For Victoria's new police chief, focus is on relationships

As Victoria’s new police chief caps off his first week on the job, Frank Elsner knows expectations are high and a lot of people are watching for any big shifts within the department.

But Elsner said his focus right now is relationship-building, with Victoria and Esquimalt city council, the region’s six other police chiefs and the citizens he’s charged with keeping safe.

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“People have read a lot about who I am and where I came from,” Elsner told the Times Colonist.

“Now it’s time to actually meet the folks and really talk about where my head’s at, what’s my philosophy on where we want to go as a police department.”

On his first day on the job, Elsner made an appearance at Esquimalt’s Monday night council meeting to assure councillors and Esquimalt taxpayers the community won’t be treated like a poor cousin.

“I think the acrimonious relationship has been built up a little more than it actually was,” he said.

“I thought my reception there was exceptionally warm and open. People are giving me a chance to prove myself and this department.”

Elsner spent the early part of his career doing deep undercover work to infiltrate gangs in Ontario. In his 20s at the time, he said he didn’t tell his parents what he was doing. Certain details — such as his stints in prison and getting beaten up — his mother didn’t find out about until reading interviews with media.

“When I left I had a crew cut, I was this kid, right? I went back two years later, and I had hair past my shoulders, a beard, tattoo, earrings. I remember my mom looked at me and said, ‘Only a face a mother could love.’ ”

Elsner comes to Victoria after four years as chief of Greater Sudbury police, an amalgamated force of six smaller departments that covers a sprawling 3,267 square kilometres, making it geographically the largest municipality in Ontario.

In Victoria, Elsner is heading a force that covers just 33 square kilometres. Seven police departments — four municipal forces and three RCMP detachments — cover the 2,046-square-kilometre area between Sooke and Sidney.

Elsner said he had to be smart with how resources were deployed in Sudbury so that people in the outlying rural communities didn’t feel that all the cops were focusing on the downtown core — a balancing act he said would have to be employed if Greater Victoria did move to a single, regional police force.

“It can happen. It actually does work because we’ve proven that it works,” he said, but added the final decision on merging departments lies with the politicians.

Elsner met with area police chiefs on Thursday and said everyone agreed on the importance of integration between departments to keep up with criminals who don’t respect municipal boundaries.

“Our focus is to work together to see what makes sense on how we can co-operate on various issues and move forward,” he said.

Elsner said it’s still too early for him to form an opinion on whether the department should rejoin the Regional Crime Unit, which focuses on prolific offenders. Victoria pulled out of the regional team in 2009 and last year set up its own crime-reduction unit.

VicPD has long complained of gaps in coverage with the CREST radio system, and Elsner said the department is going to face increased costs in upgrading outdated radios and switching to the new 700 MHz spectrum.

“[Radios] are made to have a 12-year shelf life and ours is coming to an end,” Elsner said. “And it’s not one of those things we can ignore. That’s a critical area of concern for us.”

Elsner wouldn’t say whether he supports marijuana legalization, saying it’s a policy decision for governments. “It’s been a long time since Stephen Harper called me and asked for my opinion on something,” he quipped.

“When people talk about simple possession, I know the Canadian [Association of] Chiefs of Police, we called for a different way of handling those through a ticketing system as opposed to a criminal charge,” Elsner said.

“I completely support that.”

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