British Columbia

AbbyPD chief reflects on gang wars, dark days and sending Christmas cards to gangsters

When Bob Rich took over as the Abbotsford Police Department’s chief constable in 2008, the city was well on its way to becoming the homicide capital of Canada.

Bob Rich is stepping down in October as Abbotsford’s top cop and will be replaced by Deputy Chief Michael Serr

Abbotsford Police Chief Bob Rich addresses the media after Const. John Davidson was shot and killed in 2017. (Anita Bathe/CBC)

When Bob Rich took over as the Abbotsford Police Department's chief constable in 2008, the city was well on its way to becoming the homicide capital of Canada.

The Red Scorpions and United Nations — two Fraser Valley gangs embroiled in a brutal war — were shooting at each other in strip mall parking lots, outside restaurants and on serene suburban streets.

Abbotsford had never seen such severe violence before, and residents were terrified.

With his new city in crisis, Rich put one of his favourite mantras to the test: "I don't really know who you are until I walk through hell with you."

Gradually, as gangsters killed each other off and police made several arrests, the feud died down and a sense of calm returned to Abbotsford.

That was the first time Rich walked through hell with his members.

He had no idea they would go on so many more trips.

Tragedy

The AbbyPD found itself in hell again in 2015, and, this time, it had nothing to do with gangs, drugs or property crime.

The force had just lost two members to suicide.

Rich remembers a staggering number of officers weren't at work, because they were struggling with mental health issues.

"2015 was the crucible that really changed me," he said.

"I thought to myself that we have to do this a different way. We are breaking people in half."

Const. John Davidson was killed in the line of duty in November, 2017. (Abbotsford Police Department)

Const. John Davidson

Two years later, tragedy struck the detachment again when 24-year police veteran Const. John Davidson was shot and killed in the line of duty.

Rich told his shattered members "sucking it up" would not be tolerated.

He instructed them to "take a knee" and stay away from work until they were mentally fit to return.

"Take a knee is not about taking a vacation," he said.

"It's about stopping what you're doing and facing into what's just happened and truly dealing with it in a way where you're staying healthy."

Rich has been working for the last three years with psychologists to train other police departments to promote mental health in the workplace.

He says every uniformed member of the AbbyPD will see a psychologist this year.

"I've been focusing a lot on how you teach leaders to run an organization where people are regularly going to experience trauma," he said.

Rich hasn't decided how he'll spend his retirement years but he's certain he'll have something to do with promoting mental health.

Police Chief and co-chair of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police Drug Advisory Committee Mike Serr says cutting off the flow of money is one way to combat the illegal websites. (Abbotsford Police Department)

So long, chief

Abbotsford Police Deputy Chief Michael Serr, who spent 26 years with the Vancouver Police Department before joining the AbbyPD in 2015, will take over as Rich's replacement in October.

"Mike has my complete confidence," Rich said.

"I would say Mike is operationally stronger than me and way more involved in fighting organized crime."

Serr's experience dealing with criminal organizations should serve him well in his new role.

Another drug turf war has erupted in Metro Vancouver and once again, many of the players involved are linked to Abbotsford.

"The people that are involved in this gang war are living at home and that's not acceptable," Rich said.

"One of the ways you solve this is when the community says no more and really doesn't allow members of their own community to carry on that way."

It's unclear if Serr will continue Rich's tradition of sending Christmas cards to gangsters.

In 2012, the card included a picture of Rich dressed up in a Santa suit while holding a gun.

"Maybe we poked a little bit of fun at it but, hopefully, got the serious message across," he said.

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