BLM, defund the police and safe drug supply: reflections of a retiring deputy police chief

There will always be ways to make policing better, says Shane Barber, the retiring deputy chief of the West Vancouver Police Department. Local police have the skills, empathy and commitment to do it

A 34-year career with the West Vancouver Police Department could have left Shane Barber feeling cynical, or perhaps a bit disillusioned about human nature.

Instead, the deputy chief retires on Tuesday with even more faith in the police department’s ability to work with the community to make it a better place for everyone.

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“We have so many smart, engaged people in our organization,” he says. “But we’re not an island amongst ourselves. We’re connected to every other police department across the Lower Mainland that has the same goal and is looking for the same outcomes. There’s such a wide body of knowledge and intent towards continuously improving what it is that we’re putting out on the street.”

Some policing practices that were considered normal when he first started as a 23-year-old recruit would not be acceptable today. He doesn’t judge them through the prism of today. Instead, he sees people always doing the best they can and then striving to be even better as part of a constant evolution — an evolution that should and will continue.

“I don’t measure leadership by casting back,” he says. “I always cast forward.”

Barber is retiring at a time when much of the public conversation about policing, especially in the United States, has been negative. The North Shore News asked him to reflect on some of those issues as he clears out his desk and prepares for the next chapter in his life. His responses have been abridged for length and flow.

Black Lives Matter

“In policing,” he says, “you’re faced with moments where you have to make snap decisions. Most people never have to experience that. Those decisions are made with the very best intent and sometimes it doesn’t roll out the way people might expect it to. But nobody comes to work in the morning thinking, ‘I’m going to go out and I’m going to do something shitty.’ Everybody comes to work and thinks ‘I’m going to go out and do the best I can for people.’

“Officers who lack that empathy do not survive in policing. Bullies don’t last in policing. They get fired. ... You go along in a police department and 99.9 per cent of the time that department’s doing amazing things — they’re integrated in the community, they’re reaching out and supporting people in a variety of different ways. And then one officer comes along and does something. That doesn’t speak to the nature of policing in general; that just means you’ve got a problem. And you resolve the problem. It’s not a systemic issue.

“Make no doubt about it. There are some bad cops. But policing is one of the few institutions that when you apply for a job, we do a thorough background check, and that includes a polygraph test. We spend tons of money and energy on investigating who you are. We’re not looking for someone who is perfect because perfect doesn’t exist. In fact, if they were perfect that makes me suspicious. I’m looking for someone who’s had some experiences or got jammed up in some corners and they were resilient when they came back out. I’m looking for integrity and somebody willing to grow and learn. You have to be empathetic, show self-initiative and genuinely give a shit about people.

“We’re not blind to the fact that there are unconscious biases. We just want to make sure that officers are aware and attuned to those biases and that they don’t let their biases cloud their decision making when they’re dealing with people. But if those biases are not just unconscious, then you’ve got somebody who doesn’t belong in policing.”

First Nations relations

“How do we do a better job at reaching into the diverse communities and giving people a voice? What does that look like for us and First Nations communities?

“We’ve had those conversations since I started here. They’ve evolved and they’re gotten better. We put more energy and direction into them. It’s not like we woke up six months ago and said, ‘Holy cow, we’ve got a problem.’ We really want our police department to reflect the communities that we work in and that the communities have a voice in their police department. We don’t want anyone who feels like they’re marginalized and that takes a lot of work.”

Defund the police

“My heart goes out to people who are suffering from mental health issues. It’s tragic. It’s not only tragic for the person suffering from it, it’s a tragedy that the rest of the family experiences, too. They’re really pulled in so many different directions. They want the safety of their child or spouse but there are times where they’re going to need police intervention.

“We spend a lot of time and energy on training our staff to de-escalate situations. It’s not the role that we want to have because [interceding with people in crisis] is not really a policing function. It’s a mental health issue and it only becomes a policing function when there’s a safety issue.

“I don’t think there’s a police chief or deputy police chief in the province who wouldn’t say, ‘Let’s fund the capacity to have professional mental health workers intercede with these individuals at the right time.’. If we had potentially more capacity, the crisis might not even occur. But even if you can have an army of mental health workers, when a crisis does occur, mental health workers cannot manage the physical aspect of the crisis, nor would they be expected to.

“It’s not as simple as ‘defund the police and give the funding to a mental health worker.’ You’re not going to find a mental health worker who will say, ‘Send me to those calls, I’ll do it by myself.’”

Safe drug supply

“Imagine that every waking moment of someone’s life is how to feed their addiction. Let’s not talk about how they got there because that makes no difference — they’re there now. And that’s what drives petty theft and petty crime. I always put it this way: there’s no one breaking into cars because they’re trying to pay their mortgage. They’re breaking into cars because they’re trying to support their drug habit.

“Heroin has existed since the beginning of time and cocaine has always been there but what’s killing people right now is fentanyl. If I could give you an analogy: Take a bite of a chocolate chip cookie. You don’t know if you’re getting two chocolate chips or six. And that extra chocolate chip is going to be what kills you because it’s not pharmaceutical grade. It’s so powerful.

“By and large, chiefs of police across this country support some form of legalization or a safe drug supply. If it’s your daughter or son that’s on the street, and they have a drug habit, don’t you want them to have a safe drug supply, where they’re not trying to eke out money through a variety of shitty means, whether that’s prostitution or theft or whatever? If they had that safe drug supply and, at a minimum, a safe place to live, then you would have a much better chance of interceding in their lives.

“But for you to try to intercede with somebody who hasn’t slept all night, they’re wasting away because they’re not eating, and their main goal is to get enough money to buy drugs, then it’s tough to have that conversation [about their addiction]. It’s like a kid who goes to school hungry; they’re not going to listen to you. You can’t teach them if they’re hungry.”

The future

“My last day is Tuesday and then I’m gone. I’m going to move on to something totally different but I don’t know what that is. They say that change is as good as a rest, so let’s see.”

Martha Perkins is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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