Blue and green

The Vancouver Police Department sets its sights on a green future of fuel-efficient prisoner wagons, filtered tap water and community gardens

A Vancouver police constable has just finished his shift and is anticipating a nice dinner at home with his family.

But before he gets into his car at the Graveley Street station, he grabs a shovel and walks across the parking lot to a field.

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There he finds his lettuce has sprouted, his tomatoes have finally ripened and his potatoes are probably ready to be dug out of the ground.

Welcome to the Vancouver Police Department's community garden. Surprised?

Cops and community gardens? Huh?

Actually, the garden doesn't exist. But the idea is not that farfetched and was one of several hundred suggestions Vancouver officers put forward to the top brass as the VPD embarks on a program to go green.

A rooftop garden at the Cambie Street station and composting were other suggestions for an agency that has set ambitious goals to become more environmentally friendly.

Dubbed "code green," the program's aim is to reduce departmental waste by a whopping 70 per cent by 2015, lower energy costs and cut vehicle emissions from its fleet of 434 vehicles.

The goal, as Supt. Daryl Wiebe explained it, is simple: To improve the VPD's "environmental sustainability" and contribute to a greener community.

"Given the shift in the environment around us, at the corporate level as well as out in the community, it was a very important area that we wished to expand our activities in," Wiebe said in a recent presentation to the Vancouver Police Board.

The VPD's move falls in line with Mayor Gregor Robertson's goal to make Vancouver "the greenest city in the world" by 2020, a statement supported by a recent 162-page city staff report that sets a road map to achieve environmental nirvana.

But as critics of the mayor's green plan have stated, the cost to go green is expensive. And neither the city nor police department-whose budget is approved by city council-has crunched the numbers to give citizens a ballpark estimate on the final tab come 2020.

Robertson, who is also chairperson of the police board, sees the efforts to go green at the police department and city as eventual "win-wins" for budgets while simultaneously lessening the environmental impact on Vancouver.

"We anticipate costs at the front end to launch programs that will drive efficiency and, over time, save money," the mayor said in an interview after hearing Wiebe's presentation to the board. "The question is, 'How long is the payback period?'"

Consider the question when applied to laundry bags.

The VPD spent $10,000 earlier this year to buy 3,000 reusable laundry bags for its 1,300 officers; each officer gets two while others will be given to future officers and to replace any damaged or lost bags.

The bags are designed to double as a laundry bag and-after the uniform is laundered-used to cover the clean uniform, erasing the need for the common thin, plastic covering.

The move takes about 8,000 pounds of plastic per year out of the landfill. Although biodegradable, the plastic can take up to six months to decompose.

"Every day it's a new uniform-sometimes it's two or three, depending on what happens at work, plus the plainclothes' officers with their suits and what have you," Wiebe said, showing photographs of rows of uniforms covered in the blue bags and neatly hanging on racks. "It has been a real win for the department and certainly one that is very visible to our staff."

Some of the VPD's other green initiatives include:

- Using 100 per cent recycled paper, setting printers to doubleside printing and tracking the department's top-20 paper users through software set up on the VPD's server.

- The establishment of an in-house "code green" website, which serves as a forum for officers and information regarding car pooling and transportation options.

- Regular use of teleconferencing and videoconferencing for meetings to eliminate car travel between stations at 2120 Cambie and 3585 Graveley, which is near East First Avenue and Boundary Road.

- Promoting the use of filtered tap water to decrease the use of plastic water bottles. Distributing stainless steel bottles. No more paper coffee cups.

Noticeably absent from this list is a recycling program. That's because the VPD doesn't have a comprehensive system set up where officers can easily recycle newspapers, papers, cans or bottles.

Although some officers have taken it on themselves to provide recycling boxes around the offices, they are not easily found and many recyclables end up in the garbage.

"That's something, in terms of big hits, where we need to get to," said Wiebe, who described the absence of a program as the department's biggest frustration. "That needs to get in place."

Wiebe deferred questions to city staff on the topic, saying the city is ultimately responsible for implementing the program. The lack of a recycling program is perplexing in a city that aims to be the greenest place on Earth by 2020. It's a fact not lost on the mayor.

"It's not acceptable to lag behind on recycling," he said, recognizing the officer's frustration, but noting city staff is working to remedy the problem.

Garrick Bradshaw, the city's director of facilities, design and management, said the city's goal is to implement a formal recycling program for all city facilities that could include composting.

Bradshaw said the city has issued a request for proposals to find a company that can design a centralized recycling program for the VPD and other facilities such as the library and city hall.

