VPD’s “Public Safety Unit” Riot Cops

Notes from the VPD’s 2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review

by Zig Zag

If you’ve attended your fair share of protests in Vancouver, then you’ve probably encountered the riot cops. Most of the time, they appear in baseball caps with shiny, lime green, safety vests. Sometimes they sport helmets, shields, and three-foot long wooden batons.

Established in 1993 as the Crowd Control Unit (CCU), the riot squad has evolved into a professional, award-winning model of ‘public order’, at least according to the Vancouver Police Department’s 2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, released on Sept. 6, 2011. The report focuses largely on the riot but contains a surprisingly large amount of information on the VPD’s riot squad, now called the “Public Safety Unit” (PSU).

According to the report, the VPD’s riot squad is modelled after the British. Commanders of the PSU must attend a training course held in the UK (the West Midlands Police Public Order School), where they also accompany British riot cops as observers. The organization of the PSU is also British, with Gold, Silver, and Bronze levels of command (Gold is a strategic level for big events, such as the 2010 Olympics, and is rarely activated. Silver is the tactical level, while Bronze are the street level commanders who direct operations). The “meet-and-greet” strategy the VPD attempted to use during the Canuck’s playoffs is also accredited to the British.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) is a national organization of police executives (including VPD). In 2011 it recognized the VPD as using “best practises” for its handling of the 2010 Winter Olympics crowds. The standards for such recognition are revealing of the overall strategy the VPD uses in crowd control, and in particular its application to policing political events:

“According to PERF, generally speaking, there are four things an agency should engage in to be considered “best practices” for crowd management. First, the agency would gather intelligence before and during an event to determine, among other things, any groups who might be interested in causing trouble and what their intentions might be as well as their potential tactics. Second, the agency should seek to facilitate the lawful and legitimate aims of the group. Third, there should be communication with the crowd, potentially through a respected crowd member. Fourth, there should be recognition and understanding that the crowd may not be a homogeneous group and officers should not treat all members of the group as if they are hostile. Instead officers should involve those who are not hostile, to assist them in dealing with the hostile individuals.”

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 27, Vancouver Police Department, Sept. 6, 2011)

The review also notes a special dread among the riot cops for Molotov Cocktails (gasoline filled bottles with a rag attached that is lit on fire and thrown). In preparation for the Olympics, all VPD officers received a special training course on Molotovs, and the Tactical Support Unit of the PSU, who are armed with the ARWEN (anti-riot weapon), are also rationalized by the threat of Molotovs and other hand-thrown incendiary devices. The review mentions two incidents during the Canuck’s Riot in which rioters were seen throwing a Molotov and an unidentified incendiary device.

The following notes include sections on the history, development, strategy, uniforms, and organization of the Public Safety Unit and the Public Order Group (the PSU plus dog squads, bicycle cops, horse mounted cops, etc). There are also brief summaries of riot squads in other Canadian cities (Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Calgary).

History of CCU/PSU

“The Crowd Control Unit (CCU) was formed in 1993. With the Clinton/Yeltsin summit being held in Vancouver, the VPD decided that a more formalized unit was required. The newly revitalized CCU trained with the RCMP and utilized the same methods and tactics which were considered the best available at the time. However, the training given and the equipment purchased were very basic compared to that available today. Only 40 officers were assigned to the CCU at the time, though there was equipment for up to 55 people. There was no official training manual at this time as the unit was still in its infancy. However, at the time of the 1994 Stanley Cup Riot, the VPD CCU was utilizing the best available training and equipment and was effective for the tasks they were asked to accomplish at that time.

“Nonetheless, the recommendations from the 1994 Riot provided an impetus for changes to the CCU. Training, equipment, and planning issues were identified and over the next several years, much work was done to improve these areas. New equipment was purchased in 1995 and the CCU continued to evolve with small adjustments being made continuously. By 1999, the first draft of a training manual had been developed. The second, and approved, version of the CCU manual was released on August 15, 2004.

