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Over the years I’ve known a few police officers, and the job took a toll on all of them. One battled his weight (and a reliance on alcohol) for years before dying of a heart attack at age 48. Another is on long-term disability, a former SWAT team member who killed a bank robber and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet another, a former Mountie, has physical problems growing out of an old back injury; he’s now a transit cop. No wonder a recent survey of RCMP officers revealed that in the past year more than half had considered quitting. The cops I know got into law enforcement for a combination of practical and altruistic reasons; gradually, they succumbed to the bureaucratic frustrations, moral ambiguities, and physical rigours of the work.
Then there’s Jim Chu, chief of the Vancouver police department. At 50, he comes across like a man 15 years younger. He’s the opposite of the burly, foul-mouthed alpha male whose macho attitude and political instincts propel him to the top. He’s trim, clear-eyed, and polite. He was born in Shanghai, and has a degree in business administration and an MBA from UBC. Take away his uniform and you might peg him for a computer programmer or a science teacher. And yet he commands a force (and, by and large, the respect) of some 1,300 officers, a department that won wide acclaim for its handling of the festive invasion of the 2010 Winter Games.
Many citizens feel—rightly—that the power that goes along with a VPD badge is easily abused. Many cops feel—rightly—that people don’t understand the complexities and challenges of their work. Chu, who must reconcile the two views, is a chief of the new school: part financial manager, part tech geek, part lobbyist. He’s media-savvy and image-conscious. Any hint of police misconduct lands on his doorstep; advocacy groups like the BC Civil Liberties Association are quick to hold him to account. Chu must reassure Vancouverites that the cops are themselves rigorously policed, but he also needs the support of the police union. It’s a delicate balancing act; so far, three years into his five-year term, he’s pulled it off nicely. But his greatest test, as Bruce Grierson suggests in “Follow the Leader” (page 78), lies ahead. VM