The police and the community: Implications of the Report of the Commission of Enquiry by Mr. Justice Dohm

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Though this report begins with brief consideration of the Dohm Commission of Enquiry into the Gastown Riot, it represents research and recommendations which the B.C. Civil Liberties Association has developed and argued over a number of years.

We found the Dohm Commission Report both fair-minded and intelligent, but essentially related to the events with which it was immediately concerned. It is our conviction that that particular surfacing of trouble, and many others as well, have deeper causes which must be considered if long term relations between police and community are to be improved. To that end we here single out two central aspects of police community relations:

  1. The nature and effects of the general isolation of the police from the public.
  2. The nature and role of the Board of Police Commissioners.

A. Some degree of isolation is probably a built-in feature of the police function, and some degree of it is likely both necessary and health. However, the degree of isolation with which we are familiar is neither necessary nor healthy, and much of it can be corrected. For example, patrolling, an essential part of police work, is now largely carried on in two-man teams by auto. That makes for certain kinds of efficiency perhaps, but make police strangers in all neighbourhoods, an unhealthy condition. Present police uniforms emphasize the military and coercive features of police work, frighten or dismay civilians, and create distorted self-images in the minds of constables. The relative lack of civilians working in the police organization at any level further separates it from the interests, attitudes and values of the general community which it serves, as does its hitherto unwillingness or inability to participate in a wide range of community information and service activities which would produce a much healthier integration of the force and the community.B. The Board of Police Commissioners of Vancouver, like its counterparts in most of the rest of North America, is the policy-making overseer of the police force. It operates in near secrecy, therefore it is difficult to know what, in fact, it accomplishes. Judging from our experience it has great reluctance to cooperate with the inquiries and suggestions of interested civilian organizations. Its composition is not representative of the community-at-large, and it meets infrequently. Moreover, at present it is responsible for disciplinary actions within the force, short of legal action. Its method of operation, however, is obscure, raising the question whether justice is being done, but raising even more the question whether justice is being seen to be done.


  1. That solo foot patrols be increasingly utilized in those metropolitan areas where this would produce pronounced benefits.
  2. That police uniforms be redesigned to be less formal and less expensive, less military in character, reducing both the amount and the visibility of weaponry and other coercive paraphernalia.
  3. That civilians be employed to serve within the police organization, freeing trained constables for police duties and leavening the attitudes and understanding of the force.
  4. That the force actively engage in a wide range of public service and educational projects, and seek to inform the public of its problems and projects in a systematic and open manner.
  5. That the Board of Police Commissioners be enlarged to, say, 12 members, six appointed by the Attorney General, and six elected by the public at large.
  6. That it understand its role to be much more active than at present, carry on a wide range of policy deliberations and public educational programs, and meet frequently.An expanded, reconstituted and revitalized Board of Police Commissioners might be able to handle complaints of police abuse, and complaints by police of their own treatment, handle them effectively, and be seen to do so.

    Failing that, however,

  7. Serious consideration should be given to the establishment of either a Civilian Review Board or of an Office of Ombudsman which would have responsibility to handle such complaints.

The police and the community

First of all, let all those who are of a libertarian cast of mind breathe a sign of relief that the Commission of Enquiry into the Gastown riot headed by Mr. Justice Dohm ever came into existence. There were those who made very black forecasts immediately following the August Gastown riot.

Then let them applaud the Commission for the fairness of its hearings and the courage of its findings. These could easily have been a repeat of the whitewashes that we have become used to seeing on such occasions. Given the terms of reference of the Commission, and the history of the investigation of police behaviour here and elsewhere, the Commission’s procedures and report achieved as much as one could have hoped for.

And yet, having said, this in complete sincerity and thankfulness, we must confess to a final feeling of disappointment, frustration and defeat. For what, after all, will be the outcome of this fine attempt at an open enquiry into public affairs? It would seem likely that the principal result will be the disciplining of half a dozen or so police officers and the acquisition of more fear-arousing technology by the police. If so, what a pity! what an opportunity lost!

True, there were some reasonable recommendations emanating from the Commission, but these are only recommendations, and the majority of these are not likely to reduce the immediate tensions between groups in our community, nor to set in motion activities leading to long-term solutions to problems that confront us.

In fact, the more one looks at the Dohm Commission’s recommendations, the more evident it becomes how completely misunderstood are the forces which shaped the Gastown Riot. The Commission isolated a series of causes of that event: Abercrombie’s decision based on a false report, the horses, the sound of glass breaking, Lester and Sommer, plainclothes policemen and other. To be sure, these elements had their effects in the events of that night and it is only right to point them out. But this riot did not take place in an historical or social vacuum and the true causes cannot be found within the time span of that event. If we are to deal adequately with this problem, we must overcome our social myopia and look beyond the obvious immediate events. Unfortunately, most men have great difficulty utilizing such an expanded vision.

