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.

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28 Responses to Old-time beat cop meets new

  1. Paramed student says:

    Cool video, great insight to policing in the 70’s. Tough guy, but his genuine concern for his people from the good citizens to Wilma, the heroin addicted prostitute makes me like him. Love the way he talks to the guys in the cafe (around the 18 minute mark) “I’m gonna take that gun of you and shove it up your arse”. Awesome.
    But vanilla extract to get drunk? Vanilla?? Surely there must be nicer ways to get drunk, the thought of chugging vanilla – eww.

    • saddison says:

      Rice wine replaced vanilla extract in the 80s and 90s as the cheap way to get drunk, but that was eventually banned from store shelves. Today the cheap drink of choice is mouthwash. It’s high in alcohol content and easy to steal. Isogel hand sanitizer is another popular one.

      • Paramed student says:

        Hand sanitizer and mouth wash?? Wow. What ever happened to the good ol’ metho…. That’s a serious drinking problem.

      • Mike Lowe says:

        My grandfather use to own the Blue Eagle Cafe on Hastings St in 1975. Bernie Whistling Smith was a customer.

      • jtblue3recon says:

        Ought to try streno and pure grain alcohol,mix with orange juice first. After shave,lighter fluid,mix and match or hard core them all. Ha,the old days……Koolaid and Fizzies mixed in also made the taste better and get that smooth,warming glow all the way down. Boone’s Farm and Mogan David wines combined with this made for a night out. I know I didn’t do this stuff,ER and gasmo pumps aren’t top of my list.

      • Raingurl says:

        That’s disgusting! Hand sanitizer? I can’t even stand the smell on my HANDS!

  2. jetherojl says:

    This is one of the most interesting videos I’ve seen in months. He handles that line between inappropriateness and professionalism so deftly. One of the issues today, as I’ve learned, is the containment of the undesirable as a control method. As much as I agree with some of Smith’s heavy-handedness in chasing people away, forcing them to disperse can spread the problems. However, there’s always the spatial correlation factor in drawing those alike together and the Downtown Eastside is the epicentre; one that won’t move anytime soon. Both methods of dealing with the issues (containment or dispersion) have their owns problems in application and so neither can be “victorious” in any sense.

    Much of my human geography research is in urban growth and social development which helps me understand your blog and Behind the Blue Line. I don’t have romantic visions about your job as a police officer, but it really helps to read, and be presented with, such insight as I’m looking to apply to the VPD soon. It’s always good to know more lest one gets completely blindsided (kind of like what happened during my first career).

    You do a great job of placing issues into their proper contexts, being clear and concise, and your posts are always enjoyable and informative.

  3. Carl says:

    I was there. When he (Smith) was behind you, You wished for him to keep whistling for if you had drugs or a warrant out on you. Sometimes if he was busy doing something else the would yell “Get off my beat!” Oh yes, you moved. There weren’t all the cell phones and radios like now. There were call boxes and they were’nt all that many. the call boxes were big square type metal boxes on telephone pole. A big key was needed to open the box that allowed the police to check in or confirm warrants. He was a good beat cop. The police heads could learn from him. We lawful citizens have rights too. We don’t need or want drug dealers in our neighborhood.
    Carl. M.

    • Raingurl says:

      Thumbs up to Carl. M. I doubt he’ll see this but I know you will, Beat Cop. :) Run those dudes out of town. Run them into the ground……..

  4. Sparky says:

    “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.”

    What’s wrong with that approach? Don’t the poor people who live in that area have a right to live without the criminal element preying on them?

    The Charter makes almost all of Smith’s tactics illegal now, but what is the serious crime rate in that area compared to when Smith did his thing? The documentary said the crime rate was halved when he was on duty. Obviously the criminals didn’t quit, just move, but Smith’s approach at least had a temporary positive effect on the neighbourhood.

  5. Steve (not the cop) says:

    First off, I haven’t watched the video (still on lovely dial-up). But I’ll try to watch it at the NFB.

    I don’t think that running the “drug addicts and prostitutes” out of the area is a solution. As others have alluded to, it merely displaces the problem.
    But nor am I a fan of today’s (growing) approach, which is to make life as comfortable as possible for “drug addicts and prostitutes” – granting them special rights, and basically telling them that it’s perfectly fine to keep doing what they do; that it’s up to the rest of society to adjust to and accept them as they are.

    I still feel that compassion and help for these people is the only truly humane approach.
    Naturally, not all of them will accept the help. But it should be offered, at the very least, before “accepting them as they are” (which is miserably unhappy), or chasing them out of town. It’s obviously more difficult to try to help them than it is to chase them out of town or accept them as they are… but, as fellow human beings, I believe it is our responsibility to try to help troubled individuals.
    And, if you show them compassion and offer them help consistently enough – without being ‘preachy’ – some will eventually come around and accept it.

