EDITORIALS, LOCAL NEWS

One Officer Patrol Cars – A Life & Death Debate

Winnipeg Police Service Recruit Graduation (Photo CJ)

The issue regarding single officer patrol cars has been on the table many times between the Winnipeg Police Association (WPA) and the City of Winnipeg during contract negotiations.

The issue is always controversial and garners significant attention from the media.  Public sentiment is often divided and strongly influenced by media accounts that seldom capture the reality faced by the men and women of law enforcement.

In 2013 there were 286 reported assaults against members of the Winnipeg Police Service.  Those numbers represented a 15.8% increase over officer assaults reported in 2012.

“It’s very concerning for me,” retired Winnipeg Police Chief Devon Clunis said at the time. “Police work isn’t necessarily getting safer.”

The situation has not improved.

In 2015, there were 338 reported assaults against WPS members.

In 2016, that number increased to 395 reported assaults, a year over year increase of 16.9%.

More troubling is the five-year trend that shows assaults against WPS officers has increased a staggering 39.4%.

Detective Ronald Houston (winnipeg.ca)

So how dangerous has the job become?

The last Winnipeg Police officer to lose his life in the line of duty was Detective Ronald Edward Houston (35) who was stabbed to death by a violent criminal during a stakeout on June 27, 1970.

With an almost forty-seven (47) year time gap from the last line of duty death, some might suggest policing in Winnipeg is less dangerous than the WPA would have you believe.

What you won’t find in the statistics are the significant number of close calls seldom reported in media or included in reports tabled at labour arbitrations.

Close calls like the one Detective Harry Williams (retired) had when a bank robber pressed a handgun into his stomach and pulled the trigger without hesitation.  The only thing that kept Williams from becoming a statistic was a faulty firing pin.

Close calls like the time a WPS Constable had his arm pulled into a vehicle that sped off and intentionally launched him into a hydro pole.  The officer suffered extensive life-threatening injuries and only survived because his kevlar vest kept his internal organs from being ejected from his body.

Close calls like the dozens of times WPS officers encounter armed criminals and gang members in highly dangerous, volatile situations.  Situations that include the execution of drug search warrants, traffic stops, drive by shootings and assaults.

Close calls like the hundreds of times WPS officers attend violent domestic disputes encountering highly emotional, volatile people raging under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Close calls aside, it’s the physiological reaction known as the fight or flight response that remains one of the most dangerous threats to the lone officer.

I’ve been exposed to that danger many times.

After graduating from recruit class I was assigned to work one of the toughest beats the Police Service had to offer.  The Main Street zone was a utopian beat for a rookie cop.  The area was teeming with drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes and general criminal misfits.  It was the perfect place for an inexperienced police officer to cut his teeth.

During my assignment I participated in dozens of arrests for essentially every kind of crime imaginable.  The majority of those arrests were made without incident with my rookie partner Constable Graeme McGinnis.

It was during the times I worked the beat alone I realized just how dangerous police work could be.  Walking into a bar, taking names, running checks for warrants and putting handcuffs on criminals without a partner became an entirely different experience.

I don’t need to refer to a study to confirm criminals react far differently when they encounter a lone Police officer.  Offenders who deal with a single officer are far more inclined to enter into the fight or flight mindset.  A simple arrest made by two officers can quickly become a desperate fight for survival for one.

The fight or flight escalation into a life or death struggle experienced by the lone officer was perfectly illustrated in the September 20, 2014 violent attack on a WPS member responding to a “female needs assistance” call.

Janelle Jirasek (Facebook)

That female turned out to be Janelle Jirasek (24), the 18th reported homicide victim of 2014, killed in a tragic case of domestic violence.

Her killer, Kyle William Hunter (25), encountered a one officer patrol unit in the area of Caton and Hill Street as he fled from the scene of the crime.

What might have been an arrest made without incident, quickly became a life or death struggle after Hunter produced a knife and attacked the officer.  The officer suffered serious lacerations to one of his hands before he managed to disarm his attacker.

The fight didn’t end there.

The would be cop killer now turned his attention to the officer’s firearm which he desperately tried to retrieve.

Luckily, the officer managed to keep his weapon and the alleged killer was taken into custody with the help of back up officers.

I think we all know how that story could have ended.

I witnessed the fight or flight response several times before realizing a softer approach to policing was required for the lone officer.  It was about survival.  I didn’t like it, but as a mature man in my late 20’s, I knew it was the correct approach if I wanted to go home to my family at the end of my shift.

