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Pickton inquiry report may not push through opposition to regional police force

VANCOUVER - The final report into the failures that allowed Robert Pickton to remain at large for so long has revived a decades-old debate about whether there should be a regional police department in the Vancouver area, one of the only major cities
Vancouver Police Chief Jim Chu responds to Commissioner Wally Oppal's inquiry report into serial killer Robert Pickton, during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday December 18, 2012. Chief Chu apologized for not catching Pickton sooner and said they could and should have caught him earlier. Oppal's report into the missing and murdered women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside recommends a regional police force for Greater Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER - The final report into the failures that allowed Robert Pickton to remain at large for so long has revived a decades-old debate about whether there should be a regional police department in the Vancouver area, one of the only major cities in Canada not protected by a single, unified force.

But any debate about amalgamating Lower Mainland police departments will likely run into old divisions between the region's mayors, some of whom have actively resisted any suggestion of creating a single force under any circumstance.

Commissioner Wally Oppal released a report this week that examined years of police failures that delayed Pickton's arrest as the serial killer found more victims. While Oppal concluded systemic bias against sex workers was a key factor in those failures, he also said the fact that Pickton was picking up sex workers and murdering them in two separate cities, each with their own police force, played a significant role.

Oppal recommended the B.C. government oversee the creation of a regional force, saying only a single department could address the poor collaboration and the rivalries between the Vancouver police and the RCMP in Port Coquitlam, where Pickton lived, that hampered the Pickton investigation.

B.C.'s justice minister, Shirley Bond, said she's open to discussing the idea, particularly as the province drafts a new, 10-year policing plan, but added little else to the debate. When asked whether she has a preference when it comes to regionalization, she didn't say.

Mayor Lois Jackson of Delta, a community of about 100,000 people south of Vancouver that has its own municipal force, was more direct.

"Totally opposed," Jackson said in an interview Tuesday.

"I hate to say we're better, but we certainly have put together the things we want to achieve in our community."

The 2.3 million residents in greater Vancouver are currently policed by a patchwork of municipal forces and local detachments of the RCMP.

Delta, Abbotsford, New Westminster, Port Moody and West Vancouver each have their own municipal forces, while the rest of the region's communities, including large cities such as Surrey, have local policing contracts with the RCMP. A collection of integrated teams provide specialized services related to gangs, murders and traffic forensics to some, but not all, municipalities.

The provincial government and municipalities that use the RCMP recently signed a new 20-year agreement with the RCMP, but the contract included an opt-out clause.

Arguments from politicians opposed to a regional force range from the potential cost to concerns that they would have less control over a regional force and few ways to keep it accountable. Opponents also point to the move towards integrated units, which they say solve the same problems that a regional force would.

Jackson said officers on a local municipal department develop a knowledge of the community that is lost within a massive regional force. She also rejected the suggestion that the jurisdictional problems that plagued the Pickton investigation could ever happen in her community, insisting that there is co-operation between Delta police and neighbouring departments, such as the RCMP in Surrey, all the time.

"Our police guys, they know what's going on in Delta, because they're here and they know the community, and regional police can't do that," she said.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, on the other hand, issued a statement shortly after the release of Oppal's report that called on the province to "quickly commit to establishing a Metro Vancouver police force."

The head of the city's police force, Chief Jim Chu, declined to wade into the debate Tuesday.

"If we were to design the ideal policing structure for the greater Vancouver region, I don't think we would design what we have now," Chu told a news conference.

"But it's our role as Vancouver police officers to work the best we can within the existing structure. ... I think it's up to the political leaders to make some decisions."

Recent discontentment with the new RCMP contract could at least jump-start that debate. Cities such as Burnaby and Richmond have said they are unhappy with the terms of the RCMP contract and are looking at their options.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said city council is currently examining an independent municipal force as a possible alternative, but he said the city would look at the possibility of a regional force if it's debated.

"Traditionally, we've been fairly resistant to it," Brodie said in an interview.

"However, a number of our councillors have expressed a real interest in a regional force, so we're looking at the Oppal report and the provincial response to it, and we'll be measuring that option to see if it can provide some of the answers for us."

Paul McKenna, who teaches at Halifax's Dalhousie University and worked for Ontario's solicitor general in the 1990s when that province overhauled its policing system, said regional policing is becoming the accepted model in North American precisely for the reasons that Oppal outlined.

Toronto's metropolitan police force was created decades ago, long before the cities that make up the greater Toronto area amalgamated.

Many forces in Ontario were regionalized in the 1960s and '70s and have each grown to encompass more communities over time, he noted. In Halifax, the creation of the Halifax Regional Municipality prompted politicians there to amalgamate police forces. The area now is policed jointly by the local police and the RCMP, which operate out of the same building.

McKenna said a regional force in Vancouver would also make it easier to implement the recommendations in Oppal's report that deal specifically with policing.

"If you look at all of the recommendations, all the main themes that are touched on, if you had to inject those into separate police organizations, it's going to be much more difficult, require much more co-ordination and require more political will," McKenna said in an interview.

"You simplify the process; you can make it far more accountable. These are the benefits of regionalization."

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