  6. Nicky says:

    “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.”

    As if this guy thinks it isn’t “really difficult” to be a drug addict or a prostitute in the first place. It’s as if he has/had no education related to people or society. Sure looks like his approach worked, huh? Oh yes, there was less visible crime when he was on shift, but you don’t think that crime wasn’t happening away from his watchful eyes in the exact same frequency as it would normally be happening??

    The fact that you, Mr. Addison, endorse this ridiculously backwards way of policing and dealing with the victims of our society is enough to make me stop reading your blog. Don’t even get me started on the comment about our police complaints commissioner being around to scold you when you hurt someone’s feelings. That man is assigned to protect the people! I’m sorry he is such an inconvenience to you. It was a nice try on the VPD’s part to humanize you guys by endorsing this silly blog. Didn’t work on me, though.

    • saddison says:

      Sorry to hear you will no longer be following this blog. To be clear, simply discussing a topic or idea, or in this case profiling a historical figure, should not be misconstrued as an endorsement or opinion. I have not endorsed or condemned anything Whistling Smith did. I have simply tried to point out that despite myriad changes in law, social attitudes and police tactics, the problems in the Downtown Eastside have compounded. You are absolutely correct that, while his tactics were effective on the days he was working, they did little in the big picture to solve the problems. That is exactly what I was attempting to point out. If you are still reading this blog, I’d be interested in hearing if you have any solutions.

      • jtblue3recon says:

        Must be getting old,reply twice on the same blog. My uncle and three family members were on the force in my little town back when. They were like Smith with a sense of fair and impartial outlook. And right and wrong was right and wrong as my brother and I found out a few times. The changes are many,even when I was in LEO POST SKILLS LAW ENFORCEMENT in college. MN PEACE OFFICERS STATURES GUIDE kept getting larger and with no end in sight. And finding a way to be good and true,your problems aren’t going to satisify any one or no one,sad and continuing. I keep up with changes here and nationaly,didn’t get the prize of LEO,not hiring and costs too high to keep rehab/retake tests. I like your work and somone’s other blog here. NIce to meet you and Be Careful Out There.

    • Chilled says:

      Nicky, Nicky.

      Cops once were expected to be cops.

      Today some expect cops to be social workers and “deal with the victims of our society”

      Is crime going down, do you feel the streets are safer?

      Personally, I’d prefer a cop with a solid sense of right and wrong than a social worker trying to right previous wrongs.

  7. DC says:

    He definitely fits the profile of the old school, tough and hard working officer.

    I thought Wilma, the drug addict and prostitute, was very articulate and forward in her thinking about the complexities of drug addiction. At 19:40 she makes the statement that she doesn’t live she merely exists but Bernie misses the point, as we all might in that time, and thinks it’s a statement about income. To put things in perspective, just 4 years prior to the making of the video there was a man serving time in jail in Canada for the “crime” of being a homosexual (George Klippert).

    But police officers are not responsible for creating law they are there to enforce the law. That means arresting a Rosa Parks, a George Klippert or, in our time, someone smoking a joint. (which is one reason I discounted a career in law enforcement but I’m stubborn and perhaps slightly ignorant of the bigger picture in this instance ;))

    By that standard, and not the standard of societal expectations in 2011, he did a great job.

  8. RB says:

    Maybe the problems are too difficult to solve by a cop on the beat.
    These problems need to be solved higher up the food chain, whats clear is that
    what these cops see is a symptom ( at least I think its clear ).

    In his time he did what he thought was right, and today we do something different.
    Are there any successes ?

    It seems just awful, Id like to think something is getting better for all the money being spent. Maybe its not enough but it seems like a lot.

