A PHENOMENAL RIDE
1926 words – MR
A phenomenal ride
by Elvin Klassen
Jamie Graham is retiring (for the third time) in December after finishing his five-year contract with the Victoria Police Department, figuring it’s time to try something new after close to 44 years in policing.
“I’ve had the most phenomenal ride of my life,” he said. “Serving with the RCMP, Vancouver Police and Victoria Police Departments has been a huge honour. From the moment I started in Regina, policing gave me a real sense of purpose. I knew right away that this was the life for me. I thought at one stage though that if I ended my career running a small RCMP Detachment in rural Alberta, life would have been good. Who would have thought this would happen?”
Graham joined the Mounties in 1968 at age 19. After postings in Westlock (Alberta), Edmonton Provost, Fort McMurray, the international airport, an Edmonton major crime section (GIS), Nelson (B.C.) and North Vancouver he was appointed the OIC (Officer in charge) of Surrey, the RCMP’s largest detachment.
There was talk once or twice about moving to Ottawa but that wasn’t to be. When the chief’s job came open in 2002 with Vancouver Police Department (VPD), he (and the real boss, wife Gail) gave it serious consideration and he was soon the 29th chief constable.
Leaving the RCMP was a tough decision as he had earned a great reputation over his 34 years with the force and was fully expecting to stay in Surrey until retirement. However, the Vancouver position presented a huge and exciting challenge and he has never looked back. His time with the VPD allowed him to make many changes, bring in a completely new command staff and help develop one of the finest police agencies of it’s size in the world.
While lecturing internationally on police leadership Graham suggested to senior executives that five years is about the right amount of time to spend as chief. Following his own advice, he retired from Vancouver in August 2007 at the end of his five year contract. He kept busy with private consulting, attending events on behalf of the National Speaker’s Bureau and, for relaxation, worked a few days a month at a Vancouver bicycle shop.
The position of chief constable opened up in Victoria in October 2008 and he and Gail made another decision. Graham became the 12th chief of the Victoria Police Department (VPD) in January 2009. The police board made it clear that they wanted strong leadership and a pursuit of regional solutions for the southern Vancouver Island.
Police board chair and Victoria mayor Dean Fortin expressed sincere appreciation for Graham’s work recently in the
“Victoria’s crime-severity index, compiled by Statistics Canada, dropped 26 per cent from 2009 to 2011, while public disorder downtown saw a major reduction. Efforts like ‘Late Night, Great Night,’ a Jamie Graham-supported Downtown Victoria Business Association program that includes late-night buses and police-monitored taxi stands to help people get home from downtown, have helped that happen.”
Graham made a point to express his admiration for Fortin and his police board colleagues. The editorial in the same paper was headlined “Chief Graham served the city well.”
Graham is often asked to compare commanding the RCMP in Surrey to running the Vancouver and Victoria police. “There are more similarities than differences,” he said. “They are simply magnified in the larger centres.”
No matter the force of location, Graham is a firm believer in the quality of Canadian policing and the dedication of the young officers who choose it as a career. “The men and women we hire are the best this country has to offer.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Graham, be it in Victoria, Vancouver or his many RCMP postings.
“I wear my heart on my sleeve and I have made some mistakes, maybe even said some things I shouldn’t have but my policy has been to admit to errors, deal with it and move on,” he noted. Through the years, Graham has often faced criticism from individuals and the media, “some warranted, mostly not…
“I do my best when communicating publicly on an issue and I always trust the public will be able to sift through the fog on how some choose to interpret the message, then get to the facts and the truth. I know what I did, what I said, I don’t need to read someone else’s interpretation of their own spin of my messages,” he said.
He refuses to be defined by those who have personal agendas and are able to garner media headlines and stressed that the unfavorable comments are quite rare. The public “gets” the difficult job the police have to do and appreciates the talented officers patrolling Canadian streets. Many business and government colleagues express dismay at the police being concerned about public satisfaction ratings of 90 per cent. They wish they had that ‘problem.’
Part of a chief’s job is to discipline officers who make mistakes. “I have terminated people and imposed some pretty severe discipline but overall, it is rare,” Graham said. Considering the hundreds of thousands of contacts police have with the pubic each year, the substantiated complaints against officers has dropped in Victoria to very small numbers.
