Capital's regional police unit folds as Saanich pulls funding

A regional police unit dedicated to chasing prolific offenders across municipal borders is collapsing, a major blow to co-ordinated crime fighting in Greater Victoria.

Saanich Police Department is pulling out of the Regional Crime Unit — withdrawing $621,000 in funding, three officers and one civilian staffer — at the end of the year. Losing the biggest partner leaves only West Shore and Sooke RCMP, which cannot run the unit alone.

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Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard said following the withdrawal of Victoria police in 2009, then Central Saanich, North Saanich and Sidney last year, the unit wasn’t as effective as it used to be.

“So we were limping along with just ourselves and West Shore without those other members,” Leonard said. “The other municipalities having withdrawn, the unit isn’t doing anywhere near what it used to. It did a really good job on prolific offenders, but as we lost participants, it had less value.”

The RCMP confirmed it has no plans to continue the unit following Saanich’s withdrawal.

Island District commander Chief Supt. Ray Bernoties said in a statement: “The RCMP is proud of our contributions to the unit and the many successes the unit had. We remain committed to working collaboratively with our policing partners on shared crime reduction initiatives, inter-jurisdictional crimes and major crimes.”

Colwood Mayor Carol Hamilton said given the high-profile arrests the unit carried out, losing it is “a detriment to all of us.”

“It gave the opportunity for the intelligence [officers] to work collaboratively to narrow in on these guys quicker than each department can do independently,” Hamilton said.

She said she plans to meet with fellow West Shore mayors to discuss what to do next.

The Regional Crime Unit was set up in 2008, heralded as a way for police departments across Greater Victoria to track repeat offenders operating throughout the region and to prevent police agencies from working in silos. At one point, the unit had 15 officers who would do covert surveillance and intelligence gathering to track property criminals. In the past year, it dwindled to as few as six officers.

Saanich police Sgt. Steve Morgan, who heads the unit, said he’s “really disappointed” by the decision to disband. “It’s really a bummer because I’ve been really enjoying the type of work I’ve been doing and we have had some great files,” Morgan said. “I don’t think there’s anything I’m going to be able to do to change [the decision]. They know the good work we’ve been doing and they understand that.”

Saanich police will put extra resources into an enhanced street crime unit and are talking to Victoria police about setting up an integrated intelligence unit, Leonard said.

However, Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner said the idea of an integrated intelligence unit is in its infancy. “We’re open to having some discussion but the discussion hasn’t even been had yet,” he said.

Since Victoria police pulled out of the Regional Crime Unit in 2009 — taking away four officers and $500,000 in funding — the force has set up its own crime reduction unit.

Former B.C. solicitor general Kash Heed said integration is a “failed policy” that fuels conflict rather than co-operation. “When you have so many different municipal forces and RCMP units within the capital region come together, you can see the personality conflicts that could occur because they are not accountable and responsible to one chief,” he said. “They’re accountable and responsible to their own organizations ... trying to work within this chaotic environment of having so many bosses.”

Heed called the integrated model “a Band-Aid solution to a gaping wound.”

Former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal, who led the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, recommended regional police forces in Greater Victoria and Metro Vancouver. “It is such a common-sense proposition as far as I’m concerned, with all the different management structures and everything else,” he said. “If you need any further proof of the value of a regional police force, just read our report.”

Oppal concluded that a regional force likely would have caught serial killer Robert Pickton far sooner.

“I understand the dilemma of the provincial government in that they don’t want to impose a system on the municipalities,” Oppal said. “But the municipalities have to look at it from a larger perspective and take a global interest in these things.”

Oppal acknowledged there have been advances in information-sharing since Pickton was allowed to roam free. “A lot of those problems have now been addressed,” he said. “But, having said that, there still isn’t any one person at the top that’s accountable for the co-ordination of all these in an efficient way. … Sooner or later you have to think about what’s in the public interest.”

When asked about whether disbanding of the Regional Crime Unit points to flaws in the integrated policing model, B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said in a statement: “We are disappointed, but understand municipalities are under financial pressure.” She said the province will continue to work with local governments to consider “delivery models ranging from further integration to regional service delivery, while retaining local, community-focused policing.”

kderosa@timescolonist.com

lkines@timescolonist.com

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