“Though the CCU had evolved since 1993, particularly in terms of the size, structure, training and equipment used, the CCU operated using the same general principles as they had in 1994. The tactics used were based on the Royal Hong Kong Police and the RCMP methodologies and were meant to address large-scale public events only.

“By 2004, the Unit had 120 members and was able to deploy as a group or in smaller independent units with a Tactical Support Unit. This meant the CCU was more versatile than in 1994 but the tactics being used were not appropriate or effective for the types of events to which the CCU was now being deployed. The tactics were really meant for use with large-scale public order issues, with relatively static crowds, and were dominated by the use of lines and gas as methods of control. Essentially, the CCU was effective at regaining control over a crowd that was already out of control but did not have the tactics or the equipment to manage more dynamic situations nor to prevent a large crowd from becoming out of control.

From Crowd Control to Crowd Management

“Beginning in 2006, the VPD began a major shift in its approach to crowd management. The training and tactics being used were not appropriate for the types of events the VPD was being deployed to and change was necessary if the unit was to meet its mandate of public safety. The hiring of several officers from the United Kingdom (UK) who had extensive crowd management experience helped to expedite the change which culminated with the creation of a full time coordinator for the CCU (approved in January of 2007).

“Following the guidelines of the UK’s method of dealing with crowds, one of the key strategies in the new model of crowd management was that of the “meet and greet.” Familiar now to many Vancouverites and visitors to the city, the “meet and greet” approach is a simple concept: smile, engage the community, be positive and welcoming, have early interaction with crowds and line-ups, and interact with the public with these principles in mind. Previous to the implementation of this strategy, officers tended to observe from the sidelines and only interact with the crowd to deal with an issue. This meant that officers were purely reactive to the situations that came up in the crowd rather than being highly visible deterrents to trouble. The “meet and greet” is an all-or-nothing strategy. One officer saying hello to people and another staying grim faced and gruff undermines the ideals of the model. This is not to say that strict enforcement does not have a place; it is the way enforcement is implemented that has such a dramatic affect. Importantly, this shift in approach to crowd management meant that the police were now able to proactively manage a situation instead of waiting until the crowd became unlawful and destructive before intervening.

“At the same time that this shift was beginning in the VPD, there was concern about the deteriorating atmosphere in the Granville Entertainment District (GED). Alcohol fuelled violence was a significant problem that was only getting worse. It was in this environment that the VPD first brought in elements of the current model of crowd management. Implementation of the “meet and greet” strategy, and other interventions such as increased officer deployment and street closures, to manage the large, often intoxicated crowds, led to significant decreases in the level of violence. After the success of these strategies in the GED, they were also brought into other large events like the annual Celebration of Light.

“After using elements of it for some time, in March 2007 the VPD officially adopted the National Model used in the UK for crowd management. With its history of sports related riots, urban warfare, and terrorist attacks, the UK is considered a leader in public order and crowd management. The officers from the UK hired by the VPD contributed to the transition to the UK model and ensured an accurate interpretation and application of the training materials. The adoption of this model meant a restructuring of the unit, new equipment, and new tactics (like the “meet and greet”), some of which were already in use by this time. Because of this previous integration, the biggest shift remaining to be made was in relation to the command structure used. However, the tactics and model can be used without the command structure, as evidenced by the success in the GED for smaller deployments. The UK model uses a three-tiered command structure referred to as Gold, Silver and Bronze (Figure 1). “Developed in the 1980s during a review process that began as a response to the Brixton riots, these tiers equate to the strategic, tactical, and operational levels of control.6 Gold Command is meant to act as the strategic decision maker and is usually brought in for situations where there may be a significant impact on resources, the community, or the organization. It is usually made up of high-ranking officials (e.g., police superintendents or deputy chiefs), who operate at a distance from the event. Gold Command could be one individual or many depending on the event. It may not be activated for small events where it is unnecessary. Gold Command, regardless of size, sets the style of policing and the overarching strategy to be used during the event. Silver Command is the tactical level and has overall responsibility for the event. In general, an inspector fills this role and acts as the conduit between the front line operational staff and Gold Command and ensures that the operational staff are well supported and coordinated to carry out the strategies set by Gold. Silver Command is usually in contact with any other Silver Commands that may be set up by other jurisdictions. They also provide Gold with information and intelligence about what is happening on the ground. Finally, the Bronze level of command is in charge of carrying out Silver’s tactical plans. They make up the operational front line who undertakes the work at the scene. They are usually deployed based on a functional or geographical area of responsibility and have a team assigned to assist them in their task.

