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Tuesday January 1, 2013

Gruff officer was a man of strict principle

The acerbic, whistling warden of Vancouver's skid road prowled his hardscrabble beat with an uncompromising fire

Special to The Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER -- Bernie Smith's salty language and tough-guy persona made him the unforgettable star of a 1975 documentary and the most famous policeman in the land.

Smith, who has died at 89, was a beat cop who patrolled the hard streets of Vancouver's skid road by foot. He was known as "Whistling Smith," which became the title of the National Film Board documentary, for his habit of trilling as he pounded the pavement along two blocks of East Hastings Street. A tall, barrel-chested man with a horseshoe mustache and rugged good looks reminiscent of the actor Sean Connery, Smith was a familiar figure to what the documentary described as Canada's largest concentration of "rubbydubs, drug addicts, muggers and prostitutes."

The sergeant's unorthodox policing methods included shoving drug addicts down the street with the order, "Don't come back ever again!"

In the film, he is shown at a booth in the Blue Eagle Café telling a diner whom he has arrested more than once, "All the crooks should be scared of me." Then, the café's proprietor shoos Smith out of the restaurant, as the filming is disrupting business - and, one presumes, whatever other disreputable business may have been conducted inside.

The documentary captured many encounters between Smith and people on the street. He was kinder to drunks than he was to drug users, for whom he had little sympathy, or patience.

"Get your ass off my beat and don't come back," he barks at one. "Get your drugs from somewhere else."

In a doorway, he spots an aboriginal youth from Williams Lake holding a cloth to his nose.

"Come here, young fellow," the sergeant orders. "What are you doing with that? That'll scramble your brains like nothing. Sniffing glue is one of the worst things you can possibly do. Look, young fellow, knock that off. Promise?"

Viewers got the impression Smith was less concerned with civil liberties than ensuring his downtown patch did not spiral out of his control.

The most riveting relationship captured on film involved a young mother and heroin addict named Wilma, who earns as much as $300 a day as a prostitute and spends that and more on drugs. At one point, the sergeant tells her, "That's my job - to put whores out of business."

The words are unkind, but Smith is a rare connection between Wilma's daily life of johns and junkies and a more stable world beyond the confines of what is now known as the Downtown Eastside.

The documentary aired on the popular television program 60 Minutes in the United States and was nominated for an Oscar in the short-subject documentary category. (The Oscar was won by the American entry The End of the Game, on African wildlife.)

The film also made Smith famous. A Canadian magazine described him as "the toughest, most honest, most foul-mouthed son of a bitch on any police force in the country."

Four years later, he left the Vancouver police department, embarking on a political career.

Bernard Merle Smith was born in Vancouver on Feb. 28, 1923. He took whatever odd jobs he could find as a boy in the Depression. For a time, he was a messenger with Eagle-Time Delivery, according to the journalist and author Eve Lazarus. The company's motto was "We circle the city." The manager was Joe Philliponi, later notorious as an owner of the Penhouse Cabaret. Smith and Philliponi maintained their friendship until the day the older man was gunned down in the nightclub during a bungled robbery in 1983.

Smith enlisted in the Army during the Second World War, serving in Normandy. He joined the Vancouver police force on his return to Canada.

In 1953, Smith was one of two traffic officers selected by Chief Constable Walter Mulligan to be the frontmen for a radio program called, Why Do They Do It? After pulling over a motorist, the officers tape-recorded the reactions - and explanations, some of which were even plausible - from drivers. The show aired on CKWX and proved popular. (The chief constable fared less well. He was exposed as being on the take and quit the department.)

When the city played host to Grey Cup football festivities in 1955, revellers lost control and began rioting through downtown streets. Smith spotted a man exiting the Hotel Vancouver with a plaque torn from a wall. When he tried to stop the rioter, he was set upon by what newspapers described as "10 young thugs." The policeman shook them off, but the thief and the attackers fled in the chaos.

Later that year, Smith received a shock when one of his former patrol partners, Constable Gordon Sinclair, a 40-year-old father of three, was shot and killed while checking out a report of two men lurking in an alley.

One success early in Smith's policing career involved the creation of a racing track in Mission, east of the city, as a destination for hot-rodders and custom-car owners. The facility offered a place for drivers to race away from poky pedestrians and slowpoke motorists on city streets.

While the colourful Smith appeared on occasion in the newspapers, it was after being moved to the street that he became famous. For all his hard-nosed policing, he maintained a soft spot for the drunks on his beat.

"Down at this end of the totem pole - class, colour, race - none of that [expletive] matters," Smith said in 1975. "A guy's got the price of a bottle, he'll share it. A lot of these old guys, they were the fellas who built this province out of the bush. It's the pushers that get me, and the junkies they trade off."

The documentary included a scene where a superior officer sitting behind a desk reads aloud a commendation to the sergeant.

"Some of your methods have been unorthodox and no doubt viewed with trepidation at times," the officer says. "However, you have obtained results legally with no embarrassment to the department. In fact, you have brought the force considerable praise."

Smith retired from the force in 1979 after 34 years of service. He took a job as a marketing manager with a security firm and the same year ran as a Social Credit candidate in the NDP bastion of Vancouver East. He finished fourth in the dual-member riding, receiving fewer than half the votes of Dave Barrett, the former NDP premier. Smith liked to joke that in spite of his 10,000 vote defeat his wife was supportive enough to demand a recount.

Smith was elected president of the B.C. Social Credit Party that year in the wake of a scandal involving electoral dirty tricks and unreported campaign funds. He held the position for four years.

Later, at age 67, he was hired as a special assistant to Socred premier Bill Vander Zalm, serving as chauffeur and bodyguard during the final 18 months of a turbulent premiership. The premier resigned in shame after having been found in conflict of interest in the sale of his roadside attraction known as Fantasy Gardens.

Over the years, Smith worked as a stock promoter, private detective, and security manager for a swanky mall. He wrote a children's book about a stinky skunk and a prickly porcupine titled Windy and Spike, published in 2001. More recently, he recorded a song he wrote in praise of the police, titled Thin Blue Line, which he recorded with The Odds and Jim Byrnes.

Smith died of cancer on Nov. 14. He leaves three daughters and a son, who was a retired police inspector; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by Mary, his wife of 64 years; a brother; and a grandchild.

To the end, the sergeant made no apologies for using expletives while walking his beat.

As he once said, "You work on the street, you use the language of the street."

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