  9. Barry says:

    I agree with Nicky on some of the points that she/he raised. I’m a big fan of your blog, Steve, and one of the things I appreciate the most is your candid humanity, your willingness to tackle the difficult and emotional subject of your working life. That said, I must admit that I was somewhat taken aback with the tone of this piece. While well written, to me it certainly came across as waxing nostalgic of a time more simple and brutal, where it was acceptable to dehumanise elements of the population with terms like “whore” or “rubby-dub”. A time when having a short fuse and thinly veiled contempt for those on the fringes of society were admirable traits in an officer of the law.
    Bernie Smith’s approach of making life as difficult as possible for drug addicts, prostitutes and vagrants does horrify my 21st century sensibilities. As you mentioned above, Steve, his constantly running people off his beat may have had no positive effect on the overall crime rate, or even quality of life, of the citizens of Vancouver. The problems simply move with the offenders, and as Smith himself so plainly stated “that’s somebody else’s problem”.
    I also must object to what I see as an oversimplification in this post of the “broken windows theory”. To the best of my knowledge, the theory is based on perceived norms in a community. It is not so much about cracking down on every small crime, but about maintaining an environment that is not conducive to criminal or anti-social behaviour. In this regard, I would suggest that the aggressive approach of policing practised during Smith’s patrols is counter to BWT. The alienation and exclusion of individuals from society would thin the line that they must cross in order to do others harm. The scene in the clip where Smith is talking to some men in the cafe sums up the problem for me. Smith is happy to be feared by those he wants off his beat, while he openly threatens one for speaking out of turn. He is clearly setting up an Us Against Them mentality, which certainly cannot be encouraging behaviour change in the two men. It may make his future job more difficult, and members of the public less likely to respect or listen to him. It may even contribute to the eroding of popular perception of their community police.
    I don’t, however, agree with Nicky’s desire to paint Steve or even all police officers as inhuman or somehow monsters in blue. In this, she/he is guilty of espousing negative stereotypes, something that was the basis of her/his complaint in the first place. How can you argue that police treat people poorly, and attack the easy targets of society and then go on to do the same thing? Free discussion, such as that which this blog encourages, is a wonderful and valuable thing. Especially when it comes to the sensitive subject of policing. This does mean allowing opinions that you may not agree with.
    I would like to thank you for raising this topic, even if it irks me to read some people’s opinions on the matter, and I hope you continue to blog about topics as important as this one. I have great respect for men like Bernie Smith for his dedication to improving his corner of the world, whatever I think of his methods.

    • tapwater says:

      Excellent post, and tremendous blog – just discovered it thru the globe story and it’s incredible, both the posts and the discussion that follows.

      Thanks Steve, and thanks to all who have taken the time to participate.

  10. Chilled says:

    An important side note that in Bernie’s day cops had an inherent instinct that instinctively told them who the good guys and the bad guys were. Today, specifically the RCMP, cops treat EVERYONE like they are ‘suspect.’ This may have a lot to do with declining levels of respect the cops receive, making law enforcement that much more difficult. Something like a self fulfilling prophecy?

  11. James says:

    Sounds like Colonel Kurtz from Apocalpyse Now. And sadly, just what our society needs.

  12. Sam says:

    I really enjoyed reading this.

    It amazes me that people are so quick to condemn police officers for being honest about their opinions and feelings. I imagine it would be frustrating to witness day in and day out what Smith calls “Man’s inhumanity to man” and then be told what to think about that by people without the same depth of experience.

    The poor drug-addicted woman in the video is very eloquent at times, and yes, Smith doesn’t seem to sympathize all that much–but the film makes it clear that they’ve probably been having similar discussions for years. That would grind the niceties out of a person’s worldview, but direct rather than euphemistic expression doesn’t discount the experience behind the opinion. Why not listen rather than condemn?

    I learn a lot from this blog. Thanks for posting.

  13. Steve (not the cop) says:

    I finally watched ‘Whistling Smith’.
    The first thing that struck me was the facial hair. (I was just a young kid back then.) Every male in the film, it seems, had facial hair of some sort. Can you say sideburns?

    As for Mr. Smith… I quickly grew tired of him ordering the various ‘street people’ to “Get off my beat”. On the surface, it seems as if this is bordering on thuggery, or, to use the current popular term, ‘bullying’. But looking deeper than the mere surface, I think we can see that this is not Mr. Smith’s intention. Sure, he seems happy when the guys in the cafe tell him that he is feared… but, honestly, I don’t think he is very happy about it.

    Despite the intimidation and macho bravado, I sensed a sensitivity in Mr. Smith. A sensitivity to the plight of these troubled people. And a frustration. As if he truly wanted to help them, but did not know how.
    And his use of unfortunate terms like ‘whore’ were simply part of the common ignorance of that time period (not unlike the sideburns).

    It must be said that back in those days, there were not nearly the number of resources we have today that are designed to help ‘street people’. (Today, there are actually too many such resources, resulting in a quality of service that is diluted – but that’s another topic altogether.)
    Because helping resources were scarce back then, and because Mr. Smith himself did not know how to help these people, he simply resorted to telling them to ‘get off his beat’ (or, in one case, simply telling a young Native boy to promise not to sniff glue anymore, as if that alone would change the boy’s life for the better), hoping that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ would apply. I don’t think it did apply, however, as Mr. Smith seemed to possess a genuine caring for these people, and almost surely thought about them when he wasn’t on the job.

    On a side note… how is it that we claim to ‘learn’, and to ‘know’ more and more about things like drug abuse and its causes – through various ‘studies’, and through experience – and there are more and more ‘experts’ in these fields… yet, there is more and more drug abuse, suicide, etc. per capita every year?
    We (as a society) claim to have more and more knowledge about helping troubled people, yet there are more and more desperate, troubled, and emotionally injured people who are practicing some form of self-destruction.