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, pp. 26-23, Vancouver Police Department, Sept. 6, 2011)

Public Safety Unit (PSU) and Public Order Group (POG)

“The PSU, formerly known as the CCU, is one part of the Emergency & Operational Planning Section (EOPS, see Figure 2). EOPS is made up of three units: the Emergency Planning Unit, which is responsible for planning for major disasters and other civil emergencies; the Operational Planning Unit, which is responsible for planning for major public events (such as concerts, sporting events, VIP visits); and the PSU, which is responsible for crowd management. The PSU and the Operational Planning Unit work closely together during the planning for an event, including any threat assessments, as well as the implementation of that plan.

“In late 2009, the cross-organizational resources needed for crowd management were recognized and the term Public Order Group (POG) was coined. This group is made up of the Mounted Squad, the PSU, the Dog Squad, a Bicycle Team, a Search and Canvass Team, a Device Extraction Team and Negotiators. Within the PSU, there is also a Tactical Support Unit, which provides lethal and less-lethal support to unarmed PSU members. They are the only armed members of PSU and are responsible for chemical munitions, beanbag shotguns, 40mm launchers for less-lethal support as well as VPD-issued pistols and Colt C8A2 rifles for lethal support. Other than the PSU, the other squads that make up the POG have other policing duties within the VPD and are not solely utilized for public order issues.”

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, pp. 32-33)

“Horses and Dogs as well as Bicycle, Emergency Response, and Traffic members are regularly incorporated into Public Safety Unit training.

“Primary strategy is to prevent and deter disorder through visibility and engagement. The VPD employs the ‘meet and greet’ using all uniformed officers, including Commanders and Public Order Unit (POU) members in regular uniform, monitoring and interacting with the crowd. However, if the situation requires a rapid response, PSU members fully gear-up in Sprinter vans that are stationed nearby, and then change tactics to manage the situation.

(“Table 2: Comparison between VPD and OPP Public Order Models and Training,” 2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 28)

PSU Organization

When fully staffed, the 137 members of the PSU can be broken down as follows (Bicycle units, Mounted units, and Dog units are not included in its authorized strength):

  • 2 PSU Commanders (i.e., front line commanders, usually senior officers not members of the PSU)

o Responsible for running the event from the ground with either a geographical or functional role.

  • 1 Public Order and Crowd Control Coordinator (Sergeant)

o Responsible for managing training standards, and equipment as well as coordinating other specialty areas. This is the only full-time position (sergeant rank) within the PSU.

  • 2 Logistics Officers

o Responsible for assisting the Coordinator and Commanders to ensure the PSU has functioning equipment and preparing transportation for pre-planned events to deploy members.

  • 4 Section Leaders

o Responsible for managing squads on the ground under the direction of the PSU Commanders. Each Leader has three squads to manage.

  • 12 Squad Sergeants

o Responsible for leading teams of seven constables to carry out the Operational Plan and carry out the decisions of the POC under the leadership of the Section Leaders.

  • 84 Unit Constables

o Responsible for carrying out the Operational Plan and carrying out the decisions of the POC under the leadership of the Squad Sergeants.

  • 24 Tactical Members

o Responsible for providing less-lethal and lethal force when necessary to support the actions of the PSU and for public safety.

  • 4 Evidence Gathering Team Members

o Responsible for collecting video of police actions and the crowd for evidentiary purposes.

  • 4 Medics

o Responsible for providing emergency medical care as required.

