Jim Chu

July 1, 2010

ROBERTO Luongo wasn’t the only guardian under intense scrutiny during the Winter Olympics. The chief of the Vancouver police department, Jim Chu, had the unenviable task of “securing public spaces” during the Games. If the cops did their job well, nobody would notice them; if they slipped up, everyone would notice them, especially after a couple of hundred civilian “observers” were trained by the BC Civil Liberties Association and the Pivot Legal Society.

The police pretty much aced the test. After the drunken debauchery on the first weekend of the Games, Chu “requested” downtown liquor stores close early. He flooded the downtown with mostly genial cops, whose easygoing presence fixed a mood of order. When a group gathered on Hastings Street to block the torch relay, the relay was simply rerouted without incident. As for the so-called “riots” in front of the Bay? Well, the property damage that day, combined with the restraint of the police, was surely a turning point. Vancouverites ambivalent about the Games lost sympathy for the resistance movement then and there. At the opening ceremonies, as Wayne Gretzky rolled down Georgia, police were shockingly hands-off, letting drunken revellers run alongside his pickup like, as one blogger put it, “a parade of shitkickers from Surrey in town for the big night.” As he left town, NBC anchor Brian Williams thanked Canada “for securing this massive event without choking security, and without publicly displaying a single automatic weapon.” The line police are supposed to walk, keeping peace without crimping free expression, they walked.

Because Olympic security was a joint effort with the military and the RCMP, it’s hard to tease out Chu’s influence precisely. Nonetheless, he emerged from the experience somehow annealed. The consensus is that he did an excellent job, that he’s worth every penny of his $303,602 salary, and his public approval is perhaps the highest for a Vancouver police chief ever. Still, some recent examples of VPD misconduct suggest that his greatest challenge lies ahead.

Chu's corner office at the Cambie Street station was so tidy it seemed, on the day I visited, that no one worked there. He came over to meet me at the door. A lot of police officers walk like cops long after they’ve left the street—some memory of the weight and bulkiness of the equipment belt? Not Chu. He is fit and compact and looks about 35, though he is 50. You can see the little kid in him, the seven-year-old school safety-patrol volunteer at General Wolfe elementary who maintained the peace at the corner of Ontario and Templeton. (When Constable Fred Els, the patrol officer, would talk to the kids about life on the streets, there’d be little Jimmy rapt at his feet, soaking it up.)

When Chu speaks of his upbringing, it’s hard not to think of the origin myth of a superhero. The eldest son of immigrants who moved here from Shanghai when he was three, he attended gritty Sir Charles Tupper secondary—the same school that produced gangster Bindy Joal and other ne’er-do-wells. (“Some of the kids I ran into then are dead,” he said. “Some of them I have booked into the jail. Some of the kids had some struggles and then turned their life around. Tupper had its ups and downs.”) Local toughs, headquartered in aptly named Rowdy Park, prowled the neighbourhood looking for nice kids to beat the crap out of.

“I WAS AT the paper shack one day,” Chu recalled of his paper-route days, “and we’d won a prize for lowest number of complaints citywide: burgers and pop. The Rowdy Parkers walked in and took the burgers, took the pop. As a kid you suck it up. Now, I’m not saying that motivated me to become a police officer, to avenge that stolen burger. But certainly, when you know you can do something about that you kind of have an obligation and responsibility to make the place safer.”

Chu took over the top job from Jamie Graham in 2007 after almost 30 years on the force—the usual way at the VPD. He’d walked the beat in various neighbourhoods for almost five years, then become school liaison officer at Gladstone secondary—a dodge that turned out to be more than the usual crime-prevention talks when a serial sex offender emerged in the school. (Chu built the case and ended up making the collar.) In the late 1990s he was recruiting sergeant, introducing progressive new guidelines. It wasn’t just about hiring more visible minorities or women; Chu borrowed from the LAPD the idea of “preferred qualifications” in candidates—education, knowledge of a second language or culture (including First Nations), and managerial or supervisory experience. All of which had the effect of producing a corps with subtler tools: arguably less judgmental, inarguably more diverse. “During my time we hired the first Afro-Canadian female officer. We hired the first Vietnamese officer.” Chu himself was the third Asian officer on the VPD (and the first visible minority to become chief).

