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The merits and improbability of a regional Vancouver police force

Of the dozens of recommendations made by Wally Oppal in his report on missing women, none garnered more media attention than his call for a regional police force. It only would have been a shock if he hadn't made the suggestion.

"I conclude that the fragmentation of policing was one of the primary reasons why the police failed to prioritize the investigation of [Robert] Pickton and to pursue that investigation until he was either ruled out or confirmed as a suspect in the murder of one or more of the missing women," Mr. Oppal wrote.

"In a more rational, less fragmented police structure, priority setting would have been carried out across the whole of Greater Vancouver."

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During his inquiry, Mr. Oppal heard police officers and criminal experts who reviewed the Pickton investigation talk about "linkage blindness" and massive breakdowns in communication between the Vancouver Police Department, the RCMP and the Joint Forces Operation assembled to investigate the disappearance of dozens of women from the Downtown Eastside. Those breakdowns included a lack of evidence sharing, insufficient co-ordination and lack of resources due to interjurisdictional squabbling.

The idea of a Metro Vancouver police organization has been kicking around for years now. Mr. Oppal first proposed the idea when he headed up an inquiry into policing in B.C. way back in 1994. In between then and now, he was also B.C.'s attorney-general, sitting around a cabinet table where these sorts of big decisions are made.

He quickly discovered there was no appetite for reorganizing policing in the Lower Mainland. There was simply too much to lose politically for the Liberal government to even attempt to start the conversation. It mattered not that the patchwork network of policing that exists now is inefficient and costly. Or that crime experts say Metro Vancouver is the only big metropolitan area in the country that isn't policed by a regional force.

There are too many local mayors who like the system just the way it is now. Mayors like Delta's Lois Jackson. The motto for her municipal police force is: No Call Too Small. Under a regional setup, Ms. Jackson believes police resources would be marshalled around bigger centres such as Vancouver and Surrey where crime is a bigger problem.

And she's probably right. That means that calls to pursue teenagers breaking windows in small towns like Tsawwassen or Ladner in her community would go unheeded. Angering powerful local mayors like Ms. Jackson, however, would come at a price for any government that tried to institute such a change. And she is certainly not alone in her opposition to a regional system. That's what governments that are always thinking ahead to the next election fear most – popular mayors campaigning against them.

And then there is the RCMP. It has no interest in giving up its autonomy and authority in the Lower Mainland. Giving up autonomy and authority is giving up power and no police force wants to do that, least of all one as iconic as the Mounties.

This is all to say that, while Mr. Oppal's recommendation is certainly a worthwhile one, it has virtually no chance of being adopted and he almost certainly knew that even as he was writing it. But he had to endorse the idea anyway because as public policy goes, a regional police force makes complete sense.

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Knowing what we know now about criminal behaviour and its migration patterns across jurisdictional boundaries, no one in their right mind would build the kind of hodgepodge system of policing that Metro Vancouver has now. Jim Chu, chief of the Vancouver Police Department, said as much on Tuesday.

"If we were to design the ideal policing structure for the Greater Vancouver region, I don't think we would design what we have now," he said.

Of course not. The fact that we allow these silos of independent agencies to continue to operate as they do is nonsensical. And yet no one has the political courage to make the change.

Even the disappearance of dozens and dozens of women, many whose death at the hands of mass murderer Robert Pickton could have been prevented had there been a regional police authority, won't be enough to get government to do what it should have done a long time ago.

And if the deaths of innocent women isn't enough, what will ever be?

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