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Jack Knox: New police body offers a regional voice

A governance council has been formed to oversee some aspects of regional policing
A Saanich police patrol car. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

First, the reality: a single police force for Greater Victoria might make sense, but it’s not going to happen.

Police amalgamation will only occur if the province forces it on area municipalities, and neither the New Democrats nor the ­Liberals have the stomach for that fight.

That being the case, this week’s launch of a body to guide the area’s integrated police units is good news. There’s now a political mechanism where the policing needs of the entire region, not just its constituent parts, can be considered and supported.

The structure of policing in Greater Victoria has long been contentious. We have four municipal departments — ­Saanich, Central Saanich, Oak Bay and VicPD, which covers both Victoria and Esquimalt — plus the RCMP, which has detachments in Sooke, Sidney/North Saanich and the West Shore. No other Canadian ­community outside the Lower Mainland is as fragmented.

In lieu of a regional force, we have a system of integrated units — Amalgamation Lite — in which officers from different departments are seconded to do specialized tasks on an area-wide basis.

Some, such as the ­domestic violence and traffic units, include both municipal and RCMP members. Sometimes the Mounties and munies each have their own units, as is the case with emergency-response and crowd-control teams.

The downside to integrated units is that they are clunky to operate. Even when the ­players get along — which they do, largely — assembling an integrated team is like piecing together a car with parts from half a dozen automakers.

Different agencies have ­different cultures, record ­systems, computer programs and hierarchies. Mundane details — who buys the car insurance or who provides the office furniture — take time to sort out.

It doesn’t help that ­participation in the integrated units is optional, which makes them about as stable as a ­Kardashian marriage.

It took years for Saanich to sign on to the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit — the murder police. The integrated municipal dive unit sank after Victoria, Oak Bay and Central Saanich pulled the plug in 2014.

This past November we saw VicPD, desperate to field the minimum number of street cops, recall the seven officers assigned to the integrated ­traffic, organized crime and national security units.

Most frustrating was the 2014 collapse of the regional crime unit. It might have had a terrific record of nailing career criminals, but it couldn’t survive the withdrawal of VicPD, which argued that the department’s contribution — four cops, plus $500,000 — was too high relative to what Victoria was getting out of a team that, successful as it was, did a lot of its work in other municipalities.

That example highlighted a tricky truth: As much as ­everyone wants to work with their neighbours, police leaders are obliged to place the interests of their own jurisdictions first. That’s their job, to ensure they’re getting bang for the buck. Alas, it’s nobody’s job to represent the region as a whole.

In fact, it was the demise of the regional crime unit that led local mayors to tell the province that some sort of regional apparatus was needed to fill the void.

It took eight years, but the result was this week’s announcement of a governance council to guide five integrated units.

Comprising the capital region’s mayors, police ­leaders and provincial reps, the new body is intended to inform ­decision-making and identify areas where police services can be shared. It will meet four times a year, led by mayors Kevin Murdoch of Oak Bay and David Screech of View Royal.

This is no great power shift. The new group has no real ­decision-making ­authority, doesn’t replace or trump police boards, police chiefs or ­municipal councils.

Nor does it play a role in those integrated teams — the gang unit, the Island’s major crime unit — whose footprints extend beyond the Victoria region. Right now it looks over just five smaller units — ­including the youth, domestic violence and mental-health crisis teams — with combined annual ­spending of just over $2 million. (By ­contrast VicPD, alone has a $63.4  million budget.)

Still, it is something that we haven’t seen before. “This is a body that has the express mandate of looking out for the interests of the region,” says Murdoch.

“At least it’s a forum to communicate, which doesn’t exist at the moment,” says Screech.

Who knows, maybe we’ll see a regional crime unit again. Or a high-risk offender unit, or a cyber-crime unit, or a region-wide dog team, or a better way of sharing intelligence, or any of the other units you would normally find in a community of close to 400,000.