  14. Jeanery says:

    I follow your blog closely, and always like when you post new stories. I read the one about Whistlin’ Smith, and was immediately reminded of a story my mum had told me. She and my father had moved to Vancouver in the summer of 73 from Toronto. My dad was working at Woodwards in men’s wear, and mum at the Bank of BC. One afternoon they met in the east end and ran across the road to go for lunch. Suddenly they hear someone yelling at them. It was a cop, who proceeded to tear a strip off of both of them “Where are you from?!” “Do they let you do that in Toronto?!” “These are my streets! I don’t want you getting blood on my streets!” With a final, “Don’t you let me see you down here EVER again!” my parents scuttled off, all their wits scared right out of them!!
    After reading your story, I sent it to my parents, and they both will take an oath that it was the exact same beat cop who scared them so many years ago!

  15. Brianne says:

    Firstly, let me say that relatively speaking I’m very impressed with this blog and was touched and inspired by many of the earlier posts – at the compassion, empathy, and understanding expressed.

    However, I think I echo a few peoples opinions when I disagree with the viewpoint of “making it hard to be a drug addict”. I don’t necessarily agree with all the principles of harm reduction. Even though some would call me extremely socially progressive, I really don’t like insite. That being said, I’m not a fan of the other side either.
    The real key to “cleaning-up” the DTES has very little to with making it hard for drug addicts, criminals, or prostitute. Improving anything cannot rely on a reactionary response. It must be preventative.

    Why do we have drug addicts, criminals, prostitutes and a homeless population? Because of social inequality, systematic discrimination, and structural violence. I would be willing to bet that many of the people living in the DTES have been living in poverty their entire lives. Because of my work, I also know that many many individuals suffer from debilitating physical and mental illnesses brought on my trauma or circumstances associated with poverty, racism, and sexism (leading to sexual abuse).

    The disadvantaged members of society do not need to be “cleaned up”. We need to CREATE a healthier society, where, as has been mentioned in this blog, people do not fall through the cracks- ever.

    We need to remain in empathy remembering that every single person in this cycle: client, social worker, police officer etc. has a history and personal story that we can never claim to make judgements on.

    As this particular post I’m commenting on reflects, there IS a history of social inequality, and until we start rewriting the way that we allow our society to behave than the negative aspects of communities like the DTES will continue to spiral.

  16. MICHAEL COX says:

    I remember Whistling Smith. I was just 21 and didn’t know which road I was going to take in life. I thought about policing. I applied, I was first in the written tests, I had an interview with an Inspector whose name I’ve lost now, but I remember him asking me, “Have you ever stolen anything?” and I thought about that a second and answered honestly, Yes, I had, plenty, shoplifting when I was a teen. “And drugs?” he asked, not seeming to care about the shoplifting answer. “A little marijuana, but only a few times,” was my honest answer. We moved on to other things. I wasn’t a big guy, and the cops then–this was 1975–were like Whistling Smith, big men, white men, tough; I don’t think there was a female cop in Vancouver at that time, but if there was, she was big, white and tough. And height: they had a height requirement then and I was 5-foot, nine-and-one-half inches, and the minimum for a cop was six feet. So the city hall doctor at that time had told me, after finding I’d come a half-inch too short to qualify, “Come back and see me first thing in the morning. You’ll be a little taller.” I did, and I was.

    I passed all that first stage. I was provisionally accepted, but I’d have to do all the physical tests, and I’d have to bulk up some: 150 pounds wet, 5’9″ and one-half inches, I wasn’t going to scare anyone’s grandma off a front porch, let alone pull apart two longshoremen in a fight. I thought about it over a weekend, or maybe it was a whole week.

    I decided, first, that I was going to be a small cop. In those days, that’s the way it was. Cops were big men. I also knew, after talking to that Inspector at my interview (and remember, this was before any kind of “reality” tv show, so all I knew about police work was what I read in the paper or saw on the news), that a cop is hardly ever welcome, that you’re going to spend every damn day looking at the butt end of life. Finally, I was looking at joining a paramilitary organization, and I’ve never been one to follow rules. That little white man that tells you to cross the street? If I look left, and I look right, and there’s nothing coming, I’m crossing the street, I’m not waiting for the little white man to tell me.

    That, finally, was what decided me: I wasn’t cut out to be a cop. So I thanked them, and went into the film industry instead. But every now and then I think about that choice, and wonder what life would have been like. I think I would have made a good cop TODAY. But I was no Whistling Smith.

  17. michelle says:

    Right now….as this Constable is posting his blog in a fashionable way…..our healthcare system is being gutted. Right now….as this Constable is posting his blog in a fashionable way……euthansasia is being spotlighted by the media as a healthcare alternative. Right now….as this Constable is posting his blog in a fashionable way…..the Federal government would like to imprison the people that this Constable earns a living from and then posts his blogs in a fashionable way.