Graham’s handling of a Vancouver incident where six police officers were charged with criminal offences attracted support from both the public and press. He held true to the principle of transparency and openness with the community throughout the entire process, posting information online for all to read. He and his command staff quickly acknowledged the problem and dealt with it swiftly. The matter was resolved and sanctions imposed within a year after the matter was first reported.
The decisions he made about each officer’s punishment displayed his understanding of both the human and legal aspects of the situation, he said, with the penalties not only reflecting good police practice but also solid judgment. The most important image was that the top person in charge was there, front and centre to reassure both the public and the members of the department that all was under control, he added. The most important message was that lessons learned would also be retained, taught and understood. Graham followed through on his belief, “We cannot expect to earn trust if we are not entirely open in explaining the decisions we make.”
Graham was born in Belleville, Ontario, the son of a Canadian Army Officer and was one of the last “Lay Magistrates” in Ontario. The family moved often, with stops in Quantico (Virginia), Camp Borden, Calgary, Washington (DC), Halifax, New Delhi (India) and finally boarding school for Graham and his brother in Nova Scotia. Robert joined the US Military and served with the special forces in Vietnam. Graham considered following his brother into the military but opted for the Mounties instead.
Married to his lawyer-wife Gail for 30 years, he credits her input, advice and guidance as invaluable to his career choices, adding “we made decisions together that worked out well – I owe her everything.”
Modern police agencies have to be nimble and adapt quickly to new challenges, said Graham. Issues, documents, videos and photos are posted on line and within minutes of their creation and you are expected to have a plan in place to deal with every eventuality. That’s one reason why he supports regionalizing police forces in the southern peninsula of Vancouver Island, where a patchwork quilt of municipal forces and RCMP Detachments police a relatively small area. While Victoria Police serves the City of Victoria and Township of Esquimalt, he believes so much more could be done with a regional solution for a bigger area.
Another key to being nimble is hiring people you can rely on. Hire the very best people, assign tasks, develop a trusting workplace and step out of the way to let people do their jobs, he advises.
Graham’s “rules to live by” re-affirm that leaders cannot always be loved by everyone. Being responsible sometimes means people don’t like you. Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. Avoiding the tough calls also means avoiding confronting the people who need to be confronted. By procrastinating on the hard choices, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you upset are the most creative and productive.
CEOs have to remember that everyone is watching, especially when staff make mistakes or are in trouble. Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can “cut through argument, the bullshit, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.”
Graham suggests getting advice “from your people and then make a decision. Right or wrong, just make a decision!”
He also believes that the day your people stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence in your ability to help or have concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership. Courage and confidence is what it is all about.
Graham is not shy about calling the CEOs of top Canadian companies and asking about their secrets to success. He loves to hear their perspective on how they operate their businesses. Taking risks, developing high morale and building a base for teamwork ranked high on their lists.
He recalls once asking his people to describe their best boss. Most recalled leaders who provided support but then left their employees alone to get the job done.
There are days when Graham likes to leave the office and respond to calls with officers. Dispatchers probably shudder when they hear him on the air, he admits, as his old “10 codes” are sometimes a mystery.
Mixed in with the responsibilities, crises, tragedies and issues of the day are times when he is able to have fun. As General Colin Powell said, “Have fun in your command and with your command staff. Surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not too seriously.”
Graham has developed strong working relationships with the community. He developed programs where car dealers donated vehicles to school liaison officers to help break the ice at local schools. It worked very well, offset costs and was supported internally when RCMP Ottawa HQ was asked to have a look at what they were doing. At one point he recalls seeing PT Cruiser, a big military style Hummer, a VW Beetle, an A6 Audi Quattro, an S-Type Jaguar, a Discovery II Landrover and a Mercedes M Series SUV from local dealers. These were innovative and proved very effective in connecting with youth.
Graham is on the provincial board of the Schizophrenia Society of BC. He formed the first BC chiefs association mental health committee to develop training and awareness. Officers now receive significant amounts of training that have helped defuse many volatile situations. He is also a big supporter of the Salvation Army and serves on its community advisory board in Victoria.
Recruiting is Graham’s favourite topic. “We get hundreds of applicants for each opening in Victoria. The word is out about the quality of the work (the weather doesn’t hurt either) but the young men and women we hire are simply outstanding. The education, fitness levels, volunteer activities and life experience is quite amazing.
“Policing has been very good to me. I owe the organizations (RCMP, the VPD and the VicPD) so much for giving me the opportunities to be a part of an amazing team.”
Graham hopes to continue residing in Victoria after his retirement.