“The city ain’t safe.”

Published in The Argus, March 28, 2011

I signed off at 6:12p.m. Read the waiver, pen to paper, sign the dotted line – a standard procedure that, little did I know, would kick off one of the most exciting nights of my life.

On Saturday, March 5th, I accompanied Constable Darren Prince on a ride-along, an opportunity offered by the Thunder Bay Police Service as part of their community policing stance.

The night began a little slowly: meeting officers around the station, touring the prison with that night’s Jailer, “Shrek.” I saw convicts locked in their cells, the breathalysers, the lockers holding all of the prisoner’s possessions, the youth cells, the women’s cells, and the showers. The low-ceilinged, white and orange rooms are barren and unwelcoming, which is the point, I guess.

The most impressive thing I saw in the building, though, was the attitude of the officers. How could people who work in that field, dealing daily with the same type of crime, be so content? You have to learn to shrug it off, says Prince. The officers who learn early on to adopt this attitude are the ones who last. Those who can’t are the ones you see breaking down early, retiring, or slipping into depression. Civilians, they say, are the biggest support for the officers in the field.

Inside the cruiser, the first thing I noticed was the laptop sitting on the console. The computer is their new form of dispatch – it holds all the information on the incoming calls, those of the other cars on duty, the area the call is coming from, and it’s level of urgency. They also hold the names of those involved, their age, sex, and description. Officers can call for a background check to see if the people involved have been convicted or charged before, and if they are on probation. This way, Prince says, it’s easier on dispatch: the officers themselves can keep track of the description. When you get a call from dispatch, you’re given a lot of information, he says, and it can be hard to remember the details.

Of course, it isn’t long before I’m picking Prince’s brain on anything and everything involved with crime in the city. He and the other officers I talked with agree that the top crimes in the city are stabbings, intoxication from substances other than alcohol (Listerine, hairspray, etc.), and suicides. General intoxication and assaults are also right up there on the list. The more I hear, the more Thunder Bay seems like a pretty depressing town, or at least, a blue-collar town that’s out of work. Maybe these go hand-in-hand.

He advises me never to walk around alone as he has seen too many bad things happen in these situations. I was informed of the three major gangs in the city, where they came from, and what they do. Apparently, if you look closely enough, they’re an obvious factor in the city’s crime. I was feeling increasingly glad that I lived just out of town.

As the ride-along gets underway, we have three or four calls, all pretty minor in nature, and only one exciting pursuit. It was short-lived and on foot, but exciting to me nonetheless. I was lucky to be assigned to an officer who liked to talk as much as I do, and who had a good sense of humour. The other team working our area was also chatty, and seemed to enjoy having a visitor.

Questions of camaraderie between officers came up, as I quickly noted that everyone had nicknames (whether they knew it or not). For the most part, Price said, the people on a shift quickly become very close, due if nothing else to the amount of time spent together. Walking through Wal-Mart or to an arrest with a Constable brought interesting looks my way; most people assumed I was the one in trouble. We considered having some fun with it, throwing me in some cuffs and staging a fight as I was dragged out of the store. This, unfortunately, did not happen.

The looks I received sitting in the front seat of the police car were another story. After all, what kind of suspect gets to ride shotgun? The feelings of VIP overwhelmed me as I was riding high in the cruiser, getting to drive fast and see how everything works.

Now, I’m sure the obvious question arises: how many coffee breaks did we take? This is a bit of a misperception: the Tim Horton’s sightings are explained by officers’ community policing service, not a penchant for donuts. Being seen in a coffee shop makes them more approachable, goes the thinking, making them more “human.” Uniforms can be intimidating; sipping on a coffee is not.

The TBPS differs from most other police departments: it is run by the City, and is more of a “service” than a department. This means that things like ride-alongs are possible because the Thunder Bay Police Service is a civilian Police Service. The municipal police services in Ontario have the oversight of civilian Police Service boards.

The attitudes of the majority of the officers I met was extraordinary; friendly and joking, always asking me questions about myself and why I wanted to come for a ride-along. I saw the lunch room, the briefing room, where the cold pizza and doughnuts are kept, and some of the offices. The building would be intimidating, were it not for the welcoming and outgoing attitudes of the people around. Mind you, what officer wouldn’t be happy if you were an outsider and not being arrested?

That night, I gained a new respect for police officers and expanded my knowledge of policing in the city. The ride-along experience made me remember my love for criminal justice and law, and made me almost consider policing as a potential career path. As for now, though, I’ll stick to writing and perhaps try and get on another ride-along or two in the future.

In 2009 the authorized sworn complement for the City and Oliver Paipoonge increased from a total of 222 to 224.

A breakdown by rank is as follows:

Rank Authorized Actual
Chief of Police 1 1
Deputy Chief 1 1
Inspector 5 5
Staff / Detective Sergeant 9 9
Sergeant / Detective 29 28
Constable 173 168
Oliver Paipoonge 6 6
TOTAL 224 218

The civilian complement remained at 93 members.

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