School liaison officers will appear less formal, have smaller firearms, Vancouver police briefing says

Insp. Gary Hiar speaks to the Vancouver Police Board on April 20 about plans to bring back liaison officers to the city's schools in September. (Vancouver Police Board - image credit)
Insp. Gary Hiar speaks to the Vancouver Police Board on April 20 about plans to bring back liaison officers to the city's schools in September. (Vancouver Police Board - image credit)

The Vancouver Police Department says the return of its school liaison officer (SLO) program this fall will include less formal uniforms, cultural awareness training and smaller, less exposed firearms.

The details were revealed in a briefing to the Vancouver Police Board on April 20.

The return of SLOs to Vancouver schools — which will involve 15 constables, two sergeants and one youth co-ordinator — is set for the new school year in September, after it was cancelled in April 2021. A majority slate backing Mayor Ken Sim voted the program back in November.

SLOs were axed due to concerns about the impact that police presence in schools had on the mental and physical well-being of students, especially students of colour.

The VPD said the program was always about student engagement and making schools safe and inclusive. Since the program was greenlit for a return, the department says it's been working hard to come up with changes to smooth the return to schools and remain there long term.

"It's one of the main drivers for us doing as much consultation as we have and try to address all the issues that were raised," said Deputy Chief Const. Fiona Wilson at the April 20 police board meeting.

Insp. Gary Hiar with the VPD's youth services and mental health unit presented an initial revamp of the program to the board that will feature cultural awareness training for officers, more diverse hiring and the use of unmarked vehicles.

Officers will wear less formal uniforms, such as golf or polo-style shirts and hiking pants. They will still carry weapons, but smaller ones that are less exposed.

Weapons necessary, police say

Hiar and Wilson were asked why weapons were needed at all in schools, considering neither of them could recall a situation over the past 10 years when an officer was required to use one.

"Our concern is public safety first and foremost and [SLOs] have to be in a position to react if something [happened] in the school, in and around the school or to and from the school, so for that reason we do believe it was necessary," Hiar responded.

"But with that being said we still need to mitigate that concern and the sight of the firearm was triggering and we believe we were able to address that concern."

Wilson said the potential for an active shooter at a school requires SLOs to have weapons.

"If they were in a school setting and there was an active shooter situation and we were unable to respond to that effectively … that would be a very difficult scenario," she said.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

The VPD says it does not know what the final cost of the SLO program will be, as it's still being developed. Sgt. Steve Addison said information will be made public once it's ready.

Hiar said consultation is set to continue over the planned changes with Indigenous groups and an African-descent advisory board, and a further update will occur at the next board meeting in June.

Preeti Faridkot, vice-chair of the Vancouver School Board, said she is excited about the program's return and the work being done to get it right.

"We are coming up with a revised and re-imagined program," she said. "We have listened to a lot of stakeholders and different groups."

But Suzei Mah, one of four trustees to vote against the return of the program last November, said the school board has not been consulted enough over the return of SLOs.

She is skeptical about its success and questions how students will receive some changes, such as unmarked police cars.

"What is this going to look like? If we are going to have unmarked cars now, that actually might be more traumatizing to some people. You don't know if you're under surveillance," she said.

Other critics, such as Meenakshi Mannoe, a criminalization and policing campaigner at Pivot Legal Society, said bringing back the program does not address supporting students in more useful ways.

"This is not addressing the underlying issue, which is if we know that students in classrooms are having issues with conflict or issues at home, police presence does nothing," she said.

"Why aren't we actually investing in family support workers, peer support workers, counsellors?"

Mah is asking for a regular review of the program once it is finalized and back in place in September.