He became a detective, and then an inspector with a role that played to his strength as a tech geek: sweeping pen-and-ink files in favour of CompStat and other powerful data-sharing programs. In this area Chu literally wrote the book: Law Enforcement Information Technology. Eventually he was made deputy chief—all those days at UBC’s MBA program paid off. He was given the finance portfolio, and every year the department turned a surplus. Chu now views it all as valuable grist, even the boring interstitial assignments, like his time as corporal in the radio room. “Those are the years you reflect on the kind of leader you want to be.”

And what kind of leader is he? A team guy, a players’ coach—insert your sports cliché here. (And Chu did grow up steeped in sports. He coached his four kids’ hockey and soccer games in Steveston—where he and wife Vicki lived while raising the family before moving to Fairview—and has played forward for the Richmond Avalanche old-timers’ hockey team long enough that he no longer uses the boards to stop.) He lacks his predecessor’s fire; it’s hard to imagine Chu punking the city manager by leaving a bullet-riddled target on her desk, as Graham did to Judy Rogers. He is plainspoken and self-deprecating, the kind of boss you open up to. “Jamie Graham, he’d smile at you in a room, but you couldn’t be sure he knew who you were,” one officer told me. “But if Chief Chu smiles at you, you know he knows—or if he doesn’t, he’ll find out.”

Chu is a model of the New Police Captain. Forget the stereotypical Irishman who flies off in private but protects his guys behind the “blue wall of silence.” Chu understands the value of transparency. Think back to the beginning of 2009. Low-level panic was sweeping the metro area. In three months the body count from gangland slayings sat at 10 and was rising. Mayor Gregor Robertson acknowledged the community was “living in fear” and begged Victoria for more resources. Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew to Vancouver to see what the hell was going on. But in March, after the 20th gangland killing of the young year, Chu stood before reporters at a press conference and said, “As police, we’ve always been told by media experts to never say or admit that there is a gang war. Well, let’s get serious. There is a gang war, and it’s brutal.”

THIS IS maybe Chu’s greatest skill: he’s highly sensitive to the image of the force. He understands how everything looks through the prism of the 6 o’clock news. He gets, maybe more than any previous chief, that the reputation of the VPD is intimately linked to the efforts of the public watchdogs and to the freedom and integrity of formal investigations against officers. That you ignore accusations against your guys at your peril. Shortly after being named chief, Chu inherited a smelly file. Pivot Legal Society had gathered 52 complaints against Vancouver officers—serious allegations, including assaults, torture, even kidnapping. The departing Graham had downplayed the allegations and dissed Pivot, but Chu made no excuses: he owned the charges (without getting into guilt or innocence) and formally apologized to all complainants.

PR people have a name for this: “getting out in front” of problems. The same reflex was at work last January after an incident in front of the Hyatt downtown. Three white officers were accused of laying a beating, chased with racial slurs, on an Indo-Canadian taxi driver. “The media was going crazy,” Chu recalled. “I said, ‘Let’s be aggressive.’ So on a Friday we issued a statement: ‘We don’t want to comment on something unfolding.’ On Monday we had enough evidence and the Crown said, ‘We’ll set the charges.’ And then I publicly said, ‘We charged these officers.’ ” None of the three were his guys—they hailed from Port Coquitlam, Surrey, and West Van—but the public just saw three cops downtown pummelling an innocent man, so in a sense it was Chu’s issue. A fire started Friday was out early the next week.

As Vancouver's police chief, you’re required to keep rein on what amounts to an experimental city. You’re charged with overseeing the leap of faith that is Insite—the government-sanctioned drug-injection facility in the Downtown Eastside. You’re head lifeguard in the free swim of civil disobedience. “We handle over 170 protests a year,” Chu said—far more than most other cities in Canada. The VPD has over the years mastered the tricks on how to benignly manage civic discord: cover statues with plastic wrap to prevent graffiti; remove protesters gently (in rubber slings, like whales). You are also, given the profile of many residents of the Downtown Eastside and how much of the whole GVRD’s crime starts there, in the mental-health business.

Crime-fighting here is a philosophy problem. Though Chu taught policing courses in the criminology department at Douglas College, he considers himself more a student of prevention. One key ingredient, he’s convinced, is that police across the region need to be able to share what they know, right now, electronically. CompStat has made a difference. Beat cops are now breaking cases that used to stall after long days of detective work. Thus can police in an age of chronic understaffing do their job more efficiently. That’s also why Chu is big on community policing—just get uniforms into neighbourhoods so that citizens become used to them and grow into a kind of deputy police force.

