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TRAINING DAY A hands-on look at the RCMP’s use-of-force model

By Braden Dupuis, Megan Lalonde, Brandon Barrett and Keili Bartlett.

Illustration by Claire Ryan

Officer-in-training Braden Dupuis assumes big-gun-holding pose.

Photo by Megan Lalonde

I’m riding solo on a highway near Chilliwack when a call comes in over dispatch.

A car is broken down on the side of a highway, slowing up traffic.

Plates registered to an older lady—shouldn’t need backup for this one.

As I roll up, I take a deep breath and lick my moustache for good luck (an old cop trick from the ‘70s, I think).

But as I approach the stalled-out minivan, it doesn’t take long for me to realize that it is no “older lady” on the scene—but a fully-grown man, wielding a pipe wrench.

And he’s smashing the ever-loving shit out of the minivan.

Now what?

As a police officer, I have many tools at my disposal. My training has taught me when and how to employ each one, in any number of situations.

Assess the situation, and the subject’s behaviour—what kind of “threat cues” is he giving off? What is he doing with his hands?

What are my own tactical considerations? Do I have backup? A proper escape route?

Keep my distance. Be firm.

Deep breaths. Remember my training. Another quick lick of the stache.

Let’s do this.

I assess the situation—briefly, as my nerves are starting to build—and make my decision.

Baton, motherfucker—It’s time for some hand-to-hand combat.

My confidence in my decision—full and robust as I made it—is completely shattered by the sounds of laughter somewhere behind me, followed by a voice in my ear.

“Listen to what he’s saying,” says Const. Tom Flynn, an instructor at the RCMP’s Pacific Region Training Centre in Chilliwack.

I pause. The crazed man with the pipe wrench has fallen silent.

“Say it again, Nick,” Flynn calls out to my subject.

“I’M GOING TO BASH YOUR FUCKING HEAD IN!” he obliges.

Ah.

Somehow, in the stress of remembering my training, I missed this very direct and violent threat to me, an officer of the law.

“Now what do you think you need for this situation?” Flynn asks me.

It’s painfully obvious now.

“You need your firearm,” Flynn says without hesitation.

I fumble with my gun—a blue-coated training pistol loaded with blanks—for a few seconds while my perp waits patiently.

When I finally get it out and point it at my suspect, he realizes the gravity of the situation and tosses his pipe wrench to the side.

But he’s not finished. He wants to fight, he tells me.

Mano-a-mano.

The pathetic, orange moustache I grew for this occasion—a feeble attempt to truly assume the mindset of a real, live police officer—quivers, and this time I forget to lick it for luck.

I point my gun at the bad guy and tell him to get on the ground.

Confident, I tell myself, and most assuredly a badass.

But my assailant remains defiant, and asks if I’m going to shoot an unarmed man.

I know my objective is to achieve a “behavioural change”—an action that will dampen the aggression level of my perp—and I know exactly what to say.

My three hours of classroom training earlier this morning have taught me all I need to know.

“I have no problem shooting an unarmed man,” I tell the troublemaker confidently.

In retrospect (as Whistler RCMP Staff Sgt. Paul Hayes would gleefully relay to me later), this was a poor choice of words.

Eventually, with some more guidance from the voice in my ear, I subdue my subject using a less-than-defensive baton takedown.

All in all, the call is a disaster.

I have just threatened to shoot an unarmed man in full view of public bystanders, and then proceeded to beat him down with my (plastic training) baton.

Luckily for me (and the general public), I am not a police officer.

But after an eye-opening day learning about the RCMP’s Incident Management/Intervention Model, and the myriad pressures linked to each and every call that comes over the radio, I have a newfound respect for the women and men who do the work.

-Braden Dupuis

Officers-in-training Keili Bartlett (L) and Megan Lalonde (R) gear up for the day ahead. Photo by brandon barrett

Class is in session

Earlier that day, a grey, drizzly Friday morning, our group of four reporters arrived at the RCMP Pacific Region Training Centre in Chilliwack—the first media to have a tour of the centre in “six or seven years,” according to Hayes.

