Eastside Stories Diary of a Vancouver Beat Cop – “Whistling” Bernie Smith

Old-time beat cop meets new

He walked the Hastings Street beat long before anyone had ever dreamed of AIDS, HIV or taxpayer-funded buildings where you could plunge heroin into your veins.

The Charter of Rights was still ten years in the future, and it would be two decades before so-called hockey fans would riot in the streets of Vancouver — for the first time — following the Canucks’ Game 7 loss in 1994.

There was no Twitter or Facebook to whip people into a frenzy. They had to use old-fashioned ways to organize rallies and marches — by knocking on doors and dialing rotary phones. There were no iPhones to record his every move, and no police complaints commissioner breathing down his neck every time he said something that might hurt someone’s feelings.

For Bernie “Whistling” Smith, Hastings Street in the 1970s was a hard place. But he had easy answers. His methods were unconventional, abrasive and a little controversial. But they worked.

Bernie “Whistling” Smith

“What are we going to do to keep the young people away from drugs? I think one of the things is to make it difficult on the streets for any drug addict,” he said in a 1975 documentary, Whistling Smith, produced by the National Film Board.

“Let’s not make it easy for them to come down here. Let’s make it really difficult to be a drug addict or a prostitute or a criminal, as difficult as possible. So difficult it should become almost impossible.”

Policing tends to attract big personalities. In the 125 year history of Vancouver Police Department few have had personalities as big, and characters as colourful, as Bernie Smith.

Smith joined VPD in 1945 after a stint in the army, and he wore the police uniform until his retirement in 1979. He worked in a number of places during his 30-plus years as a cop, but he’s best known for the days he spent as a sergeant in the Downtown Eastside. He was both heavy handed and caring to the people here, and his unorthodox methods of policing helped make him one of VPD’s most famous.

photo courtesy Odd Squad Productions

I was among a group of about 30 police officers and Vancouver Jail guards who had a chance to meet Whistling Smith last week, when the guys from Odd Squad arranged a visit at the police station on Main Street. The sit-down was documented by a film crew that’s just begun working on season two of the reality series The Beat.

It’s been more than three decades since Bernie Smith last walked the beat, and time is starting to catch up with him. He walks a little slower than he used to, and he relies on the help of a cane, thanks to faltering vision. But he still sports his trademark moustache — minus the handlebars. His wit is still as wry as ever. And after nearly crushing my fingers in a vice-grip handshake last week, I’m pretty sure the retired sergeant could still hold his own if I called him to cover me in a Balmoral Hotel bar fight.

Bernie “Whistling” Smith chats with VPD Inspector Rob Rothwell about life as a beat cop in the 1970s

As I listened to Whistling Smith tell stories about his time on the beat, it struck me how many things have changed, and yet how much remains the same.

“Drug addicts are allowed to congregate and stand on our streets, which I think is basically wrong,” he said back in the 1975 documentary.

“Prostitiutes are allowed to stand there and solicit, and in order to catch them it’s quite complicated. And you can catch them three and four and five times, and they still haven’t gone to court on the first one. The amount of money it costs the taxpayers must be astronomical.”

Although the comments were made more than 35 years ago, they may as well have been uttered yesterday.

Drug addicts still litter the streets and laneways. Only now they’re wired to crack, meth, and heroin — and in many cases living with undiagnosed illnesses like schizophrenia.

Street prostitution is still rampant in the industrial area north of Hastings Street. Only now, the girls don’t just have to worry about getting money for their next fix. They have to worry about AIDS, serial killers and bad dates.

And just like in Whistling Smith’s day, cops can still arrest someone three, four, or five times before they ever go to court on the first one. Sometimes you can even arrest a person in the morning, then arrest him again at night if the timing is right.

Although many of the problems remain the same, much has changed between Whistling Smith’s day and mine.

Back then, police officers didn’t worry about mincing words. Women who got paid to have sex were called whores, not sex-trade workers. Twenty-somethings who stood on the corner and asked for handouts were called beggars and rubby-dubs, not marginalized youth. None of them were welcome, or tolerated, on Whisting Smith’s beat, let alone invited to live there.

Back in Whistling Smith’s day harm reduction meant throwing a drunk in jail before he got robbed. It meant chasing a john out of the neighburhood before he caught an unpleasant infection. It meant showing a drug dealer the way home, and giving him a helping hand if he didn’t move fast enough to get there.

Smith recognized early on that a little bit of disorder, if left unchallenged, would eventually lead to more disorder and crime. No offence, he said, should go ignored, whether it be  a kid sniffing glue on the corner, a drunk passed out on a bench or someone riding their bike on the sidewalk. You don’t have to arrest them all, he said, but you sure can’t allow it to happen without saying something.

It was a hard-nosed approach that worked. On days when Whistling Smith was on duty, the crime rate would be cut in half. Prostitutes, pill pushers and drug addicts were chased out of the area. Beggars and rummies were picked up and carted off to jail. Smith’s simple philosophy would later be dubbed the Broken Windows Theory, and in the 1980s and ’90s it was hailed as the salve for New York City’s crime epidemic.

It’s been some 35 years since Bernie Smith’s days as a  beat cop. I’m sure he never dreamed the next generation would still be searching for ways to  solve the scourge of the Downtown Eastside. And I bet he never imagined the problems would have multiplied the way they have.

I asked him whether he figured we’d still be looking for answers 35 years from now. He told me he thinks there will come a time when society will simply say enough’s enough, and will stand up to say that this kind of lifestyle, this kind of poverty and these kinds of living conditons are no longer acceptable.

If and when that happens, nobody knows. Until then, all I can do is what Bernie Smith did — try to leave this nasty place a little better than I found it. I only hope that when I’m 88 years old and long retired, the next generation of police officers won’t still be looking for answers.