Abbotsford Police Chief Bob Rich was the stoic presence who calmed a city following the double stabbing at Abbotsford Senior Secondary in 2016 and, a year later, the tragic loss of one of his own, Const. John Davidson, in the line of duty.
He felt an immense responsibility, when speaking before the TV cameras, to say the right thing – to ensure the public that although something awful had happened, “We’ve got this, and it’s going to be OK.”
Rich would focus on that role, rather than his own grief, to get through it.
But away from the public attention, Rich would follow the advice that he imparted to his own officers – “take a knee.”
After the press conference on the stabbing, in which a 13-year-old student was killed, he walked into an office at the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) and closed the door to take some time for himself.
After Davidson’s death, Rich visited a psychologist and “had lots of conversations” with friends and loved ones about what he was going through.
“I have no issue with the fact that I’m quite willing to come into (my) office and close the door and cry in here,” he says.
Rich, who retires Sept. 30 from a 38-year policing career, including 10 years at the helm of the APD, is now continuing to pursue his passion about “changing the story around trauma.”
Rich is teaching a “trauma-informed” leadership course, along with three psychologists, to police leaders around the province.
He said he came to the realization in 2015, when 11 APD members were off work with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that police agencies were “completely missing the boat” in how to deal with the issue.
Rich said the traditional approach has been to counsel first responders to “suck it up,” but he says that reaction needs to change and people suffering from PTSD do not need to be viewed as weak.
“It’s no different than twisting an ankle. … You need to understand you’re hurt by that and get treatment. And we’re with you on that.”
Rich’s innovative approach to tackling issues has been a theme of his 10 years at the APD, although he is quick to credit the whole department with their successes. He says it’s one of the things of which he feels most proud.
“We have learned to step outside of the rigid sort of, ‘We’re going to enforce our way out of this problem,’ and I feel like members here get that we need to be willing to try anything,” he said.
“We’re always looking for creative solutions that don’t just involve putting someone in front of a judge.”
Rich says one area in which the APD has taken innovative steps has been in tackling the ongoing gang issues – first with the turf war between the UN Gang and the Red Scorpions, headed in Abbotsford by the Bacon brothers, that peaked around 2008-09, and now with the Lower Mainland gang conflict involving primarily young men of South Asian descent.
The APD approach, then and now, has included programs for at-risk youth, community forums and video and poster campaigns.
In a controversial move, Rich even posed as Santa dressed in tactical gear and carrying an assault rifle for the APD’s 2012 Christmas card, dozens of which were mailed to local gangsters, encouraging them to reach out if they were ready for a change.
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In 2016, Rich sent a bluntly worded letter to the families of young men involved in the current gang conflict. In a situation that Rich says is unique to Abbotsford, many of these gang-involved men live with their parents, and he was growing frustrated by the lack of co-operation these families had with police.
The letter warned parents that their sons were in “critical danger” because gang members were trying to kill each other.
The letter provided an email address and phone number for parents to contact. Rich said it didn’t necessarily go as he had hoped.
“That letter was probably quite unsuccessful. … It’s confrontational, but it’s what I chose to do at that point.”
Rich said he also took some criticism for having officers follow Jamie Bacon around the community at the height of the previous gang war, which resulted in several deaths in Abbotsford. Today, there are other individuals who police keep a close eye on – for example, by doing traffic stops and kicking them out of local bars and restaurants.
Rich said the APD was criticized for spending taxpayers’ money on “protecting Jamie Bacon.”
“Obviously, what I was doing actually had the corollary effect of protecting Jamie Bacon, but I was protecting the community, and it was an out-of-the-box solution that we came up with to try to keep other people from dying in a hail of bullets because there were people actively hunting him at that time.”
Bacon no longer became a problem when he was arrested in relation to the Surrey Six killings. He remains in jail at this time.
Rich said other challenges he has faced in his years with the APD have included ever-changing drug patterns – currently the opioid crisis – as well as homelessness and property crime.
Rich says the APD will be in good hands with Mike Serr as the new police chief. Serr came to the APD in 2015 as the deputy chief of operations after 26 years with the Vancouver Police Department.
“He is a creative, innovative leader already, a dynamic leader,” Rich says.
In addition to teaching, Rich’s retirement plans include spending more time with his wife of 40 years, Ruth, as well as his two grown, married sons and his three-month-old granddaughter.
He hopes that he made an impression with people during his time with the APD.
“I hope they understood how much I cared about the bad things that happened where police are needed. … I hope they understood that I was going to be fun and creative,” he says. “This is the best job in the world.”