After 25 years working in what he describes as a dream job, Donovan Fisher needed a change.
The new chief of the Nelson Police Department took over earlier this month following the retirement of his predecessor Paul Burkart. Fisher’s previous job as an RCMP superintendent was to oversee 24 detachments in Central Saskatchewan as well as large-scale investigations into matters including organized crime and border security.
Fisher enjoyed the role, but the high-level management required meant he didn’t get the chance to work with communities and front-line officers.
“I wanted to get back to that level of policing, be more hands-on with that community contact, being involved in day-to-day operations,” he says. “I kind of missed that.”
That led him to Nelson, where he takes over the oldest municipal department in the province and its 18 members.
Burkart was an internal hire when he took over in 2016, and quickly moved to establish a beat cop downtown. As someone still getting used to the department, Fisher says he won’t be making any sweeping changes for the time being (the beat cop position, he added, will stay put and possibly be expanded on).
Instead, Fisher is currently focused on getting to know his new department. Change for the sake of making change, he said, isn’t his MO. Interviews with his staff are helping him assess what needs to be worked on.
“It’s a fairly experienced department,” he says. “I found the conversations with them very engaged and very open to new ideas, but they also had some things they wanted to bring to the table and asked me to look at so I think it’s going to be really good on that front.”
Fisher’s policing philosophy doesn’t appear to deviate far from Burkart’s leadership.
Like Burkart, Fisher plans to engage with local community services such as ANKORS as well as have a voice at committees such as the Nelson Fentanyl Task Force.
Law enforcement, he said, has to work with health experts and social services to be effective.
“I see my job as trying to put the police department out of business,” says Fisher. “If we don’t need the police that’s a great thing. Unfortunately I’m not sure we will ever get there, but I think we can work in that direction.”
Recent data shows the need for that type of collaboration.
In 2020, for example, 12 per cent of calls to the department were related to mental health concerns. The ongoing toxic drug supply crisis in B.C. also led to the deaths of six people in Nelson last year, the most since 2016.
The department has followed a nationwide trend that de-emphasizes possession charges in favour of trafficking investigations. The 39 drug violation incidents it reported in 2019 where the lowest reported in 10 years.
That approach to enforcement is unlikely to change under Fisher, who said he doesn’t believe police intervention can help people with problematic substance use. He prefers police focus on disrupting illegal supply chains and investigating fentanyl sources.
Beyond safety issues, Fisher believes aspects of personal use including rehabilitation are better left to social services.
“That’s where the focus needs to be on health and mental health and addictions services and counselling. Unfortunately when it gets to that stage the police are not really having any kind of impact on people in those situations.”
Engaging with the community is also Fisher’s approach to rethinking police relations with Canadians who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour, which returned to public discourse last year during Black Lives Matter protests.
The West Kootenay People for Racial Justice asked the Nelson Police Board to acknowledge systemic racism in the justice system — which it did — and implement a process allowing residents to submit confidential complaints of discrimination by the force.
It has also asked city council to consider reconfiguring the department to shift mental health calls away from police responsibilities.
Fisher said the conversation isn’t new to him. He worked with First Nations communities earlier in his career while serving at rural detachments, where he learned to keep an open mind and do more listening than talking.
He plans to continue that approach in Nelson.
“You have to recognize the cause of the problem and admit to it,” says Fisher. “But I think it’s very important that once we’ve reached that stage, we need to start working on that healing piece, we need to start working on where can we make things better.”
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