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 34)

PSU Training

“There is a minimum training standard that all officers who are a part of the PSU must complete. New members to the PSU are required to do a one day “pre-course” that gives them the background terminology, a crowd psychology lecture, their equipment, and basic tactics. Upon completion of the “pre-course”, they join the rest of the PSU members for three days of practical tactical training.

“There is mandatory training for all PSU officers each year. Three-day sessions are run two times a year and members are required to attend at least one of the sessions each year, though they may attend both sessions. Training focuses on formations, shield tactics, deployment from vehicles, enclosed space tactics, dealing with emotionally disturbed persons, response to Molotov cocktails, and working with the specialty units (e.g., horses, dogs). The training focuses on tactics that can be used in a variety of situations, including those that are more dynamic in nature (as opposed to a static crowd in one location). Specialty teams receive additional training relevant to their area in addition to the basic mandatory training provided to all PSU members.”

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 34)

Some Specialty Units

These units are not part of the Public Safety Unit but form parts of the Public Order Group.

Bicycle Squad

“Prior to the 2010 Olympics, the Bicycle Squad was expanded and embedded into the Public Order Group and thus received the PSU basic training as well as training specific to bikes in a crowd. Referred to as a “quick response team,” the bikes are particularly useful for gathering intelligence as they can move quickly through the crowd over large areas, and can assist in establishing police lines.

All bicycle officers receive a bicycle specific training course, which includes lectures on crowd psychology and crowd management. By embedding the squad within the Public Order Group, this ensured that the officers were able to work together effectively.”

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 37)

Dog Squad

“The VPD dogs are certified annually under the BC Municipal Police Dog Training Standards and receive additional public order dog tactics training. The handlers receive the same basic training as all other PSU members. In total, the VPD has six trained dogs and handlers, as well as a dog commander without a dog.”

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 37)

Device Extraction Team

“Some individuals, particularly in a protest situation, will use various methods to link themselves together or to cause disruption by chaining or attaching themselves to existing street furniture or creating their own direct action devices such as sleeping dragons or tripods. Generally their goals are to disrupt an event, prolong a protest, attract media attention or frustrate police tactics. The Device Extraction Team specializes in the safe extraction of protestors from such devices using specialized cutting and safety equipment.”

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 37)

Training of Commanders

“The POC has the responsibility of managing an event from within the Departmental Operations Centre (DOC) or Silver Command. Except for very large events, this is the highest level of command used. Those filling this role usually hold the rank of Inspector. One staff sergeant also has the training and capability to fill the role of POC. Potential POCs are required to enter an understudy program within the PSU and have to complete the basic training all PSU members receive at the VPD. After this, they are required to attend an Initial Public Order Commanders (IPOC) course in the UK that is taught by the West Midlands Police Public Order School, a NPIA-approved facility. Part of this training includes assuming the command of a riot or large crowd in a virtual simulator, a “ride-along” with the UK police public order group to witness the training in action, and commanding a section in the training hangar in a simulated scenario.”

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 35)

Upon completion of this course the officer is then given command of a section of a crowd control situation three times, under the watch of a qualified commander. After satisfactorily completing these tasks, they are given command in ever-greater crowd control situations.

PSU Uniform Levels for Deployment

“The equipment used by the VPD’s PSU is quite different from that used in the past. With the change in crowd management models, the equipment necessarily changed as well. Previous equipment was bulky and meant for marching and standing. It was not meant for quick movements nor did it have various levels to accommodate the nature of the crowd.

“There are four levels of dress for PSU officers outside of their regular duty uniforms (see Table 4). Because the gear worn by police can have a significant impact on crowd dynamics, it is important that the uniform used is appropriate to the threat in order to have the most positive impact on the crowd. Also, it is important that the PSU officers are able to deploy quickly and get into different levels of dress when required on short notice. To manage this need, the VPD has four Sprinter vans (large high-roof vans), each of which can carry two sets of shields and personal protection equipment for a PSU team (seven officers plus one supervisor), as well as the police officers in the team.