Part of the difficulty arises out of our natural intellectual laziness. It is easier to show a connection between events closer together in time or space than it is between more distant ones. Also, most of our familiar explanations of human actions are those which do, in fact, locate the principal causes close in time and space to the events to be explained.

But the Gastown Riot could not have taken place if the people involved had not brought to it the potential for such action and counteraction. To overlook this most important fact would make the efforts of the Commission little more than a hollow gesture. The most important question which must be answered is: How is it that men in our city had it in them both to create conditions for a rampage, and to engage in it? It is this potential, this set of attitudes, which men brought to the events which surely constitute the major causes of the Riot, which may give rise to future ones and which must be altered if we are to avoid the ugly future toward which we are undoubtedly heading.

How is it then, that men came to Gastown with these attitudes. As we have indicated already, the answer is not simple nor can we make more than a small beginning at an analysis here. However, there are on the surface some important elements which at the present time are being overlooked and which give us some clues concerning immediate effective actions.

First on the side of youth. There were unquestionably young individuals involved in this event who intended nothing but harm to come from it. Any illegal action they committed we, of course, abhor and we support the enforcement of the law upon them. Their attitudes and motivations are, however, a different matter. As much as we may disagree with them, we must recognize that they arise out of very real social and moral problem, well-recognized by the rest of society. That their opinions about these problems and their solutions are more radical than most is a condition which a democracy must tolerate. Presumably, we could eliminate most of these negative attitudes and opinions by eliminating the social and moral injustices which give rise to them.

But let us be clear that so long as these injustices remain, the discontent and radical views of the young are a sign of a healthy social stance towards the problems. Therefore, we would not want to change them, other than by eliminating the problems which give rise to them.

But men whose hatred of social injustices is healthy do not set up the local police for a bloody confrontation. There was more to the attitudes of some of the young people involved in this affair. Where did they get them?

There appear to be two main sources. The first of these and the most reprehensible, is the active incitement of local politicians, whose ignorance and fear of legitimate protest have led them to puerile name-calling and crying “Wolf!” The second source of bad attitudes on the part of youth is the zealous enforcement of the unpopular drug laws. Whether or not Justice Dohm is right is dismissing the resistance to these laws as illegitimate civil disobedience (and we do not take sides on this issue here), it is generally believed that the drug squads in this city are particularly heavy-handed in their “search and detain” operations, and these no doubt do little to diminish the negativ attitudes of youth towards police generally. These are important forces outside the event of the actual Riot, which Mr. Justice Dohm failed to consider, but which cannot be left out of an adequate analysis designed to give guidance for social police. How one could proceed to arrest the ignorant babbling of some politicans is a true dilemma in a democracy. Perhaps that problem will always be withus, so long as good men consistently fail to come forward in public life. There is more hope for the police force, however, and since the problems with the drug squad are part of the larger problem of the police force in this city, we will now turn our attention to this aspect of police work.

The attitudes that the police brought to the Gastown Riot were clearly not those of calm tolerance or even dispassion. While one could hope for more from a policeman, an attitude comparable to that of an average citizen would have been adequate to prevent that evening of rampage. That the rampage occurred apparently without provocation clearly indicates that the police themselves came to Gastown with very negative, and perhaps for some even spiteful, attitudes.

Such attitudes on the part of police are not peculiar to our Vancouver City police force. In all countries of the Western world there are large urban districts to police, requiring a high level of technology, and where active social and political protest has developed, the police forces have become increasingly undemocratic and totalitarian in their methods. Both of these elements have had a similar effect. The high level of organization and technology needed in big urban setting isolates the police physically in its day-to-day operation. It seals men in cars, takes them off the beat and increases internal organizational specialization. The increase in organization dominance also tends to isolate the policeman socially, so that in the realm of ideas and emotions he grows away from the thoughts and feelings of the groups which constitute his society; social and political protest groups are thus more easily seen as “strangers” and even “weirdos”.

In many ways, the case of poor attitudes on the part of the police is a more serious one than similar poor attitudes of some of the citizenry, because the police have so much more power. In another sense, the police problem is less serious, because it seems more amenable to solution, for it would seem that most of the problems grow out of the organizational experiences of the individual policeman. Presumably, if we change that experience, we can change the attitudes of the policeman.

In Vancouver this means two things:

  1. carefully reviewing those facets of the day-to-day operations of the average policeman to see in what ways the organization isolates him from the public and its concerns, and
  2. re-thinking the position and function of the Board of Police Commissioners.

On the first of these we can get considerable guidance from the research on other police forces in the western world where the problems and operational procedures seem to be similar.