At first glance, policing a rural community or an urban centre would seem as different as the landscapes themselves. But when you dig a little deeper, no matter the size of the community, there are many similarities. Deidre Seiden asked four RCMP detachment commanders what it's like working in their communities, from the skills needed to do the job to how their experience helps them run their detachments.
The detachment commanders
- Supt. Deanne Burleigh, Upper Fraser Valley Regional detachment (includes five communities with a population ~100,000), Chilliwack, B.C.
- Supt. Don McKenna, Grande Prairie and Beaverlodge detachment (population 95,000), Grande Prairie, Alta.
- Sgt. Brian Auger, Nelson House detachment (population ~2,800), Nelson House, Man.
- Sgt. Peter Stubbs, St. Stephen detachment (includes three communities with a population ~15,000), St. Stephen, N.B.
What skills and abilities are necessary for your police officers to have?
Brian Auger: I just finished 35 years of service. I've found over the years, and I spent more than 30 years working on First Nations because I'm a First Nation member, I find to benefit a community is to be part of the community. We all have a different style, whether it's sense of humour or whatever it may be, it really opens the door. What I've found is we do have the time to acknowledge people, shake their hands and say "hi." The people in small communities that we police, they know who we are.
Peter Stubbs: In my setting, I would agree with Brian, that it's important to become a part of the community. In addition to that, being able to positively have those interactions with the community. Recently we had a member out on patrol stop and play basketball with some kids. A lady from across the street recorded it on her cellphone. The next thing you know, I'm getting calls from across the country wanting to know who this officer is. The little things like that make a big impact.
There are four border crossings within my detachment area. One of my detachments, in order to get to it, you have to drive 45 minutes through the States nine months a year. Your only backup when you're over there may be Fisheries and Oceans Canada or CBSA [Canada Border Services Agency], so you build those relationships and, at times, they become your backup.
Deanne Burleigh: The communication and community engagement are absolutely key. In addition to that, another skillset that's key here is officer presence and officer safety. We have weapons and drugs everywhere. The members have to know how to handle the drugs on the street and be very careful when they're handling them.
The skillsets are: flexibility, the ability to move from one call to the other very quickly, and good writing skills because there's a large number of reports to Crown counsel that are submitted. And of course last year we had an unfortunate year, we had seven murders in Chilliwack, so many of our members learned crime-scene management.
What are the top priorities at your detachment?
DB: My number one priority right now is homelessness and vagrancy. We went from a homeless count of under 100 in 2014 to almost 300 in 2017. We're taking a co-ordinated approach. We're very visible. We're out on foot doing patrols multiple times a day. We co-ordinate it with our local partners including a mental health nurse. Drugs, addiction and mental health are close behind as priorities.
PS: We don't have many homeless people in St. Stephen. It's so different being in a small rural setting. Our priorities are different as well. One of our major priorities is substance abuse. There used to be months where we wouldn't execute a search warrant. We're executing two to three a month now. It may not seem significant, but for us it is.
Traffic would probably be our next biggest priority in terms of what the communities are looking for from us. In the month of April, we did a distracted driving operation. We ended up charging 32 drivers that month. To put that into perspective, the entire province with more than 500 members wrote an average of 76 per month in 2016.
BA: We have a violent community. The [domestic] violence is usually alcohol related.
We're going after the next generation — the students — and their own relationships. Have we been successful? Maybe to some degree, but we still get about a half dozen domestics per week. It's the struggle that we're dealing with and we will continue to deal with as the years go on.
Don McKenna: We deal with drug addiction as well. For the last two years we were number one in the crime severity index for cities over 50,000 for violent crime and crime. We've really knocked that down. To do so, we looked around at what other detachments were doing. At that time, we were an average of 115 police officers to a population of 100,000. The national average is 194 to 100,000 and the divisional average was 170. We had a lot of junior members and our watches were also very short.
In the fall of 2015, I presented to the city council and advised them that we are going to be number one on everything (referencing the Crime Severity Index). I think at that time we had seven homicides, and of course all the drug-related crime. I said we need a drug section and we need a crime reduction unit.
The community is very supportive of the police and we got those resources, plus another four members every year. We've used those to full advantage so crime is way, way down. I think we'll still be in the top 10, but I hope that we'll be down to number six or so on the index.