As we settled into an unremarkable beige classroom, seated in front of a projected PowerPoint presentation, Cpl. Nick Widdershoven informed us that we were about to experience the same type of training thousands of RCMP officers undergo every year. The idea was to give us, as journalists, a better baseline understanding about how police officers operate, that we can use to reference when reporting on police incidents.

With experienced officers Const. Nick Fleming, Flynn and Hayes joining to help facilitate the discussion, we learned that 2,000 RCMP members come through the Lower Mainland facility—formerly the home of CFB Chilliwack—each year alone.

Our main topic of study during the morning classroom discussion? The RCMP’s Incident Management/Intervention Model (IMIM), last updated in 2008 (see sidebar).

Fig. 2: The RCMP’s Incident Management/Intervention Model. Graphic supplied

The training aimed to familiarize us with the IMIM’s guiding principles and the RCMP’s risk-assessment processes—basically, all the important elements police, as the last line of defence, need to keep in mind whenever they attend a call (much of the same information Braden recalled and, to our delight, promptly disregarded during his scenario-based training exercise later that afternoon).

The IMIM isn’t law or a linear continuum, explains Widdershoven, but rather a visual, teaching and articulation aid officers can reference when responding to any number of events.

“We don’t have to progress our options on the use of force because it could really put ourselves or the public at a detriment if we had to try things as we go,” he says. “Somebody pulls a gun, I’m not going to work through my OC (pepper spray), baton and taser before I pull my pistol because it’s not going to be safe for anybody.”

The model is designed to be dynamic and circumstantial—just as any real-life scenario can be.

“What we first interpret a situation to be and what it ends up being can change five, six, seven times during an interaction,” explains Widdershoven.

“Every time you do a traffic stop as a police officer, I consider it an unknown risk. I don’t know who is in that car, how they’re going to react, what condition or state they’re in just based on some driving evidence,” he continued.

That means having to continually reassess the risks at hand, which can run the gamut from weather conditions and lighting to their subjects’ behaviour and perceived abilities—i.e. the aforementioned “threat cues.”

Officers tend to look for “the abnormals to social norms,” notes Widdershoven. “If you’re being too friendly, I get on edge. If you’re calling the police for help and you’re too friendly, I’m worried about getting baited into something. It might not be the case and it might just be you, but I’m going to take pause of that.”

“People do all sorts of weird stuff with us,” he continued. “We have a ton of tools—they’re my tools, but if I get hurt, they can become yours. If people start … eyeing our belt, I get really worried. In all honesty, and it’s one of the things that the public doesn’t always recognize, every single call we go to is potentially a gun call—because we brought one.”

Luckily, those weapons rarely have to be used.

“All day, every day, 24/7 from coast to coast to coast in communities big and small, when we’re interacting with the public, less than 0.1 per cent (of interactions) are a use-of-force encounter,” explained Flynn.

Top right: Cpl. Nick Widdershoven during the classroom portion of the day. Photo by Braden Dupuis; Top left Officer-in-training Brandon Barrett listens intently. Photo by Megan Lalonde; Bottom: Cpl. Nick Widdershoven speaking to the class. Photo by Braden Dupuis;

Throughout the morning, the conversation continued to deviate from the formal presentation, instead drifting into an easy back-and-forth between our questions and the officers’ thoughtful, starkly honest answers—which came as somewhat of a surprise given the RCMP’s historical reputation for opacity.

For example, how does their approach shift, if at all, when dealing with populations who have historically had negative interactions with police, such as Indigenous groups, which are disproportionately represented in Canada’s prison system?

In Flynn’s experience, “I can say with absolute, 100-per-cent certainty that I have never worked with another officer who has said, ‘We are going to initiate this course of action based on someone’s race.’”

However, “That doesn’t mean (those officers) don’t exist,” he notes.

It’s something the RCMP works to prevent with “Fair and Impartial” training courses, notes Widdershoven, and fostering positive relationships with the communities they serve, adds Flynn.

“One of the things that I really hate and really upsets me is when parents’ kids are misbehaving and they say, ‘If you’re not good, I’m going to get that policeman to arrest you!’” Flynn says. “Then I have to go and repair that damage and tell the kid, ‘Hey, if you’re ever in trouble and you need help, come talk to us. We’re your friends.’”

