Just seven hours after six of their number were gunned down, the remaining members of the Greater Victoria Emergency Response Team had to respond to another call.
This time the crisis involved a distraught person, clutching a baseball bat, on the roof of a downtown hotel.
This time it ended peacefully.
Still, imagine being one of those cops — drained, reeling, still trying to catch your breath — and your phone goes off, telling you it’s time to gear up and do it again.
Same goes for the others who are now back on the street after racing to Tuesday’s two-well-armed-men-in-the-bank report on Shelbourne. Officers poured in from Saanich’s patrol, traffic and community-engagement divisions, VicPD, the regional traffic and dog teams….
People keep saying that they never thought this could happen in a peaceful place like Saanich, but that’s also what people said when Stephen Reid, the bank- robber-turned-author-turned-bank-robber, opened fire on police during a wild car chase through James Bay after a Cook Street Village hold-up in 1999. That’s what they said when two officers responding to a shooting were among the four people killed by a man in Fredericton in 2018 and when a man hoping to kindle a revolution against the Canadian government shot five RCMP officers, three fatally, in Moncton, N.B., in 2014.
It’s what they said when four Mounties were murdered on a farm/chop shop/grow op near Mayerthorpe, Alta., in 2005 and when three more were shot to death by a deranged man with an army surplus .303 near Kamloops 60 years ago last week.
Policing has always been risky. Getting shot is rare, but getting hurt isn’t. In October, 39 of VicPD’s 249 officers were unable to attend calls for reasons that included physical and psychological injuries. Those who have left the job talk about the tremendous weight that disappears when they no longer go into every day worrying that, out of the blue, violence can explode.
They also talk about the rising volume, complexity and severity of calls, and a dispiriting lack of support. When Victoria city hall approved a Bastion Square mural that included the acronym ACAB — All Cops Are Bastards — the grim humour bouncing around the police station suggested that maybe they could just soften it to Some Cops Are Bastards, or SCAB.
It raises the question: Why would anyone want to be a cop?
Ray Bernoties just retired as Oak Bay police chief, capping a 30-year career that included a quarter century as a Mountie. Policing, he says, offers a lot: meaningful work, and excellent pay, benefits, pension, time off and camaraderie. But then…
“One would think that being well paid to do an important job in society would make it a no brainer but it isn’t,” Bernoties says. “It doesn’t take long for a young member to become jaded as the job can change how you see the world. Other than community policing roles such as school liaison officers, the work is almost entirely negative.
“The exposure to the justice system itself can leave a cop feeling powerless. I remember being a young rookie and thinking about the difference I would make. But then the calls kept stacking up. I was on a first-name basis with the prolific offenders. They continued to hurt people. I continued to investigate. Victims continued to be unsatisfied. The cycle continued.” Getting threatened, assaulted, spat on and otherwise abused became so common that prosecutors, perhaps jaded themselves, rarely pursued charges.
“They say ‘ignorance is bliss’. If that’s true, policing is the exact opposite,” Bernoties says. “Not only are cops aware but they’re hyper aware and struggle to turn that off even when out with their families. We’re now more educated on the mental health issues that can be caused by decades of service, or a single incident, but our awareness comes at a time when there is a ‘piling on’ to police. Canadian police have our issues but our critics don’t limit themselves to our issues. If an American police video goes viral, we can feel the public see us differently.”
Inflamed by news reports, some people paint all cops with a broad brush. “Sadly, if it’s politically expedient to do so, even some in power might jump on.”
Meanwhile, the job is getting harder to do. “The mental health issues and opioid epidemic, neither of which should be considered policing issues have had a significant impact on policing. Police investigations have also become far more complex and police accountability has increased dramatically. I’m not suggesting that any of the above is unnecessary but simply that it has changed over time.”
He now looks at policing through another lens, that of a father. “It’s a noble profession that will take a toll on a person. I have two sons and, at this stage, despite knowing lots of great people who are cops, neither seems interested in policing. While I’d be proud and supportive if they ever choose policing as a career, I’m frankly relieved that it’s not on their radar.”
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