It’s Vancouver’s answer to ‘The Wire’

A new documentary series turns the lens on the cops policing the Downtown Eastside
CP Images/ Illustration by Lauren Cattermole

Three times a week, the country’s only police judo club meets at a no-frills police gym above the Vancouver Police Department’s Main Street branch at the heart of the city’s troubled Downtown Eastside. At one recent gathering, police sergeant and judo black belt Toby Hinton muscled his much larger opponent onto his back. The 22-year police veteran and head of the Downtown Eastside Beat Enforcement Team 5 (BET)—all bulging vein and muscle—pinned the helpless, writhing man to the mat. For club members, foot sweeps and throws have become instinctive. Good training in the sport of mental smarts and physical skill can circumvent the need to pull out a baton or a gun. (“If the Mounties had this, [Robert] Dziekanski would never have happened,” head judo coach Brian Shipper says of the infamous taser-related death of the Polish immigrant.)

Hinton, the boyish 47-year-old star of the mats, is also a star of The Beat, a 10-part documentary series that launched on Citytv this week; it follows six members of the squad under his command. The show is a behind-the-scenes look at policing Vancouver’s notorious 12-block neighbourhood: a “violence-filled waste of human potential,” according to Sgt. Mark Steinkampf, another black belt and BET top cop. Unlike ride-along reality shows like Cops or To Serve and Protect—“arrest porn,”

according to The Beat’s director, Todd Serotiuk—the Galafilm Productions “docudrama” follows more closely in the tradition of the famed U.S. police drama The Wire, presenting a layered narrative and a close-up look at socio-political themes and debates—and the stings, arrests and sometimes difficult home lives of city police (down to the lesbian cop trying to have a child with her partner).

The series opens with police academy trainee Mariya Zhalovaga and Det. Const. Shane Aitkin, charged with training her. Aitkin, a veteran of the first Gulf War, is a class-A hard-ass, prone to smacking his lips with the intensity of an NHL coach in a playoff game seven. “I need you to take it up a notch—to focus, concentrate. I need you to start taking some control,” he shouts at his wide-eyed charge. When it comes to earning police chops, there’s no better training than the chaotic crime scenes, hostile witnesses, and victims of the Downtown Eastside. “Entrez-vous,” Aitkin beckons, as Zhalovaga enters a tenement to investigate her first death, hours into the job.

This is where The Beat differs from the National Film Board’s Through a Blue Lens, granddaddy of Canada’s reality-cop genre, and surely the most famous film to emerge from the neighbourhood. The conceit is one and the same: a documentary about the beat squad, and the misery of addiction. So is the police impulse: to document that misery and take it to the world outside. Both Steinkampf and Hinton featured in Blue Lens and helped found the police-run production house the Odd Squad, which produced it (they both still volunteer there). But absent here, at least in early shows, is the compassionate view of the neighbourhood and its endlessly victimized residents. The Beat is a lot more bang-bang. Maybe it’s the different circumstances: Blue Lens was filmed at a frightening time, when the neighbourhood’s 3,500 addicts suffered one overdose death a day. Maybe, 10 years on, Steinkampf and Hinton have grown a bit more hardened. Maybe it’s just that this time the cameras are on the cops.

The tough police life is front and centre: the difficulty of readjusting after a four-day shift—which knocks you right out of sync with the rest of society, Hinton told Maclean’s. Deprogramming takes a full day, adds the small-town boy from Vancouver Island. You’re not the “nicest person to be around.” Some, like Steinkampf, have wives who understand the “dragging my ass out of bed at two in the afternoon, walking around in a catatonic state.” Others can’t hack it and leave the squad, as one does by the end of The Beat.

No one type is attracted to the BET, but a few years in, they all grow to look alike, says Hinton. “You start becoming an adrenalin junkie. You like the accelerated pace, the busy, challenging, hectic calls, the action.” You start to listen, he adds, “for the warble of the serious call.”