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Patchwork policing or super-force? BC Mounties debate more oil without overhaul

VANCOUVER - Just after midnight inside the RCMP detachment in Richmond, B.C., Sgt. Tess Nordlund sits calmly at her desk listening to a chattering digital police radio that links thousands of police officers across the region.
RCMP Insp. Davis Wendell, Regional Duty Officer for the Lower Mainland District, drives to the University of British Columbia RCMP detachment to meet with officers in Vancouver, B.C., during the early morning hours of Sunday March 3, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER - Just after midnight inside the RCMP detachment in Richmond, B.C., Sgt. Tess Nordlund sits calmly at her desk listening to a chattering digital police radio that links thousands of police officers across the region.

She's also sending and receiving text messages while calling out directives to several cruisers pursuing a group of suspected boat thieves.

Over the next hour, a comic book-like plot unfolds: three people are detained by Mounties trailing them from the city next-door. But the heist evolves as two other suspects speed off with the vessel in tow, only to crash into a power pole that topples with bright blue sparks. Then, one of them apparently tries to hijack a city bus.

Nordlund, the acting watch commander, skillfully handles each piece of incoming information and reroutes it just as quickly, but it appears that somewhere along the way lines get crossed.

The drama only ends when one of Richmond's dog-handling officers, using instincts rather than intel, spots and tackles the man as he attempts to yank the bus driver off his tightly-clutched wheel.

"Usually what's on the scene is not what gets reported to the watch commander," Nordlund says, as one of the involved officers strolls into her office.

"It's like the most epic 'broken telephone' game ever," adds Cpl. Kevin Krygier, who has spent 12 years on the force.

What might solve the problem, he's asked.

Krygier: "A lot of people are suggesting a lot of different things. Regionalization, you know."

Nordlund: "It'll never work though. Every mayor likes to have his own little circle. They've all got to run their own police force and they can't all agree with each other."

Krygier: "There are a lot of things that can be improved: If we did a better job of sharing intelligence laterally, communicating laterally and working laterally. We're siloed, big time."

Nordlund: "We don't run into this problem a lot, it's every now and then. We don't like the bad guys getting away."

Krygier: "I don't like looking like a chump. I like things to be well-oiled and effective. I know it's not the reality. But we can try."

Whether they should try merging police forces is currently the subject of debate.

Overhauling the region's patchwork of local police departments into one super-force, called regionalization, is a controversial proposal that's recently been revived and has the province's largest police body — the Royal Canadian Mounted Police — engaged in what appears to be a subtle campaign to prove its relevance.

Witnessing a surge of "influential, high-power people" promote regional policing in B.C., the RCMP contacted The Canadian Press and offered a late-night ride-a-long with a senior Mountie aimed at showing how well its officials believe the province's current, so-called "integrated" system, works.

Integration means local detachments and municipal forces maintain autonomy but often pool resources and expertise to work together. The proposal on the table, conversely, entails all officers working under one force.

The biggest push to jump-start the debate, which has waxed and waned for decades, was a recommendation in a hefty report released in December into the multi-jurisdictional police failure to stop pig farmer Robert Pickton from murdering sex workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

The call for regionalization got stronger in January when the report was publicly supported by the area's largest municipal force, the Vancouver Police Department, and that city's mayor. In late February, the provincial government opened the door again to discussions for change with a white paper on justice reform.

Divergent views on the matter were vocalized again by police brass and municipal officials Wednesday at a public forum held by the mayor of Delta, who is staunchly opposed to a change.

But none of the political concerns are top-of-mind for RCMP Insp. Davis Wendell as he pulls up in his unmarked SUV to take a reporter along for part of his 12-hour, overnight shift.

Instead, the talkative 47-year-old with 22 years of national and international policing experience deftly flips from call to call over a smart phone headset, co-ordinating active police operations in several cities and incidentally revealing the essence of the integrated model.

Wendell's official title is Regional Duty Officer, and his office-on-wheels is loaded with a battery of high-tech gear that enables him to instantly connect with any Lower Mainland police force, RCMP or not.

A laptop, used as his mobile workstation, provides a list of every on-duty officer in the region and allows him to view files containing all police work presently underway. He can also listen in to all of that activity with his digital radio, for which each channel corresponds to a distinct force.

His role involves assessing crime and other issues needing police attention across the wide geographical area and then deploying resources to handle situations as they unfold — often spanning the boundaries of multiple cities, such as in the take-down of the boat thieves.

First stop is the University of B.C., where the supervisor of the tiny RCMP detachment praises the Vancouver Police for sending officers as reinforcement on several occasions when riots have broken out among thousands of inebriated beach-goers.

"VPD has saved my life each time," Cpl. Robert Ploughman says of past dust-ups on Wreck Beach, an isolated and popular venue that permits nudity.

"I tell all the boys from the VPD: if any of you people need a kidney, I got one for you. But only one," he laughs.

Wendell says it's a good example of the symbiotic relationship between the forces.

"At the end of the day, from the thin-blue-line perspective, everybody works together," he says, adding that for the frontline officers, questions about which policing model they serve under "just becomes a political decision."

But asked how he would react if the forces merged under a new badge, Ploughman was candid.

"We'd have to choose," he said. "Members like me, who wouldn't give up their red coat — you'd have to pry it from my cold, dead hands — may have to move. Other RCMP members might want to join the local police force."

Next up is Vancouver International Airport, where Wendell parks outside the departures terminal and checks in with various watch commanders by phone.

He says one of the biggest improvements to B.C. policing over recent years is the addition of integrated teams, some of which specialize in gangs, murders and traffic forensics.

"We need to break down that tribe mentality and get to the fact that it's all about service before self," he says.

He acknowledges the RCMP took a different strategy than the Vancouver Police in explaining what went wrong in the Pickton investigation. The public inquiry found failures were, in part, owing to rivalries and poor collaboration between city police and the suburban RCMP.

"Information that's not shared isn't good for anybody," Wendell says, noting his personal opinion. "So if we did have a regional police force and individuals chose to act irresponsibly and for selfish and egotistical reasons wanted to horde intelligence, those same things would happen again."

He suggested that having the RCMP itself take over as the regionalized force should be "an option," noting it already polices 75 per cent of B.C. communities.

The ride-a-long has been relatively calm as the hours pass, but all that changes no more than five minutes after Wendell utters the verboten word "quiet" upon arriving at the Richmond detachment.

He gets a call about a homicide in Abbotsford, a city once known as Canada's murder capital in the region's eastern end, then is notified about a sudden death at a federal prison. He's also going back and forth on the phone about a covert scenario other officers have been watching throughout the night.

As Wendell paces, several plainclothes cops stroll in to watch commander Nordlund's office to deliver anecdotes about how they nabbed the alleged boat thieves.

She listens to one officer gripe about technical issues with the radio equipment that, if fixed, might have concluded the "dog's breakfast" sooner, and then to another who boasts about his scuffle with the suspect who allegedly tried to steal the bus.

"My dad ... said when he was a Mountie here in 1966 they were talking about regionalization," says the officer, with her own 20 years of experience, reflecting on what's transpired over the night. "He's like, Tess, it's never going to happen."

And even if taxpayers are willing to pay, communicating during real-time events would likely still entail multiple radio channels and officers working from their own bureaus, she says.

"It's not broken, it's just not updated as fast as you want," she says. "It's one of those things that, even if you regionalized it, it would pretty much be the same as it is now."

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