Table 4: (table removed in text version)

Level 1. Black PSU issue uniform with issue ball cap, fluorescent vest, and patrol duty belt. Patrol boots are acceptable and eye protection is optional.

Level 2. Black PSU issue uniform, fluorescent vest, all protective gear worn with Nomex coveralls over top. Protective boots are to be worn. A PSU leather belt with baton ring, respirator, handcuff pouch, Oleoresin Capsicum (OC) spray, plus other optional equipment. No firearms or conductive energy weapons are to be worn by front line squad officers. Tactical Support officers are deployed with each section. Eye protection is mandatory.

Level 3. Level 2 dress with public order helmet and shield.

Level 4. Level 3 dress with an outer shell. A defensive long shield may be preferred depending on the situation.

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 38)

Use of ARWEN

“The RCMP Tactical Troop, for example, encountered a person attempting to light a Molotov cocktail but members felt they had no capacity to neutralize that person because no member of the R.C.M.P. Tactical Troop was equipped with an ARWEN 37 or similar weapon. The attempt turned out to be unsuccessful, but not through any action by police. The importance of respecting agitators as “skilled alchemists” is emphasized by riot study literature; there must be a means to remove those alchemists from a crowd in some circumstances.”

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 22, Vancouver Police Department, Sept. 6, 2011)

Stockpiling Riot Gear

In its list of recommendations, the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review advised that additional gear be stockpiled for issue to officers not members of the Public Safety Unit, in “appropriate locations,” and that this include access to flex cuffs and pepper spray:

“2. THAT the VPD review, identify and address equipment requirements for officers in relation to crowd management. EOPS, in conjunction with Police Stores, shall be responsible for the implementation of this recommendation. The VPD currently has a stockpile of approximately 150 kit bags containing protective equipment and helmets for non-PSU officers. It was noted during the review that this inventory needs to be increased. Plans are currently underway to enhance the protective equipment in the existing bags and increase the total inventory to 300 bags. These bags would be readily available to non-PSU officers in the case of a public order emergency. The estimated cost for this equipment is approximately $160,000.

“The Department also needs to stage PSU equipment in appropriate locations to allow PSU officers quicker access to tactical gear and supplies during major events.

“In addition, a readily accessible inventory of expendable supplies (e.g., ‘flex cuffs’, Oleoresin Capsicum spray, water, etc.) will be made available to front-line officers during major events. “

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 96)

Summaries of Police Public Order Organization & Training in Canada

Table 3, the “Public Order (PO) Models and Training in Other Jurisdictions” in the 2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review provides a brief summary of police crowd control methods and organization used in various Canadian (and US) cities, and compares them to those used by the VPD.

Note that when a public order unit is designated as “part-time” it means they are comprised of regular patrol officers who have been provided with specialized training and equipment. They may be called in for public order duty during a spontaneous incident or be scheduled to deploy during a special event.

The “meet and greet” strategy refers to friendly public relations by officers in the street, usually mingling with the crowd for observation and faster responses to minor incidents.

OPP refers to the Ontario Provincial Police, who maintain their own training and curriculum on public order, based on a similar model as the Vancouver police (which is the UK model).


  • Part-time POU consisting of 137 officers.
  • Full-time Coordinator assigned to the Unit (currently vacant).
  • PO officers receive tactical training once in addition to a yearly 3 day mandatory PO course.
  • 300 additional VPD patrol officers have received basic PO awareness training.
  • Commander level training is conducted overseas by UK instructors at West Midlands Police Public Order School.
  • PO command and control model (Gold, Silver, Bronze), and crowd dispersal tactics are based directly on the UK model (Home Office approved).

The model is based on the fluidity of movement of small squads, the ability to cascade leadership to the lower ranks, and the ability to implement low-level street tactics for crowd management.

  • Horses and Dogs as well as Bicycle, Emergence Response, and Traffic officers are directly incorporated into the model.
  • The VPD employs the meet and greet strategy using all uniformed officers, including Commanders and POU officers in regular uniform, monitoring and interacting with the crowd.
  • If the situation requires a rapid response, POU officers fully gear-up in Sprinter vans that are stationed nearby and escalate their tactics as required. [Each Sprinter carries 7 PSU members plus one squad leader].
  • Deployment of POU and the tactics used based upon the overall strategies determined by the Gold Commanders using the least amount of force necessary.

