Community Policing for Safe Transit
Feb 22, 2021

What does it take to start a Community Policing Centre (CPC) for a Transit System during a pandemic – and why would you want to? Well, I did exactly that, and I’ll share my journey with you.

When you think of a transit system, does your mind go to the community? When I became the Neighbourhood Police Officer (NPO) in 2016, my first challenge was to meet my community… or was it to create a community?

The Metro Vancouver Transit Police (MVTP) are responsible for policing the area’s transit system. This is no small task as there are 148 km of track (comprised of surface, elevated and underground), a commuter train that runs twice a day, more than 2000 buses, and a few sea buses – all covering a very large area. 

To understand the community, you’ll need to break it down a little further. The whole system is divided into six smaller community service areas. Each of these is assigned an NPO. My area is the downtown core of Vancouver, with my hub station being Waterfront Station.

So how do I see a community? Well, it’s simple really, the majority of the traveling public comes and goes from the same stations every day. Waterfront Station is one of the busiest – with roughly 120,000 people transiting daily. Inside the Station, you’ll find restaurants, shops, and business offices; and then there is the area surrounding it. This all makes a community.

When I came into the position it was for a one-year pilot program, and my role was to connect with the traveling public and local businesses. One of the first things that I did was to meet with my counterparts at the Vancouver Police Department and the business people in Waterfront Station, then work my way around my area. I think I did okay – after all, I am four years into a one-year pilot so I must be doing something right.

Early on, I connected to the surrounding Community Policing Centers (CPCs) around the Downtown area. I seemed to be in the catchment for all of them, but I rarely saw any volunteers around; this wasn’t because they didn’t want to be around, but more because they were too busy. This got me thinking… how about a community policing centre that would service both the surrounding area and the transit system?

When I pitched the idea to my then Sergeant, she thought it was fantastic. There had apparently been an attempt many years ago with a slightly different model that never came to fruition. Her suggestion was: write a business case, and see what happens. 

How hard can it be, I thought. I would partner with others and build something that would be amazing… simple, right?

It was about this time the Granville CPC had a massive flood and needed a big renovation. They tried to set up in the office of the West End Coal Harbour CPC, but it was outside their catchment with limited physical capacity. So, I offered up my very own Waterfront Office. Within a few days, they had it up and running well enough to serve their community needs and cover their catchment area. Soon they were able to share stats that could be used in my business case for the Waterfront CPC.

I submitted the completed business case and waited… waited some more, and yes… waited a little more – a business case does have to go through reviews, after all. Then, to my surprise, I was invited to meet with my Chief and Deputies to talk about what this would look like. 

They actually thought I could pull it off (maybe I’m destined to be a salesman after I retire) and they gave me a budget of $20,000 to do it. I know you’re thinking that $20,000 isn’t a lot, and you may be right, but I already had 1,200 square feet of space at Waterfront Station that had offices, a meeting room, and a small kitchen space, so this took care of the biggest cost and problem.

The MVTP is part of a larger organization called TransLink. The relationship between them is similar to that between city police and their respective cities. A number of larger American cities have some form of a police department that services the transit systems in one way or another, but we are the only one in Canada to be a true police service. I reached out to a few of these other services and found that none of them really had a Community Policing model, which meant I couldn’t just copy another model – I had to invent something very unique.

Thinking it would be a great idea to partner with the surrounding CPCs associated with Vancouver Police, I met with five of them to brainstorm some ideas. Fortunately for me, one of the partner CPCs had a student looking to do some practicum work, so for several months I had the help of a student one day a week who helped put a bunch of resources together for me – this was teamwork! 

The benefit of being a part of a large transit system is access to resources that I wouldn’t have had without a lot of funding. For instance, after TransLink heard about the program, they started a new section with two amazingly dedicated women that are responsible for obtaining sponsorship for anything I might need – jackets, shirts, tech gear, swag, thank you gifts for the volunteers, whatever we could think of. These two are amazing, they have so much energy, and are just as invested in this project as I am. So we all continued to move forward and discuss what is needed and where we go.

And then... ooh… did you hear that? That was the sound of COVID-19 grinding everything to a halt in March of 2020. Naturally, with the COVID uncertainty, I was sent back to patrol to assist but, after 12 days, the Chief and Deputies decided it was more important that I continue working on the project, so I was put back into my role – but what would a CPC look like when the entire world has shut down? 

How would we start something new when everyone is afraid to come into contact with anyone? Back then, we had no idea how the virus was transmitted, how deadly it could be, or how long we could be dealing with it? It was about this time I lost my practicum student also, but as the saying goes: “the show must go on.”

Sponsorship was staying surprisingly strong, we were going to get shirts, hats, vests, and jackets, and a couple of iPads, and this was amazing. While this was going on I was figuring out volunteers, policies, Covid procedures, and writing up agreements with the other groups that were going to be involved. 

Due to the fact that the other CPCs fell under the watchful eye of the Vancouver Police Department, I had to get the agreement with them first. I won’t bore you with the details, but after eight drafts (which apparently in the legal world is pretty good) we had something that could go up the chain. We were coming into August and things were coming together nicely – I was looking at a launch at the end of September, no problem.

Mid-August came and I was called by my counterpart with the Vancouver Police Department. He advised me of some concerns about volunteers, who would cover insurance costs, and a few other things that needed to be resolved before the agreement could be moved up the chain or to the City of Vancouver. 

Again, I was knocked back a few steps, but had prepared for something like this. Once this made it to my Deputy of Operations, I was invited to a Zoom meeting. His simple question – “Do you want to keep going?” My simple answer, “Yes”. To his credit, and the credit of the department as a whole, they continued to support my plan one hundred percent. Not working with Vancouver now gave me the opportunity to work without constraints, this was now fully my project, but if it failed… it was also fully my project.

Fast forward to September... with a simple social media post, almost 40 applicants answered the call to volunteer for this pilot project. So now not only did I have to act as the project manager but also recruiting and HR, and so the fun continued. The two weeks before the soft launch was a whirlwind of activity scheduling interviews, organizing applications, checking references, and forwarding everything to the MVTP recruiting department.

On September 26th, 2020, the Waterfront Community Policing Centre had a much anticipated soft launch, the doors were open to all the volunteers to and meet face-to-face – with proper Covid precautions, this meant limiting the numbers, wearing masks, and keeping a safe distance. Officially I only had two volunteers that day as recruiting was still working through them, but all of the applicants showed up and supported the soft launch.

The official launch to media, VIPs, and hopefully volunteers is currently pending lower COVID numbers as cases have spiked in Metro Vancouver over the past month.

What did I learn? Always have a backup, your support team is important, with the right people around you anything is possible, and most importantly, avoid pandemics… However, there must be something in the water, I am also a founding member to start up Out On Patrol during a pandemic, but that’s another story.

Please follow me and the Waterfront CPC on Social Media and see where our story goes next.

If you’re interested in starting a community policing model in your transit focused police department, please feel free to connect, I’ll gladly help guide you through the process, even if there’s a pandemic. 

Former Superintendent of the BC Ambulance Service, Constable Julien Ponsioen is the Neighbourhood Police Officer for the Metro Vancouver Transit Police.