Inspector Colleen Yee is one of the most accomplished female members at the Vancouver Police Department. With nearly 28 years on the job, Colleen has had extensive experience and success in nearly every section within the VPD and has grown through the ranks to be the current Inspector of Training and Recruiting. She has received numerous awards and accolades over the years, and to top it all off, she helped launch the highly successful VPD Women’s Personal Safety Team in 2012 which has grown to support and empower more than 6,000 women across BC and the world. Despite this, you might be surprised to learn that a career in law enforcement didn’t even occur to her until she was in her early 20s.
Colleen grew up in Revelstoke, BC and as one of the only Chinese families in this small eastern BC town, she and her siblings experienced adversity in school. Her father would encourage his children to turn the other cheek. “You need to be the better person,” he would often say to them. Colleen would tell you that she didn’t let the intolerant remarks of others bother her personally, but she was fiercely protective of her siblings. As the oldest of four children, Colleen stood up for her two sisters and brother every opportunity that she could – going great lengths to protect them.
Starting at the age of 11, Colleen and her siblings would make the long trek from Revelstoke to visit their godfather in Vancouver for a week every summer. Each year they would spend a full day in Stanley Park. Colleen quickly became enamored with the big city.
“I vividly remember we would drive back from Stanley Park to East Vancouver along Georgia Street. I remember looking out the car window and gazing way up at the incredible high rises. I remember thinking to myself ‘Vancouver is such an amazing and beautiful city. One day this is going to be my city. One day I am going to protect this city.’ But I didn’t know what that meant. I just remember having those strong thoughts and feelings.”
Then, at the age of 13, Colleen witnessed a traumatic event in which her own father was the victim of a violent physical assault. As she stood just a few steps away, she watched helplessly as her father was attacked on the sidewalk outside their family-owned restaurant.
“I was standing there, completely appalled, not knowing what to do,” explains Colleen. “It was chaotic. He was very badly injured. I was thinking about my poor dad, how he couldn’t protect himself, how he didn’t know how to fight. So I immediately thought – well then, I have to learn. And that was it.” Shortly thereafter, Colleen enrolled in martial arts and developed a lifelong relationship with learning and honing her martial skills. Her commitment to learn and live as a guardian and protector resulted with instructor certifications in many martial systems including her 2nd degree black belt in Krav Maga (an Israeli Defense Fighting system) with two different international federations.
Despite all these experiences and her innate instinct to protect others, Colleen still had no specific desire to pursue a career in law enforcement through her teenage years. After high school she was hoping for a career in medicine, so in 1985 she moved to Vancouver to pursue her post-secondary education at UBC.
“My first year at UBC was in science so I could get into pre-med,” explains Colleen. “But I quickly realized that science and medicine wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to work with people, so I turned to sociology with the hopes of getting my teaching degree. I was set on becoming a high school social studies teacher and volleyball coach.”
But the summer before she graduated with her sociology degree changed everything for Colleen. While looking for a summer job, a friend referred her to the VPD ride-along program. It was a unique opportunity – and one that was only available for a couple years in the early 1990s – the program’s goal was to encourage women and culturally diverse people to consider policing as a career. Colleen was accepted into the program and spent that summer shadowing VPD members and getting paid for it.
“I got to spend the summer with amazing human beings from the VPD. Being exposed to what these police officers were dealing with on a daily basis ignited something inside me. It connected with something at my core. Their work revealed my sense of purpose.”
“The officers I rode with were smart, funny, compassionate, strong, and brave. I learned that it was these incredible people that formed that line, that boundary which protected regular people from the dark undercurrent that was in our society.”
“I would attend dangerous calls every day that I thought for sure would be on the news. And then I would get home and none of it was on the news. It was then that I realized that because of what these officers did, people like myself, my family, friends, and everyone I knew, were able to go on about their daily lives and be kept safe from even knowing this parallel world was happening.”
And I thought – I want to be a part of that, that’s how I could help protect my Vancouver.”
Prior to this experience, Colleen will admit she didn’t know anything about policing except childhood experiences (“an inconvenient authoritative body that would infringe upon my fun”) and that which you saw on tv.
“One never knew the sacrifices that were being made,” she explains. “It resonated with me that this was an occupation where you could help people in a way, that if you were effective, they could live their lives and not be impacted at all by crime and violence around the city.”
Despite the challenges in her way – her parents would never go for it (“it’s too dangerous”) and there was a near hiring freeze at the VPD – Colleen was determined to follow her calling and she applied to the VPD nonetheless. “The chances of me getting hired was next to none, but at least I could say I tried.”
The following year, the Vancouver Police Department hired only two new officers. One of them was Colleen.
Since 1993, the city of Vancouver has benefited greatly from Colleen’s unwavering protective nature. Like those she learned from in the early days of the ride-a-long program, she quickly became a determined police officer who was smart, funny, compassionate, strong, and brave. She made incredible sacrifices, faced danger every shift and consistently went above and beyond.
Check back next week for Part 2 of Colleen’s impressive story as a decorated Vancouver Police officer. We will take a close look at her 27 years with the VPD, her incredible accomplishments, and the impact she has made on women’s safety since she launched the VPD’s Women’s Personal Safety Team ten years ago.