We head swiftly under the Lions Gate Bridge and out of the harbour. I look back at the Vancouver skyline glistening in the sunlight. It has changed dramatically over the past century but the harbour’s several large container ports, numerous marinas, Canada’s busiest float plane base, a heliport, various industries, cruise ship terminal and local transit Seabus route have always presented a unique policing challenge.
The Vancouver Police Department celebrates the 100th anniversary of its marine unit this year. It has patrolled this busy Canadian commercial port since 1911 with noble aspirations, doing everything from enforcing moorage or anchoring to combating terrorism and maintaining national security.
The squad was briefed before heading out. Although concise, it was alive with chatter and camaraderie and included topics such as identifying the master of each vessel, maintenance issues, gangs, vessels of interest and local concerns such as Sea-Doos in swimming zones and abandoned sailboats left adrift.
The squad currently uses two high speed vessels incorporating the latest technology, include thermal imaging cameras, surface radar, advanced communications systems, GPS tracking, high intensity sound transmitter and powerful search lights. The technology has improved but the unit’s mandate remains the same – deter illegal activity, patrol the harbour and provide security to those using it.
Vancouver’s port didn’t always have a police presence. In 1910, the chief constable requested in his annual report that the city buy its first police boat. The population then was between 125,000 and 150,000. Crime had increased dramatically from the previous year, the chief constable noted, and he also asked for 50 more officers to supplement the 88 already patrolling the city.
Very much a frontier port town, Vancouver was growing exponentially, leading to a dramatic increase in crime, particularly theft and narcotics along the waterfront.
“With a motorboat at our disposal, it would be possible to investigate these thefts more thoroughly with less loss of time, as we would be in a better position to better cover ground and the chances of tracking the criminal and bringing them to justice would be more favorable,” the chief constable argued.
“The boat could be furthermore be used advantageously in the suppression of opium smuggling as this smuggling traffic is very difficult to stamp out and it has grown to such proportions that it is necessary that more vigilant methods be employed.”
The new boat, named VPD 1, was bought for the kingly sum of $4,712.77 (that’s about $104,000 in today’s dollars). It was manned by a skipper and mechanic. The same year the department was given a patrol wagon and patrol car, which cost $4,000 each. The chief constable reported great success in reducing opium smuggling in his next year’s report.
Today the marine unit concentrates on deterrence and education. Tasks include writing tickets to promote boating safety, dealing with abandoned vessels, interagency co-operation exercises, filling gaps in national security, investigating gang use of boats, recovering the bodies of suicide and drowning victims, preventing crime and accidents, combating small vessel thefts and crowd control during events.
Officers bring a wide-ranging level of experience to the unit, including accident investigation, surveillance and tactical. Each member is required to spend at least five years as a regular officer before joining the unit and must take specialized training to deal with the unique maritime environment and ensure credibility. Courses and qualifications include SVOP(small vessel operators permit), maritime emergency duties, maritime first aid, heavy weather training and navigation in restricted weather and numerous Transport Canada exams all the way up to the mariners master ticket, which allows the captain/officer to command vessels up to 60 tons.
Even with the unit’s advanced technological tools, its history and link to the past is still very evident. The largest vessel in the fleet was named the “RG McBeath” after World War One infantry man and Cst. Robert Gordon McBeath, who captured several enemy soldiers. McBeath moved to Vancouver after the war, joined the VPD and was killed in the line of duty on October 10, 1922 pulling over a drunk driver.
As the unit prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary, it proudly displays its new “challenge coin.” Steeped in tradition and history, like the unit, the coins date back to the First World War and were given to prove membership in an armed forces company, to be used when challenged and to enhance morale; now they celebrate a unique and proudly Canadian police unit.