When it comes to working with First Nations communities in particular, “It’s not as old as people think,” Widdershoven explains, referring to Canada’s residential school policy, which the RCMP helped enforce.

“It’s one generation. There are grandparents that still talk to their grandkids about it and are still imparting that, depending on their experience. So it’s just about being aware of your approach.”

Here in the Sea to Sky, Whistler and Pemberton police “are very proactive about interacting with agencies within our jurisdictional boundaries, whether that be in Squamish right up through Mount Currie,” adds Hayes. “We’re currently working side by side with St’atl’mx Tribal Police in their communities as they train and develop new officers.

“I would say that now more than ever in my career, we are much more involved in relationship building and maintenance than we ever were.”

Fleming, for instance, began his policing career in Bella Coola, and wound up serving as the RCMP’s community liaison with the local Nuxalk Nation.

“When it came to community events, I was expected to show up,” he recalls. “I was the face of the detachment and the RCMP as well as my (First Nations) boss there. I learned as I went, and just talking to people as well and engaging with those community events, like going to potlatches and events and hearing about what people went through and their history. It just gives you a baseline to work off of.”

That proactive approach often applies to subjects with mental health issues as well, adds Widdershoven. “We do a lot of mental health work outside of apprehensions. Especially in the smaller community, the more you get to know people.”

In cases where apprehensions are necessary, “We’re not arresting people for being mentally ill,” emphasizes Flynn.

“Mental illness is not a crime and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re there to ensure that when people are not able to make rational decisions about their health and safety, that society has a mechanism to bring those people to experts who can provide care and get them those assessments. Unfortunately, because of the unpredictability of mental illness, that has fallen to police because we are perhaps the best equipped to ensure that safety for everyone.”

It comes down to “treating people with respect,” he adds.

-Megan Lalonde

Braden Dupuis takes a few practise shots with a standard RCMP training pistol under the watchful eye of Const. Fleming. Photo by Megan Lalonde

The Final Scenario

The tensions were high as we prepared for our final training scenario of the day. Unlike the previous simulated calls, which were all based on real-life incidents, we were not only banned from recording the proceedings, but half of our group was sequestered in another room while the other two were dispatched to the scene.

It would soon become clear why our training officers took this tact.

There was a certain ominous feeling permeating the room, a massive air-dome structure outfitted with plywood rooms meant to mimic various locations that police might attend. The mood stood in stark contrast to the mostly lighthearted tone of the rest of the day. It was obvious the instructors had saved the most complicated training call for last.

“Boy, have we got a scenario for you,” says Flynn, a sly grin slowly spreading across his face.

I would serve as the lead officer, with Braden in tow as backup.We huddled in front of a pair of old cop cruisers littered with neon-coloured paintball marks, lingering signs of the thousands of RCMP members who have passed through this centre over the years.

The call was fairly straightforward: There were reports of a man with a violent history in the apartment building of his ex-wife and son. We were told to do a wellness check at Apartment C, and off we went, slowly walking down a long corridor dotted with doors.

About halfway down the hall, one of the doors swings open, and a figure donned all in black emerges. (Const. Fleming, the training actor, sports dark-coloured padding and an imposing, Darth Vader-esque helmet throughout much of the day.)

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a shotgun partially hidden behind Fleming’s right leg. I immediately draw my service weapon and fight an overwhelming urge to fire several rounds (of blanks) at the suspect.

It’s difficult to overstate here just how thoroughly influenced my generation has been by action movies and first-person shooter games. I felt at once immersed in and separated from reality, conditioned by countless hours playing GoldenEye and Grand Theft Auto growing up. In those mediums, when you see a bad guy with a gun, you shoot. It’s really that simple.

Brandon Barrett follows constables Fleming and Flynn down a training centre hallway, as Keili Bartlett and Megan Lalonde look on.

Photo by Braden Dupuis

Const. Flemming shows Brandon how to load his training pistol.

Photo by Megan Lalonde

Keili Bartlett takes aim as constable Flemming and Widdershoven look on.