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, pp. 31-32)

Calgary Police Service (CPS)

  • 164 part-time Public Order officers.
  • Full time PO Coordinator and Logistics Coordinator.
  • PO officer supplemented by plain clothes Covert Observation and Extraction Teams totalling 100 trained part-time officers. All PO officers receive 80 hours of function specific training, as well as 40 hours of theoretical training and 20 hours of urban search
  • Annually, all PO officers receive 40 hours of updated PO training, and also qualify with their firearm while in full protective kit.
  • PO Commanders have received the Ontario Provincial Command and Control Course, and they participate in joint forces scenario based training yearly.
  • All CPS officers have received Level 1 PO training. Additional one-time 20 hour PO course being planned for all Patrol officers.
  • Their model is based on the OPP/TPS command and control model and tactics.
  • Bicycle officers are directly incorporated into their model.
  • Dogs are used to protect PO equipment.
  • They use engaged officer presence through the ‘meet and greet strategy’.
  • Depending on threat assessment levels, PO officers are deployed in the various levels of dress (1, 2 or 3; see Table 4). PO officers are also always used as call-outs (in standard uniforms) for all large concerts and Canadian Football League and National Hockey League games.

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, pp. 29-30)


  • Full-time Riot Squad comprising roughly 200 officers.
  • Each Riot Squad officer goes through a basic three-week training program initially, and then has 10 days of training annually.
  • Montreal Police tried a ‘meet and greet’ approach in the past with varying results.
  • Their objective typically is to “occupy the area” but they adjust their strategy depending on the type of crowd and the risk level. Depending on the threat level, some officers are deployed in full riot gear (“Iron Man suit”) while others are deployed with helmets (with visor up) and other riot equipment.

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 31)


  • Part-time POU consisting of 285 officers.
  • Full-time training, administrative & planning capability is permanently assigned to the POU.
  • POU officers complete a two-week basic course and a minimum of 32 hours of training per year.
  • All 5,677 TPS officers receive basic awareness training.
  • TPS regularly delivers a Provincial PO Commander’s Course with the OPP.
  • PO command (Gold-Silver-Bronze) and crowd control tactics based on the UK model.
  • Horses as well as bicycle, Emergency Response and Traffic officers are incorporated into the deployment model.
  • TPS continues to embrace and further enhance its “meet and greet” strategies.
  • TPS provides a highly visible uniform presence comprised of Community Response Unit officers on foot, on bicycle and in marked scout cars with its POU sections initially acting in support, as required, some equipped with vans in order to provide a mobile response capability.

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 31)


  • 70 part-time Crowd Management Unit (CMU) officers.
  • All CMU officers receive public order training twice per year.
  • They do not engage in specific Commander-level PO training.
  • Crowd control tactics were adopted from Toronto in 1995. WPS is in the process of updating their PO command and training model, possibly based on the VPD’s model.
  • Bicycle officers have not yet been incorporated, but they will be going forward.
  • The WPS also has a lethal force tactics option, but has not practised with this option in years.
  • CMU officers are deployed for all large pre-planned events.
  • Given their crowd management training, officers (in “Soft Tac”) are also always used as call-outs (in standard uniforms) for all large concerts, Canadian Football League games, and now National Hockey League games. They have developed their own in-house formations and tactics for maintaining order during these events.
  • Some CMU officers are on stand-by in “hard tac” gear for large pre-planned events and are brought in if required.

(2011 Stanley Cup Riot Review, p. 32)

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2 Responses to VPD’s “Public Safety Unit” Riot Cops

  1. mattymays says:

    hi copwatchvancouver.wordpress.com-ers xmas greetings to you all – matty

  2. Mary Boufford says:

    Some truly quality posts on this website , saved to bookmarks .

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