Vancouver’s two-year-old program Safe Place, which offers support to individuals feeling threatened due to their sexual orientation or gender identity, is gaining traction outside of the city. Participating schools, businesses, and institutions can place a decal in their windows to identify their alliance and enthusiasm for providing sanctuary to members of the LGBTQ community.
The police-run program has taken hold in Prince Rupert, where it’s led by the RCMP, and is currently being rolled out in Langley and Chilliwack. Outside of British Columbia, police departments in Edmonton, Mississauga, and Regina have also shown interest in adopting the program.
“Since 2016, it’s been growing rapidly and it’s growing across Canada,” said Vancouver police department Const. Dale Quiring, British Columbia’s first and only full-time LGBTQ liaison.
The VPD unveiled Safe Place – an initiative originally started in Seattle – in 2016. To date, 385 Vancouver establishments have partnered with the program, including every public school in the city.
Improving trust within the community
The program’s success marks a turning point for the VPD, which has had an uneasy relationship with the city’s LGBTQ community in the past. In 2015, the department was ordered to improve its policies regarding the treatment of individuals in the transgender community. This decision followed a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal case, which found that the VPD had discriminated against transgender woman Angela Dawson, when they denied her proper post-medical care and failed to address her by her chosen pronouns while in custody.
Despite recent efforts, police don’t inspire trust in all members of the LGBTQ community. Quiring, who also served as the VPD’s hate crimes investigator for four years, acknowledges the difficulty of classifying a criminal incident as a hate crime.
“Hate crimes are very tough; tough crimes to get that actual hate crime designation on. They’re not easy and they don’t all go through,” Quiring said.
According to Statistics Canada, hate crimes must first be reported to the police, and filed by an officer as a crime motivated by hate. But hate crimes often go unreported, explained Barbara Perry, professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and an internationally renowned hate crime expert.
While collaborating with Egale Canada Human Rights Trust on research about hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation, Perry found that “a very large proportion of the victims did not report the incidents.”
Instead, most victims turned to other support systems, such as friends and family, or formal support groups, such as Vancouver’s QMUNITY.
“It’s not so much that they don’t phone or trust us, they just may not trust the process,” Quiring said. Victims may not want to risk re-traumatization by laying charges, or they simply may not want to go through the criminal justice process, especially when it hasn’t worked in their favour before. To respect those reservations, the Safe Place program doesn’t pressure victims to formally charge offenders.
“People that get assaulted, harassed, or threatened just want to have someone show up, be empathetic, and passionate, and use their active listening skills and not judge them,” Quiring said.
Despite obstacles, Quiring is optimistic. He notes that the VPD received fewer calls reporting hate-motivated incidents last summer, in line with a recent – and subtle – downward trend.
“Safe Place isn’t the be-all-end-all, but it might be one reason why that’s happening,” he said.
Relationships over metrics
Quiring attributes the growing support for Safe Place in part due to his collaboration with the city’s LGBTQ community. One woman in particular who has been instrumental to this process is Velvet Steele.
Steele met Quiring in 2016, when she co-starred in “Walk With Me,” a training video Quiring developed to inform fellow officers about issues specific to the transgender community.
In the video, Steele reflects on the harassment and violence she’s endured in the time since her gender reassignment surgery.
“I’m aware of my environment, always,” said Steele, who founded the nonprofit West Enders Against Violence Everywhere after being violently assaulted.
Working with Quiring has allowed Steele to better understand police operations. In return, she has influenced Quiring by educating him about the daily transgressions she and others in the transgender community experience.
“The one thing I’ve learned about working in the community, it’s not what you’ve done, it’s how you sustain it, and what are you doing next and how are you moving forward,” Quiring said.
Steele emphasizes that there’s a person beneath the police uniform. To not recognize that is to conflate the officer with the institution.
“If you can effect change with the person who wears the uniform proudly—why not,” asked Steele.
Through their mutual commitment, Steele and Quiring showcase the kind of collaboration between citizen and police officer that has made Safe Place successful for all in the community.
“This is society understanding, being more empathetic, and just trying to respect every individual in how they express or identify,” Quiring said.
But, he notes, “we still have a long way to go.”