Meet the Chief.
I learned the importance of changing people’s behavior, because the solution isn’t just locking them up, you have to deal with the issues that are affecting them.
When Vern White walks in to a room, there’s no mistaking that he’s a police officer. With his imposing build and his direct approach, Ottawa’s Chief of Police appears well suited for an episode of Law & Order.
But Chief White is anything but typical. His weapon of choice is a Blackberry and all emails from the public come straight to him, with a quick response to follow. When another person might have buckled from the challenges faced by the Ottawa Police this past year, White just worked harder to maintain an open dialogue with the community. “You have to be accountable and transparent, as difficult as it may be at the time,” he says.
As a kid growing up in Cape Breton, White fully admits he was a bit of a handful, and had the occasional run in with local law enforcement. Ironically, though, it was two off-duty police officers who set him on his path in life.
“I was bartending while going to college and these two guys would come in to shoot some pool,” remembers the Chief. “ They invited me on a ride-along and I was hooked. I couldn’t believe there was a job that had such a direct impact on people’s lives.”
Twenty-nine years later, White is still as passionate about policing as he was on that first ride-along. “I think that the most influential job you can have is as a police officer, because of the trust people have in us,” he says.
And while White initially believed that his job was about “putting people behind bars, not about reducing victimization,” a 19-year stint in Canada’s North changed his mind-set and his entire approach to police work.
“I learned the importance of changing people’s behavior, because the solution isn’t just locking them up, you have to deal with the issues that are affecting them,” he notes.
The Chief continues to be involved in initiatives that emphasize prevention, including Ottawa’s youth drug treatment centers. “ The average street addict commits four to eight crimes per day,” he observes, highlighting the incredible opportunity for crime prevention if addiction can be nipped in the bud. “ This has been the most enjoyable project I’ve ever worked on because of the tangible results,” he concludes, noting that 70 percent of the kids who interact with the program finish school.
The Chief himself has a special fondness for higher learning. Since 1997 he has completed both undergraduate and Master degrees, and will earn his Doctorate this year, all while fulfilling professorial duties at various institutions.
So do Ottawa residents have to worry that we’ll lose our Chief to academia? White’s answer seems pretty categorical. “When I decided I wanted to be a police officer, that’s all I ever wanted to be.” Catherine Clark is the host of Beyond Politics on CPAC, airing Sunday nights at 8 p.m.