'A very dangerous thing': Vancouver Police Union slammed for mayoral endorsement
The Vancouver Police Union's decision to endorse a mayoral candidate in the 2022 election is being criticized as an inappropriate overreach that sets a worrying precedent.
The organization announced this week that it's throwing its support behind Ken Sim, citing in part his ABC Vancouver party's pledge to hire 100 more police officers as part of its public safety platform.
"Vancouverites are afraid to walk the streets of their neighbourhoods. Small business owners are struggling to keep their doors open," VPU president Ralph Kaisers said in a news release. "Electing Ken Sim and an ABC majority will ensure that police and other front-line responders will have the resources they need to protect and serve Vancouverites."
The endorsement marks a first for the union – and is something that would not have been allowed in Toronto, where the local police union is barred from expressing support for a particular candidate or party.
Kaisers also called public safety the "number one issue" in the civic election, though it's unclear where that claim came from – multiple surveys have found housing, transportation and even climate change are higher priorities for voters in Metro Vancouver.
ENDORSEMENT 'DOESN'T SIT WELL'
Breen Oullette, a lawyer running for city council with COPE, called the Vancouver Police Union's decision to wade into the election a serious concern.
"I think an organization that represents a group of people who have significant power over the public endorsing anyone for a political campaign is a very dangerous thing," Oullette told CTV News.
"Just by comparison, what if this was B.C. judges endorsing a candidate for mayor? It doesn't sit well that people with this kind of power are taking these kinds of actions."
As a former labour movement activist, Oullette also called the VPU's label as a "union" misleading.
"Police associations do not show worker solidarity," he said. "They arrest people on picket lines, they cross picket lines, they break strikes. They're not a labour organization, they're a special interest organization for police officers."
Criminology professor Rob Gordon, a former police officer himself, agreed there should be a healthy distance maintained between law enforcement and politics, suggesting that organizations like the VPU stick to advocating on labour issues such as wages, overtime and working conditions.
He noted that individual officers are disciplined if they make political statements in uniform, a punishment that recognizes the impact those actions can have on the public they serve.
"In my policing days, that most certainly was something that people were insistent upon," he said. "If you join the police service, then you surrender a number of privileges and rights, including involvement in the political arena."
Individual officers are entitled to their political opinions and political activities, Gordon added, just not in their official capacity as police.
VPU PRESIDENT RESPONDS
Asked for his response to the criticism, the Vancouver Police Union's president provided a statement noting that members live and work in the city as well, and have become burnt out dealing with what he described as a "historic" rise in crime. CTV News has asked for the statistics used to justify that language, but has not heard back.
"We take very seriously our responsibility to serve and protect," Kaisers wrote. "Our decision to endorse a candidate who is strong on crime and safety is part of what will be an ongoing campaign to draw attention to this important issue."
While police are barred from making political endorsements in Toronto, Kaisers noted the Ottawa Police Association supported Doug Ford's Conservative Party in Ontario's 2018 provincial election.
Gordon also questioned the wisdom of Sim embracing his endorsement; the mayoral candidate wrote on Twitter that it was an "honour" to received the backing of the VPU.
"This is a serious issue. Police independence, from my point of view, is important. It's a value that has been cultivated over the years and it needs to be preserved at all costs," Gordon said. "I'm really disappointed that the politicians in Vancouver (are) not recognizing this and stepping up and saying, 'No, you crossed the line here.'"
Reached for a response, a representative for Sim defended the endorsement, citing statistics from a Vancouver Police Department tweet showing there was a 36 per cent increase in serious assaults in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the average from the years 2017 to 2019.
"We (are) extremely honoured to have the endorsement of the VPU and we intend to fully honour our commitments to public safety to them, and to the residents of Vancouver," the candidate said in a statement.
The available data shows reports of violent crime increased overall during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the average from 2017 to 2019, but have largely remained steady since 2020 – and serious assaults decreased slightly in the first six months of 2022 compared to the same period last year, dropping from 910 to 880.
Vancouver's overall violent crime rate – which measures the number of murders, attempted murders, assaults, robberies and sexual assaults per 1,000 population – also remains lower than it was a decade ago. The rate was 8.46 last year, which is up slightly from 8.40 in 2019 but still down from 10.21 in 2012.
With files from CTV News Vancouver's Spencer Harwood
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