Wake-up call

I received some sage advice from a senior constable a few months after I started on this job. I try to follow it every day.

“We work hard, we get our workouts in, and we go home safe.”

The senior constable’s name was Paul. He was my field trainer, a mentor to guide me through my three-month, in-service portion of the police academy. Each new recruit, after being put through the emotional and physical wringer for several weeks at the acadamy, gets sent to a patrol squad to hone his or her skills by taking calls and experiencing real-life police situations.

It’s called Block Two, and it’s one of the most stressful and overwhelming times for recruits. At least it was for me. But my field-trainer Paul had a knack for slowing things down and making everything seem manageable, if not easy.

He broke it down to a simple three-step process. Work hard, get your workout in, and go home safe.

Paul definitely worked me hard. He always got his workouts in, and every now and then he’d invite me to spot him in the gym if I’d done something particularly well. Most importantly, we went home safe.

Officer safety can be one of the hardest things to learn as a new cop. There is unknown danger in every traffic stop, every street check and every search. They can teach you all the wrist locks and arm bars in the world at the academy, but only real-life experience gives you the street smarts and spidey-sense to detect a dicey situation.

I am by no means a veteran of policing. I’m still left with the dregs of the holiday pool. Most people in this department still don’t know my name. And every now and then when I get called to work an overtime shift, I still get stuck driving the paddy wagon — the junior man’s job.

Thing is, I’m not really a rookie either. At five years of service, I more or less fall into that sophomoric stage. It’s like the pre-teen years of policing, where we’ve been to enough calls to think we’ve seen it all and can handle anything. It’s a dangerous place to be, because this is the time when we can start to get too comfortable, cocky and complacent.

I’ve heard it’s between five and seven years when a police officer becomes more likely to get hurt or hurt someone else on the road. I’m sure a big part of it is due to this complacency creep and over confidence.

Fortunately, there are still enough wily old guys in this department to set us straight when we get a little big for our boots. They come along every now and then to humble us by forgetting our names and reminding us that the keys to the wagon could be slid across the table at any time.

And if there’s nobody around to set us straight, this job has a funny way of slapping us in the face and waking us up whenever we get a little too relaxed.

It’s happened to me a few times, most recently  just last week.

I’ve just been assigned a new partner. He’s not that new on the job, but he’s new to the skids and needs to be shown around a bit. As in all partnerships, it’s my job to make sure he works hard, gets his workouts in, and goes home safe. I expect he’ll do the same for me.

We had just started Bravo shift, our version of days. Bravos start at 6:45 a.m., and most patrol guys despise the early wake-up call.

We’d just grabbed a coffee-to-go and were driving back to park the car so we could head out for a walk. I pulled into the north lane of East Hastings Street to check things out. At any given time there’s a dozen or so people in this lane, smoking rock, shooting up or just hanging out. Usually the first person to see us yells “six,” the universal warning that cops are in the area.

The warning rolls up the lane like a tsunami, and within seconds people scramble in every direction, trying to look busy and not get checked by the police.

On this morning there was nobody there to yell “six,” so we slowly skulked up the lane to see if we could find anyone camped out in the alcoves or hiding behind dumpsters.

We did the slow roll past the back of the old Smiling Buddha Cabaret, past the needle drop box and up to the back door of Insite. Nothing.

We continued up the lane, checking the alcoves and dumpsters behind the Balmoral Hotel. Still nothing.

Finally, we hit the back to the Washington Hotel and surprised a guy and girl sitting on a curb next to the needle drop box.

As the car came into view the girl fumbled around nervously. I put the car in park and yelled past my partner, through the open passenger-side window.

“Where’d you put the crack pipe, dear?”

Crack pipe without a mouthpiece

She reached into her shirt and began tugging on a long hose attached to a glass pipe. Crack users often attach plastic hoses, like the kind used for beer lines in restaurants and bars,  to the ends of their pipes. It helps them avoid burning their lips on the hot glass when they’re smoking.

I got out of the car and walked over to her as she held the pipe in her hand and looked up to me.

“What about that one in your purse?” I asked, looking down into her open bag.

“Oh yeah…forgot about that one,” she said, before eventually pulling a third pipe out of her pocket and placing it at her feet.

Street checks like this are the bread and butter of what we do on the Beat Enforcement Team. As a rule, police cannot compel someone to give up his or her name or arbitrarily detain someone if they’re not investigating an offence, be it a crime, a traffic stop or a jay-walking violation.

So as beat officers, when we see someone with a crack pipe, we almost always stop to check them out. While people rarely go to jail for mere possession, I’ve found plenty of weapons, a tonne of dope and gathered a fair bit of intel just by stopping to arrest people with crack pipes and joints.

Some people call it getting “jacked-up.” For us, it’s a way of finding out who’s who in the zoo.

After the young lady placed her crack-pipes on the ground, I turned my attention to the man who was sitting beside her. He was staring at the ground, his hands balled into loose fists. He was trying not to be noticed, but doing a bad job of it.

“What’s in your hands there, partner,” I said.

He cocked his head up with a “who-me?”  look.

“I got nothing,” he said, as he flung open his palms.

The $10 piece of crack cocaine he was hiding in the fold between thumb and index finger came flying out and landed on his backpack. He pretended not to notice as I picked it up and placed it on the hood of my car.

These two were certainly not savvy criminals, just addicts with nothing better to do but smoke rock in the lane and watch the rats scurry from dumpster to dumpster. And despite their bumbling attempts to conceal their drug use, they seemed pretty tame to me. Although they were under arrest for drug possession, I decided not to put them in handcuffs.

We check dozens of people each day while walking the beat, and while many are committing criminal offences like drug possession,  not everybody gets thrown in handcuffs. Typically, I handcuff a person if I plan on sending them to jail, if I think they’re violent or if I think they’re a risk to run on me (learned that lesson the hard way).