He acknowledged the VPD has an "ad hoc" recycling program but knows the city can do better and implement an efficient system for all employees. "The trouble is there's been a lot of priorities going on right now and other things we're dealing with that competed for very limited resources," Bradshaw said. "We want to roll out a program that really makes it easy for staff to recycle and actually makes it hard for them not to."

I f the VPD is to make any great gains environmentally, it will be on how it manages its fleet of 434 vehicles.

In the next couple of years, the department will look to replace its popular Ford Crown Victoria cruisers, which are being discontinued by the manufacturer.

It's an opportunity for the department to acquire more fuelefficient vehicles that produce fewer emissions while still getting the job done. Gas costs for the VPD jumped from $1.4 million in 2009 to $1.6 million in 2010.

By year's end, the VPD will have replaced all nine of its aging six-litre, V-8 Ford prisoner wagons, which are worth about $125,000 each new. In their place will be three-litre, V-6 diesel-powered Mercedes Sprinter vans. They cost $117,000 each, have 45 per cent better fuel economy and produce 98,000 kilograms less greenhouse gas emissions per year.

Currently, the VPD is testing "idle-stop technology" in four of its cruisers, which shuts off an engine at a specific time when an officer is idling on a roadside, or if the vehicle is abandoned during an emergency call.

The technology, which costs about $1,400 per vehicle, allows the emergency lights, the laptop computer and other electronics to continue working. When the drain on the battery gets low, a sensor detects this and restarts the engine to charge the battery.

The VPD will soon have seven Ford Fusion hybrid cars and one pickup truck added to the fleet for testing. Will there come a day when officers are chasing bad guys in Smart cars?

Probably not, since having a car large enough to box and pin a suspect's car are crucial to the job. Also, unlike countries such as Britain where some officers use Minis, the VPD needs room for its laptop computers.

T he VPD is not alone in its drive to go green, as University of B.C. graduate student Polly Ng discovered while researching police departments' efforts to reduce their ecological footprint.

The city hired Ng earlier this year as part of its "green scholars" program to write a report on the topic after a request from the VPD.

In an email survey to gauge departments' green plans, she received feedback from 27 Canadian police departments, 29 in the United States and one in Australia.

Ng hasn't finished her report and was reluctant to provide great detail but shared some of her findings with the Courier, including:

- Some police forces, such as the Calgary Police Service, are using Smart cars and hybrid vehicles, mainly for non-operational travel. Some are using biofuels.

- Some departments have installed energy efficient equipment such as new boilers to reduce energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

- New buildings are built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards. The VPD's new location on Graveley Street is built to this standard.

- Some departments are purchasing products and services such as biodegradable cleaning products, recycled paper and "fair trade" food.

"It looks like quite a few police departments are taking small actions, usually motivated by individuals," said Ng, a graduate student in UBC's community and regional planning department. "There were only a couple of police departments that had more comprehensive strategies and had taken green initiatives a little bit further. The VPD is certainly well on its way to doing that, so they measure quite high in comparison to the people that got back to me."

Ng pointed to the Calgary Police Service and its environmental management program as one of the leaders of the green movement in Canadian policing circles.

Partow Adachi heads up the program. She's been the department's environmental adviser since the job was created in 2009; the VPD doesn't have such a position.

The Calgary Police Service has a comprehensive recycling program. In the past two years, the department recycled 62,980 kilograms of paper and cardboard.

The Calgary force holds contests with its district precincts to reduce fuel consumption. Last year, officers in one district decreased idling from an average of 3.5 hours per day in their Crown Victorias to 2.5. The department also provides stainless steel water bottles to officers, recycles batteries and has 21 Smart cars in its fleet.

The goal of the department, Adachi said, is to be certified under an internationally recognized certification process (ISO 140001) for its environmental achievements.

Police Chief Rick Hanson leads the effort. "He is the driving force behind it," she said. "He's actually very environmentally conscientious."

So conscientious that-even in a city where residents have to plug in their vehicles in frigid winters-the Calgary force is considering planting a community garden next summer outside its Westwinds headquarters in the northeast section of the city.

Which begs the question: Will the VPD ever see a day when its officers become urban vegetable farmers?

"We still need to look at that from a practical perspective of putting a garden in front of a police station," Wiebe said. "Someone has to go out there and weed it. If no one were to take ownership of it, we would be hard pressed to set a good example."

mhowell@vancourier.com

Twitter: @Howellings

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