(This is the second of two parts on Toby Hinton in an occasional Where Are They Now? series on Chemainus Secondary School graduates)
Toby Hinton has always gone above and beyond the call of duty in all walks of life. Throughout his 29 years with the Vancouver Police Department, as one of the founders of Police Judo, head instructor of Simon Fraser University Police Judo Club and the Police Judo Junior Program, and current executive director for Odd Squad Productions (1997), the actions and work ethic of the 1981 Chemainus Secondary School grad have been about making a difference.
His first days with the VPD working the Downtown Eastside brought a flashback to his time as a university student travelling through the area by bus and watching the street antics because there was always something crazy happening there. Now he found himself in the midst of it as a wagon driver, the expected starting job for a junior police officer.
“Even back then in the early 1990s the Downtown Eastside was a place of chaos and a lot of criminal activity – 24 hours a day,” noted Hinton. “A fascinating place for a young police officer starting out – especially coming from a small town.”
Hinton was first trained by older generation beat cops who did the majority of their work on drugs and drug enforcement. At that time, there was a powder coke culture along with heroin and a lot of the dealing was done out of the bars.
“I needed to learn a lot about the drug culture, the dealers, the trafficking, observations and undercover projects,” he pointed out. “At the same time, probably the biggest problem for the area at the time was still alcohol which was killing up to 80 individuals a year in the Downtown Eastside. The area was heavily populated at the time with bars. These generated a lot of work and problems like fighting, domestics, stabbings, etc. Coming to work was always something I looked forward to – the variety, the extremes and the raw brutality of the street captivated me as a young rookie.”
Hinton was grateful for his partnerships with officers Kim Rossmo, who was the first to put together the data and research showing that missing women cases were the work of a serial killer later identified as Willie Pickton, and Al Arsenault, who had a brilliantly creative mind for photography and film and became a founding member of Odd Squad along with Hinton.
“They allowed me to learn both basic street and crime policing, but also creative problem solving,” he indicated. “Policing is the fine art of dealing with human behaviour – often at its worst. Throughout my career, I have had the good fortune to have many great partnerships while doing the beat and I have picked up a lot of learning and skills from the partners I worked with. And we had a lot of fun together even though we were immersed in fairly bleak environment surrounded by some really tragic and difficult situations.”
It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that the explosion of crack had worked its way up from Central Los Angeles and the Western states that the street changed dramatically, Hinton noted. The vulgarity of the 24-hour a day crack binge started generating a lot of public disorder in the bars and people became very sick – not only from the lifestyle but also from HIV, hepatitis, TB and abscesses and infections.
Fellow officers become a kind of decompression chamber, Hinton confided, to work through the tough calls because they understand the places and emotions while working alongside.
“I was a bit of a generalist and not skilled at specific things in life, but I worked hard to be good at becoming the best beat cop I could. And I think I found my groove. Most officers don’t stay on the Downtown Eastside beat for a long time. I managed to get a run of just under 25 years on the beat – eight as a sergeant running a squad – so I was fortunate, some may not consider that fortunate.”
On the enforcement and response side it is a learned skill, Hinton explained. “With the amount of violent crime and our role in management of violent crime, by virtue of the exposure, we became good at handling this work – especially with the dynamics of a good team. We had a lot of stabbings, robberies, assaults and other violent crime, and our members would be able to handle complex situations like this well from rolling out tape to set your crime scene, managing witnesses, dealing with victims, hunting for suspects and putting cases together. Some of the major calls we would have over 30 officers attending for multiple stabbings, shootings, etc.
“I think being able to put energy into something positive like Odd Squad and start developing positive opportunities out of the darkness helped with my long term career on the street in the Downtown Eastside.”
The Odd Squad was put together by Hinton and six other beat cops working all on the Odd Side platform.
”In policing we have a four-on, four-off rotation – either odd shifting or even shifting, ” he explained. “With the exception of one of the officers we were all on Odd Side at the time. We decided that we would call ourselves the Odd Squad – the memory of the Mod Squad TV series was still there. It seemed like a good moniker. Everyone was a bit strange in their own way so Odd was apropos.
“We decided we wanted to do a drug education video for schools. It was to be a short video, but we would profile and track several of the drug addicted individuals we knew from the beat. We had to throw down $400 each as a commitment to buy a good video camera – funny to think of what was considered good at the time. We drew up a list of about 12-14 individuals that we thought would represent the issues well, and would be willing to help. This list eventually was dropped to six for a variety of reasons. One of the individuals we started filming for this ended up being one of Pickton’s victims in the Missing Women case.”
The Odd Squad went on to produce ground-breaking productions and made a huge impact with the public.
“Over time we had facilitated a lot of door-opening and ride alongs for other filmmakers and one of these was Veronica Mannix who was working on a documentary called Down Here,” noted Hinton. “We were in contact with her on the project we were working on.
“Veronica Mannix saw a story bigger than the drug education story we wanted to deliver and that was the story of the relationship with the police and the addicts in the Downtown Eastside. This concept was pitched to the National Film Board. They backed it with a budget of $250,000 which at the time was a big deal and over the next year and a half we made Through A Blue Lens. This film went on to be one of the most successful films in the NFB’s history, was broadcast in over 30 countries, viewed by millions and won a bunch of awards. It became one of Canada’s best used drug education documentaries – which was our goal in the first place and that is how Odd Squad was launched.
“Here we are almost 25 years after the start of Odd Squad, and I think the work is as relevant for youth – in fact probably more – than it ever was. We needed a bit of time to figure out how to best deliver our prevention message. It took a while. Over time we developed a four pillar approach: presentations, Peer2Peer, film, and physical literacy. Really if you want to provide a hand up to a younger generation and a bit of support during the turbulent times of life, you need to build a relationship with the youth you are trying to reach.”
Judo has also proven to be one of Hinton’s specialties to the benefit of so many, including his own daughter and son.
Police Judo started out because of a training judo at Simon Fraser University. “I remember going for a workout there and thinking that I was in pretty good shape and strong and having my ass dragged all over the mat by someone who looked like he could be my chartered accountant,” said Hinton with his trademark sense of humour. “I reflected after that practice and decided I had two courses of action: I pretend I had not been there and never come back or I deal with it and try to learn this strength-defying martial art. I chose the latter and dragged a few of my police friends into it.
“As we developed our programs, we formed the Law Enforcement Training Association as a non-profit agency overseeing Police Judo. Prior to COVID-19, we had seven clubs with 550 members. We are in the process of rebuilding back to this after COVID shutdowns. We provide training for at-risk youth, kids and youth, applicants, volunteers, police officers, civilians, cadets, sports teams and other groups. When we travel with Odd Squad – we have been to every community in the NorthWest Territories by ice road, plane or helicopter – to provide drug and gang education, we try to combine physical literacy and police judo training to work with the youth and get to know them a bit better. Plus it is always an added bonus if kids get an opportunity to throw a police officer without worry!”
All Hinton’s life experiences tie back to his time growing up in Saltair and attending school in Chemainus.
“Looking back I know that the foundation for whatever I have accomplished thus far was built on the grit and work ethic that developed out of small town Chemainus, and I never want to forget these working class roots,” he emphasized. “Recently I had my brother build me a dump truck and now I get to hang out with my kids now running a sideline firewood business for the Odd Squad charity. I no longer harbour any illusions about making money, but do truly enjoy sharing a tactile reminder of how the hard work that we do growing up can open doors later in life. And I was lucky to have that experience.”