Vancouver Police Department Const. Chris Birkett is the president of the newly launched non-profit, Out On Patrol, a peer support organization based in British Columbia for LGBTQ2S+ members of law enforcement and allies. Below, he shares more with Blue Line on the background to building this worthwhile initiative and more.
Q: How was Out On Patrol formed?
Our society has been an idea in the making for years. For me, the discussion started in 2017 when I attended a fundraiser for “CampOUT!” which sends LGBTQ2S+ youth to camp. I was a sheriff at the time and attended with a group of friends from the VPD (Vancouver Police Department) and RCMP. It gave us the opportunity to come together as LGBTQ2S+ members of law enforcement, while also raising money for a worthy cause. We got to discussing an idea that a few of the others had of bringing LGBTQ2S+ members together and how we could really help the community at the same time.
In terms of peer support, although there has been huge progress made in relation to LGBTQ2S+ rights, there are still members who do not feel comfortable talking about how they identify. My hope is with Out On Patrol, we can provide them with a space to express themselves and also demonstrate how our departments are supportive of us being who we truly are.
Q: What are your hopes for this non-profit?
I would love to start by creating a safe environment for my peers, while also providing the greater LGBTQ2S+ community the opportunity to interact with law enforcement in a welcoming and positive way. There has been a lot of progress in regard to building bridges between law enforcement and the LGBTQ2S+ community, however, we recognize there is still a lot of work that can be done. I would like to see the society play a positive role in that relationship. From there, I would just love the society to grow and expand. I believe this has the potential to grow much larger than any of us could imagine.
Q: Tell us more about the society’s plans for continuing to bridge the gap.
Once we have a strong member base and are able to expand our passionate group of volunteers, we would love to host community events as well as in-school educational presentations. In law enforcement, we often deal with the public in times of crisis and it can feel more negative than positive, depending on the situation. We would love to give community members the opportunity to interact with peace officers in a positive and welcoming environment, getting to know police as people and, in turn, helping us all understand each other.
Q: How many new members since the public launch? Why should people join?
Since our launch at the very end of May, we are already at almost 100 members (by mid-June)! Benefits include invitations to members-only peer support and fundraising events. Throughout the year we will be hosting a mix of free events for members as well as ticketed events, where members will receive discounts on ticket prices. Due to the current COVID-19 restrictions, we are limited in terms of our ability to host events. However, we are already brainstorming our first event and we cannot wait for the chance to bring everyone together! We have some other exciting member benefits planned, but those are being kept secret for now!
Q: How do you think your own law enforcement journey might have been different if Out On Patrol had been around when you started your career in 2012?
I think Out On Patrol would have had an extremely positive impact on my life if it would have been around in 2012 and ideally even before that. When I was in high school, I was in the closet and interested in a career in law enforcement. I often worried about how my sexuality would impact my potential future career. I didn’t know if there were gay police officers and if there were, I worried about how they were treated. This is one of the reasons I am passionate about Out On Patrol conducting in-school presentations, to lead by example as role models and show kids who are going through the same experience that it is okay for them to be honest about who they are, without the fear I experienced.
When I was hired as a sheriff in 2012, I had recently come out to friends and family, but I still worried how I would be perceived at work. I made the choice to go through the sheriff academy in the closet and was not honest about who I was. I was fearful of being labelled “the gay guy.” After graduating and coming out, I realized I had nothing to be afraid of and that the barriers I put up were not needed.
Fast forward six years to my time in the police academy: after having a great career with the sheriffs and learning from my experiences, I did not feel I needed to hide who I was. I am happy to say I have had nothing but positive experiences with the VPD. I do recognize I am lucky to have entered law enforcement when I did, in a progressive city like Vancouver. My experience is my own and I know others have not been as fortunate as I am, which is one reason why I believe Out on Patrol is still a relevant and needed organization.
Q: What are some of the major challenges LGBTQ2S+ officers face that Out On Patrol can help address?
I do not want to over-generalize, as every officer is going to have their own experiences depending on a variety of factors; what I can speak to is based off of my experience and the experiences of friends. I know there are officers that are still not comfortable discussing how they identify at work. There are others that face challenges not only internally, but also in the community. As LGBTQ2S+ officers, we can sometimes feel stuck in situations where friends outside of law enforcement expect us to have one perspective, whereas our coworkers expect another. This unique position can be difficult to navigate, but we have a perspective to lend to both sides of a discussion. It is not an easy balancing act at times and can put stress on relationships, but there cannot be any progress without meaningful dialogue. I hope Out On Patrol can help members feel comfortable knowing there is a safe space for them at work, but also provide an opportunity to have positive interactions with the community in an attempt to have that meaningful dialogue.
Q: What has the feedback been from fellow law enforcement?
The feedback has honestly been amazing and overwhelmingly positive! We have had an outpouring of support from around the world, everywhere from Canada to New Zealand! It has been so great to see the emails and messages of support coming in. One thing that really hits home is when I read the thank you messages from individual members saying how much an organization like Out On Patrol means to them and how they’ve been waiting for something like this to come around for their entire careers. It has really demonstrated to me how important our society is and it has made me even more motivated to keep working at making this successful.
Q: It can be said police culture is at a crossroads… what are your own hopes for the larger police culture of the future here in Canada?
I hope we keep moving in the direction we are headed in! I recognize how fortunate I am to be a gay police officer in 2020. I have been met with constant support from my department; it really demonstrates the culture shift compared to those who came before me. I hope we can continue to build a positive and welcoming environment within policing culture, and I would like to see it spread to other areas that may not be as progressive as Vancouver.