I MENTIONED a magazine story about the Cincinnati police chief’s approach to gang violence. (The Cincinnati school: you go to the gangs and ask them to stop.) Chu had read it. Could it work here? “Well, the gang situation in B.C. is quite different,” he said. “It’s not low-income, street-level ethnic ties—blacks, Hispanics. Here you’ve got a large number of middle-class people in it for the profit. And you also have loose affiliations: three or four people are together and a couple weeks later they’re not. So who do you go to?” The National Criminal Intelligence Estimate on Organized Crime report, Chu says, puts the number of gangs in B.C. at 133.

What strategy does work here? “One model is arresting a lot of them, with a combination of undercover agents and surveillance and agents, and looking to accumulate evidence.” In 2009, Project Rebellion saw police fanning out, getting known gangsters on whatever charge they could, and encouraging the courts to deny bail. Twenty-five of the bigger fish were booked on 200 charges. “If you ask me why gang violence slowed down,” Chu said, “it’s because the ringleaders are in custody.” One result of such proactive sweeps is a 35-percent drop in shots fired within the city.

How to even find big fish in such a murky pond? Chu explains the VPD’s strategy: target gang members who are the most prolific, who boss the most people around and are most likely to shoot somebody on a city street—the people who pose the greatest risk to public safety. You try to figure out whose removal will “cause the greatest disruption” in the gang networks. Those folks aren’t necessarily the leaders but rather gangsters “who provide a critical service or bring a certain skill set to the group,” Chu said. “Gangs in B.C. typically do not have defined leaders, but often their Achilles’ heel are weaker subordinates.”

Chu likes it when successes can be quantified. He’s a numbers man. In some ways he approaches his job more like an actuary than a sheriff. You smoke out the little problems that are gobbling up disproportionately large resources and get them under control.

The principle that a small number of hardened criminals commit more than their share of violent crimes also drives the so-called Con Air program. Here the deal is to round up crooks wanted in other provinces and buy them a ticket home. So far the VPD has returned 59 people wanted on warrants in other cities. Chu didn’t invent this solution to “non-returnable warrants,” but he found a way to make it work. The provinces don’t particularly want their errant sheep back. Chu’s solution: pay them. So costly is a chronic offender over the long run that coughing up one lump sum amounts to a bargain. Of course, you have to have a reason to put someone on a plane in cuffs. Chu’s strategy has been to find technicalities. “We got a legal opinion showing how we could use a different part of the criminal code to arrest these people,” Chu said.

The VPD ranks chronic offenders by severity, like tropical storms. A group of 400 or so with 40 criminal convictions each on average are dubbed Chronics. “Then we have Super-Chronics, who have over 70 criminal convictions. And then we have Ludicrous Chronics, who have over 100 criminal convictions—and there’s six of those guys.” Getting them off the street has a demonstrable impact. “We’ll arrest a theft-from-auto suspect and literally overnight you’ll see theft-from-autos drop,” Chu said. “One suspect we interviewed told us how much cocaine he has to buy every day—’cause he buys for his girlfriends and his friends as well—and we figured out how much crime he has to commit: many thousands of dollars a day. So you look at the cost of jailing someone like that, versus not jailing him.”

IN DOLLAR terms, chronic social problems are like chronic crime: a small number of people make a large print. The de-institutionalizations of the ’90s produced many such cases. A VPD report called Lost in Transition revealed that in one two-week period, about half of all police calls in the Downtown Eastside involved the mentally ill. (In Vancouver generally, mental illness is a factor in a third of all police calls.) Such stats—up dramatically in the last decade—have, again, nudged Chu into a public-advocacy role. The Downtown Eastsiders who end up as police statistics need help, he said. Last July he recommended that a Downtown Eastside czar be appointed to study the way all the area’s problems—homelessness, poverty, mental illness, crime—converge, and to hatch combative strategies.

To what degree ought a police chief to be a social worker? Chu seems to be on his strongest footing when there’s both a credible humanitarian and a bean-counting component to his decisions. Lobbying for longer sentences for chronic offenders, “A lot of these people need longer sentencing because unless they are in there for a year, they aren’t going to get any treatment,” he told the Province. You could say that formal apology to those 52 police-abuse complainants was the right thing to do, and long overdue; but investigating public complaints was eating up a huge portion of the police budget, and the worse the animosity between police and citizens the higher the tab would climb.