Even though I was confident in my ability and physically capable at 6’2″ and 225 pounds, I realized my survival depended on avoiding potentially dangerous situations.  Situations like being outnumbered, over-matched, or arresting large, high or intoxicated subjects where physical confrontations were likely to occur.

I can assure you, conflict avoidance does not make for effective Policing, but it is an effective survival technique for the lone officer.

The dangers experienced on the beat multiply ten fold when an officer works a one person patrol unit.  Primary response cars are not only dispatched to extremely dangerous calls, they are also subject to the dangers presented by unanticipated “on view” incidents or crimes in progress.

Safety arguments aside, I was always amazed the City of Winnipeg pushed for one officer patrol cars long before we were ever capable of turning the concept into reality.  

Winnipeg Police Cruiser Car (Photo JGJ)

As a Sergeant working in Downtown I was responsible for the supervision of approximately twenty-five (25) police officers who filled ten (10) or more cruiser cars.  One of the most annoying issues I faced during shift change was finding enough cruiser cars to ensure officers could go out on patrol.  It was a daily annoyance having eager young police officers standing in my office, frustrated because they weren’t able to hit the streets.

I often wondered if the people pushing for one (1) officer patrol cars had any idea just how bad the situation was.

I also wondered if they had any idea what it might cost to dramatically increase the number of patrol units in the fleet.  Did they take into account how many more mechanics would have to be hired or how much more money would have to be spent on vehicle registrations, gas, oil, equipment, computers, general maintenance and auto-body repair?

I doubt it.

The Winnipeg Police Service is contractually obligated to field a total of twenty-seven (27) two officer patrol cars per shift.  They also have the ability to field an unlimited number of one (1) officer patrol cars between the hours of 7:00 am to 7:00 pm.

How they choose to deploy those resources is up to the Chief of Police.

Policing the mean streets of Winnipeg continues to be an extremely challenging and dangerous job.

There can be no question two (2) officer patrol cars help to mitigate that danger.

The Winnipeg Police Association and the City of Winnipeg are headed back into contract arbitration hearings once more.

I wonder if the issue regarding two (2) officer patrol cars will be back on the table.

If it is, it shouldn’t be.

Lets hope we can go another half century before we lose another WPS officer in the line of duty!


Editor’s Note;

This article was originally written in response to media reporting and public response to the one officer patrol car issue raised in contract negotiations in 2014.

The article wasn’t published because the issue was taken off the table.

As news of renewed labour discourse between the WPA and City circulates, I’ve seen many questions raised in social media regarding the need for two officer patrol cars.

The original article was edited and updated and is intended to give readers the necessary information to arrive at an informed opinion.


RELATED LINK:

The Police Insider – “City Hall Ineptitude Not Limited to Fire Hall Fiasco”


FACTOIDS:

Most Dangerous Calls Faced by Police;

  • Traffic Stops
  • Domestic Violence Incidents
  • Crimes in Progress – Robbery, Break & Enter
  • Traffic Pursuits
  • Tactical Incidents – Armed & Barricaded, Drug Warrants

Historical arbitrated settlements between the City of Winnipeg & the WPA:

  • 1988 – The Chapman Arbitration
  • 1996 – The Foxx-Decent Arbitration
  • 2000 – The Friedman Arbitration
  • 2002 – The Peltz Arbitration
  • 2006 – The Hamilton Arbitration
  • 2010 – The Secter Arbitration
  • 2012 – Arbitration

*Legal fees, panel fees and other expenses make arbitrations expensive undertakings.  The costs incurred by the Winnipeg Police Association is estimated at upwards of $200,000.  The City of Winnipeg incurs similar costs.

One Comment

  1. I’ve often seen declining death rates among police used as an argument for lowering of safety standards or as a sign that the world is a less dangerous place. But that equation doesn’t factor in all that has changed in police practices, techniques, technology and policies. Despite having evolved significantly on these fronts over decades, death rates haven’t changed much. This suggests that police evolution has barely kept up to an increasingly violent world.

    In my view one of the biggest changes has been the attitude of the average person towards the police. People used to respect and obey the police. But more and more society’s attitudes have changed and more and more people believe that a lawful arrest is something optional or negotiable on their behalf. This leads to violence and at times death. If this is going to change, the police, prosecutors, and courts will have to treat anything beyond compete cooperation with a lawful arrest as a serious crime.

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