The B.C. government is readying a legislative hammer that could force holdout cities to join integrated regional policing units that investigate murders and other crimes across multiple jurisdictions.
A Police Act amendment tabled in the Legislature last week would empower the province to compel Metro Vancouver cities like Vancouver, Delta and West Vancouver to join and help fund the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT) rather than use separate municipal homicide squads.
The move also follows the collapse of a regional crime unit in Greater Victoria, which, like the Lower Mainland, is policed by a patchwork of separate municipal police forces and RCMP detachments.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said no decisions have been made when asked if she intends to require universal participation in IHIT or other integrated units.
“IHIT is of interest to me,” she said, adding the legislation could also be used to revive the failed Victoria unit, from which several municipalities had withdrawn.
Anton stressed she wants to work with cities, not force change on them.
“It is a hammer but it’s not intended to be used as a hammer,” Anton said. “Most of the time you want this to be done cooperatively, not by the minister requiring it.”
Delta Mayor Lois Jackson said her main concerns with compulsory IHIT membership would be the significant increased cost as well as the potential loss of top Delta Police investigators who would then spend most of their time working elsewhere in the region.
“We have to look at how many, how much, what it’s going to entail and are our best and brightest going to be leaving the community,” Jackson said. “We’re concerned about paying a great deal of money to have our officers in the service and not receive the benefit.”
Missing Women Inquiry Commissioner Wally Oppal in 2012 recommended the creation of a full regional police force, suggesting one would have caught serial killer Robert Pickton years earlier, saving the lives of some of his victims.
Oppal’s report warned further use of integrated teams would merely “prop up a broken system.”
But the province counters it has made significant changes to policing in response to the inquiry, including the launch this year of a new 24-hour Real Time Intelligence Centre that pools information and coordinates the response in the critical early hours of a fresh investigation.
Anton said she’s not looking at full police regionalization right now, but she is “very interested” in speaking to municipalities that are voluntarily interested in amalgamating their police forces into a partial regional or sub-regional force.
The province’s main reform focus has been on expanding use of integrated teams to take advantage of specialized officers and equipment and ensure a coordinated response to crime that crosses municipal, provincial or international borders.
SFU criminologist Rob Gordon, an advocate of regional policing, said he doesn’t expect any dramatic move from the province to merge forces.
“Quite clearly the government at this point has no appetite for doing what Wally Oppal recommended they do in the two metropolitan areas and particularly in Metro Vancouver,” he said. “So this inefficient and balkanized policing system we have will continue.”
Some municipalities, including Delta, willingly pay more than their neighbours to fund a larger force to provide no-call-too-small-policing and they fear they will end up paying disproportionately more into mandatory integrated teams.
“Should one community be subsidizing the other? I’m not so sure about that,” said Jackson, who argues much has changed in policing since the failures that extended Pickton’s killing spree.
IHIT is based in Surrey’s new E division headquarters with 105 staff, including 80 officers. Three municipal forces – Abbotsford, New Westminster and Port Moody – are part of IHIT.