There's no doubt that Chief Chu loves his city and that much of the city, basking in post-Olympic glow, loves him. But critics suggest he has sometimes taken too far his perceived duty to burnish its positive image. Some of the criticism has spoken to his efforts to defend both his officers and the public interest. Lawyer John Richardson, director of Pivot and a big Chu supporter in most ways, believes the chief has sometimes here misstepped.

“I can give you two instances,” Richardson said. The first was the shooting of Paul Boyd, who was suffering from bipolar disorder, on Granville Street in August 2007, shortly after Chu took office. A delusional Boyd had clubbed an officer with a heavy chain before being felled by eight police bullets. “[Chief Chu] was very quick off the mark to say the use of force by his officers had been justified—even before there had been any investigation,” Richardson said. Chu later withdrew the comments and referred the matter for external investigation, “but in my view the damage had been done,” Richardson said. I think it tarnished the subsequent investigation, which was done by police as well.”

The second incident—the shooting of schizophrenic Michael Vann Hubbard by two officers in 2009—unfolded similarly. Within two days Chu issued a memo stating his officers had acted proportionately and the use of force was justified. “This was circulated to all his staff and officers,” said Richardson, “and published the next day in the Vancouver Sun. Before the 82 witnesses had been interviewed, before the police officers had been interviewed, the police chief had gone on the record saying: justified. In our view that completely undermined the investigation.”

IN OTHER cases, though, Chu has determined he couldn’t support the uniforms. The police beating in front of the Hyatt was one. The case of 44-year-old Yao Wei Wu, a victim of mistaken identity, was another. Two uniformed officers allegedly pulled Wu from his basement suite and pummelled him in front of his wife—believing him to be the suspect in a domestic-dispute call. The officers claimed the force was justified because Wu had resisted them. And besides, they said, Wu’s injuries were minor. Photos proved otherwise, and within a day Chu was at Wu’s house apologizing personally and declaring he “could not support” the testimony of his men (one of whom was immediately reassigned to admin duties). And then in April, yet another “rogue officer” (Chu’s words) surfaced. Constable Peter Hodson is alleged to have been selling drugs—off and on shift—and was fired by the chief within hours of being arrested. Here Chu found himself in a delicate spot. The Hyatt cabbie and Yao Wei Wu incidents ignited public outrage, and an alleged drug-dealing cop is a PR nightmare. The facts in these cases seemed clearer than with the mental-health complexities of van Hubbard and Boyd. Chu, given the public mood, could hardly have done otherwise. But cracking down on “rogue cops,” again and again, hardly has the intended public-calming effect, because the question arises: just how many rogue cops are there? (Before Hodson’s arrest, Chu told a press conference, the VPD had been privately, feverishly investigating allegations to determine if “the rot was confined to this one officer.” They determined, to their satisfaction, that it was.)

“I have no quantitative data on the number of bad apples on the force,” Richardson said. “But I certainly think that having a police chief who’s going to back them up as his gut instinct doesn’t promote discipline. That’s the impression that Jim Chu gives.”

Indeed, Chu’s real legacy may well be his ability to reform the way investigations into police conduct are done. In the Yao Wei Wu case, he referred the investigation to Delta—which is certainly preferable to an internal review but still falls into the hopper of “police policing themselves.” Cameron Ward, a local civil-liberties lawyer (who’s representing Wu in a lawsuit against the VPD), would like to see B.C. overhaul its system. Something like Ontario’s Special Investigation Unit, a body of trained civilian investigators—some of them former police officers—who respond after any police incident involving serious injury or death—might work better.

Chu concurs that the present setup is subpar. “I believe we need a new agency in B.C. that is civilian-led, that investigates all in-custody deaths as well as serious injury or sensitive internal investigations, for both municipal police and the RCMP,” he said. “The new agency would complement the role of the complaint commissioner, not replace it.”

How easy would an overhaul actually be? Meaningful action by Chu will put him sharply at odds with the powerful union, which has a vested interest in protecting its members. “From where I sit,” Ward said, “the ‘system’ writ large just doesn’t provide for sufficient police accountability. The chief has some influence in reforming that. Only time will tell whether he uses it.” And whether he’ll ultimately be seen as a new-breed chief who won applause for his innovations, or one who used his term to bring about real, groundbreaking change. VM

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