Photo by Megan Lalonde

Real life, as we all know, is rarely that cut and dry.

“DROP THE GUN!” I scream repeatedly, closing the distance. The suspect doesn’t flinch.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I shout.

Our masked man slowly turns his head in our direction, and icily responds: “None of your business,” before cocking his gun with a loud cha-chung. It’s an image that will be imprinted on my mind for some time, despite knowing the scenario was completely simulated.

Then, to our surprise, the suspect turns away and calmly continues down the hallway at a plodding pace. (I would later recount to the training officers that he had sprinted away; a sign of the ways stress can warp your memory.)

“... in the heat of the moment, with only seconds to react and the stress levels climbing, we took the path of least resistance, and that proved fatal.”

At this point, we start to panic, and rush after the suspect, screaming directions at him once again to drop his weapon. But it was already too late.

The man walks into Apartment C and slams the door behind him. We then hear the deafening booms of three shots; he had just killed his wife and son before turning the gun on himself.

After a moment of eerie silence, I turn to Braden, eyes wide as saucers. “What the fuck just happened?” I exclaim.

We had failed. Big time.

After spending hours getting drilled on the appropriate use of force—and seeing firsthand in Braden’s previous scenario what can happen when an officer uses too much force—we were so focused on protecting ourselves from the many risks officers can face that we forgot about what should be the first priority for any police: protecting the public.

In the debrief that follows, Widdershoven asks us what we should have done differently.

“We should’ve shot him,” Braden says.

That much is clear. But when? Should I have fired when I first noticed the shotgun?

“Well, is it legal in this country to carry a firearm?” Widdershoven asks. “Could he have been a duck hunter returning home after a hunt? Maybe he was a janitor who happened to find the gun laying around the building.”

So it was too soon to fire upon spotting the suspect. And it was clearly too late by the time he had reached the apartment. So sometime between when the suspect failed to respond to our commands and when he entered the apartment.

“Somewhere in there, you should have fired. But everyone’s line is different,” says Widdershoven, reiterating that there are a multitude of variables to consider when use of force comes into play, including an officer’s past experiences and their assessment of the situation. In policing as in life, there is no black-and-white rule.

To have successfully subdued the suspect, we would have had to shoot a man in the back who posed no immediate or direct threat to us. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious what we should have done. But in the heat of the moment, with only seconds to react and the stress levels climbing, we took the path of least resistance, and that proved fatal.

Factor in the other considerations at play for an officer—how will the public perceive a cop shooting a man in the back in a busy apartment building?—and you realize how difficult the decision-making process can be.

That’s not to apologize for those instances when cops do go overboard. Throughout the day we discussed several concerning use-of-force incidents, such as the 2013 death of 18-year-old Sammy Yatin, who was shot eight times on a Toronto streetcar, leading to a rare murder conviction for the responding officer.

What the day did do for us is give a deeper understanding of the role of police and the many complexities that come with this very challenging job that we typically don’t hear about on the 11 o’clock news. It’s easy to forget that, behind the badge, these are people, people who work hard and, in almost all cases, want to do what’s best for the community they serve.

At the start of our training day, Const. Flynn tells a story about heading to Best Buy decked out in full uniform on the day the new Call of Duty video game was released. Employees at the store immediately assumed something was amiss.

“They couldn’t fathom that we are normal people who do normal things,” Flynn recalls.

-Brandon Barrett

Const. Flemming, left, and Flynn, right, demonstrate how RCMP’s range of training weapons function. Photo by braden dupuis

This is (not) America

The influence of American media on Canadians’ perception of police

I’m standing over a drunk, belligerent man—who I just pepper sprayed—and am about to put handcuffs on. “You have the right to remain silent,” I tell him in as commanding a tone as I can muster. Nope, the training instructor says over my shoulder. That’s not what police say in Canada.

My mind goes blank as I realize I don’t know what to say.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one unaware of the difference between the American and Canadian police process. When Dr. Christopher Schneider, now an associate professor of sociology at Brandon University, began teaching criminology at the University of British Columbia, the Chicago-born prof noticed his Canadian students didn’t know the legal terminology used in their own country.

