-year undertaking, which wrapped up with the analysis in December, stressed that a regional force that shared intelligence could have made all the difference in stopping the horror.

Those findings, along with subsequent, recent statements by Vancouver's mayor and police chief that they'd be in favour of a change, prompted Delta to wade back into the debate, its mayor told the forum.

"Regionalization will not stop the marginalization of women," Lois Jackson told the several dozen people gathered in a hotel ballroom. "It is not going to stop violence against women."

Further to that, it will not create leaders, nor guarantee proper accountability or governance, Jackson said. It will not ensure increased productivity, decrease costs or improve service delivery, she added.

"A regional police force will likely not 'sweat the small stuff,'" she said. "It seems to me that regionalization is seen as a panacea for all that is wrong with policing in our region and has been hailed by some as the solution the problems we have experienced."

But LePard stood before the crowd — including several police chiefs from the surrounding area — and said the force's position was not based on relationships, but research.

"We can't rely on collegiality to have effective policing on regional issues," he said, explaining that structural barriers are the concern.

"We see miscommunication, we see missed linkages, we see delayed responses caused by our policing structure ... not because anyone doesn't want to co-operate, it's the logistics of trying to get agreement."

LePard has, over recent years, apologized on behalf of the Vancouver Police for its role in not catching Pickton sooner. He said one example of local service was that both he and Chief Jim Chu sit on a committee with advocates for aboriginal women where they discuss violence against women in the Downtown Eastside.

Assistant Commissioner Norm Lipinski represented the B.C. RCMP at the forum, another police force faulted in Oppal's report for not passing information about Pickton along.

He said the force has taken steps to ensure that scale of tragedy doesn't occur again, and part of that has happened with modernization that other panellists pointed to as well.

Mounties, who already police the majority of B.C. communities via multiple detachments, are tapped into technology systems that allow instant sharing of information with all agencies in the province. Such a system has been dubbed the integrated model.

"Right now we have a very solid model and we continue to refine it," he said.

But he added he has yet to see comprehensive reviews done that specifically address the cost and effectiveness of switching to a regionalized model.

A single force would likely employ about 3,000 officers and another 1,000 to 1,500 civilian support staff, all under one union that would likely bargain for the highest possible wages, said another Delta official.

George Harvie estimated it would also cost about $1 million to transition all officers on to the same uniform.

"No one has looked at the economics," he agreed.

He went on to propose a "hybrid" model of some kind that would lead the way towards improvements.

Delta Police Chief Jim Cessford was of the same mind. He suggested the creation of a provincial body that oversees a specialized policing organization in addition to keeping the individual forces.

But LePard took it a step further, suggesting municipalities need to think bigger to get better.

"If Delta wants a certain level of service ... great. Why don't we look at whether that can be built into a model and a formula?" he said.

"What if Delta could have everything that it has now, but also could have that enhanced and also have quicker ... whatever it doesn't have the critical mass to provide?"

Vancouver and Victoria are the two largest jurisdictions in the country that do not have a regionalized police force.

Ottawa was the most recent to amalgamate, starting in the mid-1990s, and before that both Halifax and Toronto did the same.