Several Fraser Valley churches, including this one in Chilliwack, have continued to hold in-person services despite public health orders. Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr says the province should use special constables, instead of police officers, to enforce health orders at such locations, when possible. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

Several Fraser Valley churches, including this one in Chilliwack, have continued to hold in-person services despite public health orders. Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr says the province should use special constables, instead of police officers, to enforce health orders at such locations, when possible. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)

‘It’s tearing us apart’: Abbotsford police chief says other agencies should enforce health orders at churches

Police chief says special constables a better alternative to heavily armed police

Abbotsford’s police chief says the province could provide more help to enforce health orders – and potentially reduce the friction and tension that take place when that job falls to police officers.

Chief Mike Serr said he would like to see more special constables available to help in the enforcement of health orders. Such special constables are have certain powers, and can come from the ranks of agencies like the Conservation Officer Service.

They already have the powers necessary to enforce regulations, but Serr told council last week that he would like to see them employed more widely during the pandemic so that fully armed officers aren’t the ones being asked to enforce health orders at places like churches.

“This has been a tough two weeks,” he said during budget meetings last week. “I’ve been sad to see the divisiveness this has caused within our community.”

Abbotsford has about 90 churches, and Mayor Henry Braun said later in the meeting that while almost all had complied with public health orders, “two or three” hadn’t done so.

RELATED: As many as 19 Fraser Valley churches have defied a COVID-related ban on in-person worship

Serr said the health orders are needed “because we need to keep our community safe and what we do know is that large gatherings put our community in harm’s way. And we know the Fraser Health has been significantly impacted with this.”

But he said the province should make special, unarmed constables available for enforcement when there is clearly no danger.

“I wish it wasn’t the police that had to enforce the public health orders,” Serr said. “When a police officer shows up with a duty belt, a gun and a bulletproof vest, it sends a different message to a community.”

He continued: “When it comes to some of the concerns with the churches, the faith community, I believe there are other special constables that could be enforcing those types of orders. Because it really does put our officers in a very difficult place. Our men and women are members of this community. They’re part of the faith community, they’re part of the neighbourhoods and it’s tearing us apart … We care deeply and we work very hard over the years to build up our relationship with the community.”

But he reiterated that enforcement of the orders is tied to the need to protect the public’s safety.

“I have an obligation to protect our community as a whole. What we do know is these orders are not put in place to punish people; they’re put in place to support people and make sure we’re all together next Christmas.”

Braun said all churches and places of faith should be following the orders. (He said he’s not aware of any non-Christian places that had been found to be breaching the public health orders.)

“I just encourage all of them, collectively, to continue to do that,” he said. “I want to thank all our communities of faith for what they contribute to the fabric of our communities.”

RELATED: Chilliwack churches fined $18,400 for violating public health orders

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