Saturday November 22, 2014

Extra ears and eyes for RCMP disconnected from the action



Certainly an attention-grabbing headline, especially when printed on neon-pink paper. This phrase was my introduction to Citizens on Patrol, an organization who contacted me back in October in the hopes I could eventually accompany them on one of their “patrols.”

The flyer continues in insistent capital letters. “This is a volunteer program working in conjunction with the Battlefords RCMP to reduce mischief and crime in the Battlefords.”

“We need volunteers, 19 years and over, who take a genuine interest in ‘safer homes, safer communities.’” Finally, the flyer describes what COP actually does, and here too it does so euphemistically.

“Volunteers act as an extra set of ‘eyes’ and ‘ears’ for our communities and the police.”

Based on this description alone, it was difficult to know what to expect of Citizens on Patrol. Although there was certainly a strong undercurrent of vigilantism to the whole affair (volunteers “who take a genuine interest in safer homes, safer communities”), it was unclear what, exactly, their relationship to the RCMP was. Equally unclear was what it actually meant to be a volunteer with COP. Watching for the Battlefords’ most wanted? Cruising the streets, hoping to see a drug deal or robbery?

The lead-up to my ride with Citizens on Patrol didn’t give me much information about what I should expect. I was contacted by a COP member and we arranged a meeting time and place, and little else. It was only when I got into the car for the first time with two other COP members (who, at the RCMP’s request, cannot be named), that the story first came out.

Citizens on Patrol, firstly, seems to be an organization that was started by police, at least according to the COP members I spoke to. Some time around 20 years ago, the police created (or encouraged the creation) of citizen-watch groups to give the police a greater capacity to catch crime. Alberta and Manitoba still have extremely active COP groups, but since its founding, Saskatchewan’s COP has become less active.

They have also become less connected to the RCMP. When they started, the Battlefords COP had direct access to the RCMP, hearing what the RCMP were saying on the scanner and having a direct line to call if there was trouble. They met with the RCMP liaison once a month, and were given training in how to respond to a car accident, how to tail a car, and other smaller tricks. The RCMP even told them about problem areas in town to pay special attention to, and sometimes even requested that COP go out on certain nights, to help the police for one reason or another.

But COP’s relationship to the RCMP cooled over the years. Now they are equipped with only a police scanner, and contact the RCMP the same way as any other ordinary civilian – over a cell phone. They are given less information at their weekly meetings with RCMP liaisons, and now train their own members, though there have not been any new members in a while. The RCMP also no longer asks them to go out on a particular day.

After a quick trip to the North Battleford RCMP detachment to sign in and collect some materials, I found myself doing what a Citizen on Patrol does – sitting in a minivan, driving around dark and silent North Battleford, watching out for anything suspicious.

And so the night proceeded. Air conditioning system blaring, we glided through snow-covered streets and back alleys, listening to erratic muffled chatter coming through the police scanner. Along the way, I was treated to stories of the Battlefords Citizens on Patrol in its heyday – waiting outside of known drug houses, catching drunk drivers, chasing a car that had sped away from them after they had inadvertently witnessed a drug sale. But I was also told that these outrageous developments (they were once rammed into a fence by another car, for example) actually happened infrequently. Though a part of me secretly hoped we would witness the sort of event that would make its way into the newspaper the next day, nothing interrupted us as we criss-crossed our way through dark, soundless streets overarched with skeletal trees.

Finally, we received a message on the police scanner – there was talk about someone starting an illegal bonfire. It also happened that we were extremely close to the address, and would likely get there before the police.

Within less than a minute, we arrived at the site, but found nothing. No fire, or any evidence of there having been one. Just another sleepy house. We wondered if we had heard the address on the scanner correctly (since the scanner offers only one-way communication, there was no way to verify what we had heard), but the arrival of a police car showed we had. We practically creeped through the back alley behind the house, hoping for evidence of criminal behaviour, but still saw nothing.

As the night progressed, the COP members decided they would perform another one of their nightly tasks. We drove down to the car dealerships in town and checked for any unlocked doors. After each dealership had been inspected, one of the COP members left a small flyer under the door to show that they had been checked. This time, we found no unlocked doors.

All of this took place in a van permeated with euphemism and circumlocution. I hardly heard a single mention of crime, or a single accusation. When I asked what COP members typically look for on a patrol, I was given the rather roundabout response that they “look for any of those unusual kinds of things that might lead to some type of an incident, and we can make the police aware that this is happening.” What they meant by “incident” had been explained earlier – a group of youths gathered in an alley, a young kid with a backpack, a house party. They explained that their role as “preventive,” as their presence prevents crime from happening, but this explanation was at odds with their previous claims their unmarked car made it easier for them to tail suspects unseen.

At midnight, we went to Tim Hortons and called it a night. With little communication with the RCMP, and, importantly, with little crime, we had had a typical night, “just driving around aimlessly.”

Looking back, I did take a lot from my experience with Citizens on Patrol. I learned about the less safe parts of town, some of North Battleford’s criminal history and the least safe times of the month (the 15th, the end of the month, and any time after a major hockey tournament).

But I hardly saw the swashbuckling, vigilante activism that a neon-pink poster promises. Perhaps that’s for the best.



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