What are the benefits of urban and rural policing?
DB: The biggest benefit in urban policing is backup is right there. You're not alone. We also have the technology, equipment and the labs. We have support services from municipal police departments nearby. We have the integrated dog team, the integrated homicide team and the forensic ident team. We have all of those services that are basically at our fingertips.
PS: I've worked both and one of the benefits that I see in the rural areas is that members get to hold on to their files and investigate them all the way through to completion. You get that really good, solid investigational experience because you don't have anyone to pass it off to.
DM: Well, for urban centres you have a little bit of anonymity. In a city of 70,000 people, your days off can be unencumbered. You don't get that in a small town. I love small-town policing, but you're always going to be recognized.
On the flip side, what are the main challenges that you face?
PS: One hundred per cent.
DM: Human resources are always the most challenging issues. We have to make sure that members have enough support.
PS: I'm sure this is across the country but soft vacancies, like parental leave, off-duty sick, injury, are having a dramatic negative impact on our detachment. You run short. That's probably my biggest challenge right now.
BA: That's a problem across the country. When you're short two or three members, the pressure is on the other members to step up. And the majority of them do, but you also notice the burnout. I try to give them time off to get away. In a community like this one, if they want to travel to Winnipeg, they need a few days. Just being able to give them that extra time to get away.
It's nice to know the membership is stepping up and coming to the plate to cover shifts, albeit on double overtime, that's just the nature of the beast.
How do you support your members?
PS: I do everything I can to support my members, especially in terms of work-life balance and mental health. We've added some equipment to the gym here and we've created some standards. For example, if a member's files are up to date and there are at least two members on the road, they can go down and do their workout on shift.
As a sergeant, I push up the concerns and I have no aversion to speaking openly with upper management to the struggles we are facing. But my job is also to try and come up with solutions to present to upper management on behalf of my members.
DB: What we're doing in the lower mainland is we have a minimum number of cars on the road. So if members fall ill or we have soft vacancies, we're calling in on overtime to meet our minimums so they are feeling safe on the road and they're not being burnt out. And I do small things like award ceremonies, recognition and detachment barbecues. Those types of things seem to go a long way.
DM: One of our jobs is to show the members that have a great organization. We have a wonderful history in the RCMP, which I like to leverage. We hadn't had a mess dinner for years before I came here. So we just had a mess dinner. And last year, we had a dining in and had Gavin Crawford from This Hour Has 22 Minutes come out as our guest speaker. All of those things lets us celebrate the great traditions in the RCMP.
How has your experience shaped how you run your detachment?
PS: I take an interest in my people and their development. It creates a huge amount of buy-in. For me as I've grown in the RCMP, that was something I learned from my good bosses. They took an interest in me and that made me work harder. I do my best to take an interest in all my members and their development and where they want to go.
DB: It's not just knowing the members, but knowing what's going on with the members. I've always said I could spend all day long going around and talking to members and not get any of my work done. But in the long run, I actually gain more and do get work done by doing that. So I make it a point when I have members off sick to get in touch with them. If I have members struggling with their development, I meet with them personally. I sit on all the cadet panels personally, support as much training as I can and get the equipment they ask for.
BA: I want to engage my members. I have had young cadets come here. They get bored [at home]. They go home and wait for their next shift. I tell them to take the skidoo or the quad out. I tell them not to injure themselves, but to enjoy it and learn. One day they might have to run down that trail. I will continue to do that if I get another cadet and if they're bored. It puts the liability on me, but I don't expect them to harm themselves. They will go out there and learn what they need to.
DM: I would agree with Brian about risk and risk aversion. For things like the snowmobile, that is a real, calculated risk that you can take; members really do appreciate that. Every time they answer a call, they're taking risks. For us as administrators, we just have to manage the risk.
I've also learned we can never admonish people publicly. When somebody makes a mistake, it's a learning opportunity. Sometimes there has to be some kind of discipline, but we don't have to beat people up or hold it over their head. If somebody makes a mistake, if possible, let them fix it and then talk to them about it. In my 28 years, what have I learned the most from? I've learned the most from screwing up, not from doing it right the first time.