I had no plans on putting these two in jail for the drug offence, but I wanted to check them to find out what their stories were. As partners, we practice what’s called a contact-and-cover method when dealing with people on the street. One officer is the talker. The other is the oversight, who stands back and makes sure everything is safe.

My partner pulled out his notebook and began to talk, taking down their names and birthdays to run them through the computer. It was my job to make sure nobody had any weapons or anything else that could hurt my partner or myself.

If I’d been doing my job properly I would have seen the uncapped needle sitting within arm’s reach of the girl. But I didn’t see it. I was complacent, distracted, and a little too self-assured. Field-trainer Paul would not have been impressed.
The needle had been strategically placed there, uncapped and pointed up, likely with the intention of causing harm to someone. It was less than 10 feet from a needle drop box.

Most people think the biggest risks to officer safety are knives and guns. Reality is, I’ve never run into a bank robbery in progress, and though a lot of people carry knives down here, most of them just use them for picking scabs, scratching lotto tickets and chipping off pieces of crack cocaine.

Needles are something I deal with every day. This is a neighbourhood with 4,600 injection drug users. Of them, it’s estimated that 87 per cent have Hepatitis C, and 17 per cent have HIV.

So while it won’t do it as fast as a bullet or a stab wound, getting pricked by a dirty needle could certainly kill me or at least ruin my quality of life for a long time. An uncapped, dirty needle could be used against a police officer the same way as a pocket knife, a box cutter or a screw driver if a person was intent enough to stay out of jail.

It turned out that the young lady we were checking had a warrant for prostitution. I told her to stand up, placed her in handcuffs and told her about the warrant. It was only after she was safely in cuffs that I saw the needle sitting beside her.

She claimed she didn’t know she had a warrant and insisted she had no idea the dirty rig was sitting beside her. I tend to believe her.

Still, as my partner marched her out of the lane and off to jail I became angry with myself for failing to see what was so obvious and for putting both of us in harm’s way.

There is a tendancy in policing, and particularly in the skids, to get lulled into a routine. I’ve done a thousand street checks and never been hurt or had someone pull a dirty needle on me. What would make this street check any different?

But the truth in the Downtown Eastside is that we often deal with the most violent and most desperate people in society. Desperate people do desperate things, especially when they sense they’re about to go to jail.

Fortunately, my wake-up call came and went without serious consequences. Next time I might not be so lucky. Then again, hopefully there won’t be a next time.

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6 Responses to Wake-up call

  1. Steve says:

    The two needle photos are certainly frightening, given the potential for harm.

    I know that, by law, you have a duty to fulfill, and when you discover that there is a warrant out for someone, your job is to act on it. I simply wish that the day would come – soon – where acting on warrants for prostitution (and drug possession, for that matter) would oblige police not to arrest and jail the person, and have them go through the court process, but instead oblige the police to enroll the person in some type of helping program.

    I’m not naive enough to believe that they would all be grateful for the opportunity to get help – but if they are taken to that open door, and are taken inside the door, a few will take advantage of the opportunity. And, while it is both unrealistic and unfeasible to take everyone into a shelter or treatment facility, it would be possible to take some, and for the rest to be dealt with as outpatients, for example.
    An open door at the right time can make a huge difference in a person’s life. And while they may not be able to walk through the open door themselves, if they are taken though it – in a compassionate manner – it has the potential to be a positive thing.

    These people need compassion and help more than they need punishment, and while the threat of arrest may act as a deterrent and a motivation to clean up for a few (for very few, actually, once they reach a certain stage), arresting them and sending them to jail most often only serves to add to their problems, and thus add to their misery and depression, resulting in a greater desire to escape their misery through more drugs and alcohol, etc.

  2. DC says:

    “The $10 piece of crack cocaine he was hiding in the fold between thumb and index finger came flying out and landed on his backpack. ”

    I couldn’t help but think of Joe Niekro and the infamous emery board incident when I read that.

  3. Gary Cameron says:

    Interesting blog. I, too, had a wake-up call (while working the Granville beat many years ago) when a cuffed prisoner I had searched was in the process of being loaded into the wagon until my partner lifted his jacket and discovered a butcher knife concealed in his belt in the small of his back. Had the prisoner sat down in the wagon with the knife hidden there he probably would have carved himself a new aperture, so it would be accurate to say my partner saved his butt AND mine.

  4. Janice says:

    Thank you for the work that you do and Thank you for having compassion for those who need it! It is a very difficult job, sometimes very dirty and risky but you do it without judgement, but with integrity.Power to you!!!

  5. anon says:

    I’m a resident of the DTES. I really like your blog because you are honest and don’t sensationalise but I really don’t think it’s good public relations for VPD, nor good for rebuilding this neighbourhood (which believe it or not I love very much) by referring to it as “the skids”. Skid Row is a term I haven’t heard used commonly for a long time and your blog is really the first in years where I’ve heard anyone use the term. I think it’s taking steps backwards. Actually I’m surprised you’re even allowed to use language like that as I can imagine there being a pretty big backlash if some of the local advocacy groups happened to notice.

    Thanks for your great posts but please try to be more cognizant of the language you are using and how it reflects both on VPD and on the neighbourhood as a whole which contains not only 4600 injection drug users but also thousands of people on disability as well as pensioners who can not afford to live anywhere else. I myself had an injury when I was 27 and this neighbourhood is the only place I can afford to live without moving out into the suburbs far away from my social and medical support networks ($375/mo is the maximum allowance for shelter for those of us on disability).

  6. C.O. says:

    Complacency can be a first-responders worst enemy. This post was indeed a great wake-up call, especially when reading on a Sunday morning!