“I get in there and I’m teaching, and the students have no idea what the hell I’m talking about,” Schneider says of his first semester teaching in Canadian universities. “I found that I was teaching them these terms through an American lens, which sort of both fascinated and horrified me at the same time.”

So he did a study of 12 students who watched the popular, long-running American cop show, Law & Order. All of the students but one—although it was a small study—could recite part or all of the Miranda rights nearly word for word. None of them could do the same for Canadian Charter warnings.

None of the students in the study, Schneider notes, said they had ever been arrested.

“But everybody knows how to be arrested. If a cop says to you, ‘I’m placing you under arrest,’ you know where to put your hands and you know to duck your head when you’re getting into the back of the car so you don’t bang your head on the squad car,” he says. “We’ve seen this and the perp walk done a million times on Law & Order and movies, and we’ve seen action versions of it on news media. While a small per cent of the population have actually been arrested, pretty much everybody knows how to be arrested. That speaks to the very powerful influence of the media.”

Braden Dupuis and Keili Bartlett getting some instruction. Widdershoven look on. Photo by Megan Lalonde.

For many, their only knowledge of the criminal system comes from entertainment or the news. How crime is covered can make it seem like there’s more crime, especially more violent crime, than the statistics show because the tendency is to report on rare or severe crimes. (Canada’s homicide rate, for instance, has been on a mostly steady downswing since the 1970s.) So, could the influence of American media in Canada leave us with the impression that similar issues are mirrored in our country, even if that’s not the case?

The short answer, Schneider says, is yes.

Even though Canadian man Sammy Yatin was shot to death by an on-duty officer in Toronto in 2013, Schneider points out it wasn’t until after the 2014 deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown at the hands of white police officers in the U.S. that #ICantBreathe and Black Lives Matter launched a national and international discussion about police treatment of minorities and the push to implement body-worn cameras for officers.

“The murder and killing of black men is not a new phenomenon,” Schneider says. “What is new... is the circulation of these videos on social media that bring our attention to things like Black Lives Matter.”

Since 2014, chapters of Black Lives Matter have sprung up across the U.S. and in Canadian cities such as Toronto and Vancouver.

“These things don’t stop at the border,” Schneider says. “What ends up happening then is these issues get picked up by the public, which of course, are the primary clientele of the police.”

Up north, however, “the racial issues that plague Canadian police are different. Primarily with people of colour, related to the treatment of Indigenous people.” (Statistics Canada released a report last year that showed the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the B.C. corrections systems has continued to rise over the past decade across all demographic groups: Men, women and youth.)

In 2016, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police held a conference called “What happens there matters here,” exploring how globalization impacts public trust in Canadian police.

As for the discussion around body-worn cameras for police, both the public and officers were generally in favour of the technology. The idea being that video footage would reduce police brutality and complaints from the public by showing a fuller image of a situation. While there have been few and inconclusive studies to support these assumptions, Schneider says, police in the U.S. and Canada have hired dedicated media liaison officers to give the news media information, or what Schneider refers to as the police narrative, because of the power the press has on public perception.

“I’ve seen some extremely fair questioning, reporting on some really egregious actions and I’ve seen some really sensational reporting on stuff that’s completely reasonable,” Cpl. Nick Widdershoven says. “There’s a lack of understanding of what we can and can’t do. So people make assumptions based on the actions they see.”

It’s been five or six years since media has toured the RCMP Pacific Region Training Centre in Chilliwack, B.C., where Pique completed its training. The officers told us it’s because they’re rarely asked.

“The reason there may not be that ask … I think a lot of people have already made up their minds,” Const. Fleming says. “I watch Law & Order. I know that.”

“Social media in some ways removed the crime narrative control away from police by the posting of videos,” Schneider says. Those videos can go viral, and like Schneider mentioned, ideas are not stopped by borders.

It’s no longer the pen that is mightier than the sword. It’s the video footage and the narrative framing it. But who is behind the narrative that shapes our perceptions of the police and our country? Is it the media, the police or the bystander with a camera?

-Keili Bartlett

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