Vol. 79, No. 4Cover stories

Two men walk along dock near ocean.

Urban vs. rural

Policing Nova Scotia's unique communities and geographies

Cst. Colin Helm talks to as many people as he can during his patrols in Digby, N.S., often engaging with local fishermen and the coast guard. Credit: Amelia Thatcher

By

At 8 a.m. Monday morning, the Digby detachment in southwest Nova Scotia was just getting busy. The night before, a hiker's emergency beacon went off, signaling a distress call for help.

As officers filed into the small 16-person detachment, S/Sgt. Dave Chubbs, the commander, told them about the situation.

Only two members were working when the call came in at 9:30 p.m. for the missing hiker near East Cranberry Lake, about 50 kilometres from Digby, deep in the backcountry woods. Since the officers weren't familiar with the area, they called the Department of Natural Resources to help out.

After making no progress finding the woman, the RCMP decided to start the volunteer search and rescue team and call in extra officers from a neighbouring detachment. After several more hours, they still hadn't reached the woman, so they called the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre run by the coast guard and military.

By 3 a.m. the risk manager called out the Department of National Defence, which dispatched a cormorant helicopter to fly in and make the successful rescue.

"It just goes to show you how many partners we have to call on in emergency situations," says Chubbs. "Every commander knows they'll have to rely on their neighbours at some point, especially in these rural areas."

Rural: Digby, N.S.

The Digby RCMP detachment polices approximately 20 communities in Digby County. This rural area of about 18,000 residents is a microcosm of Canada's diversity: there's a Mi'kmaq First Nations community called Bear River, two islands with isolated fishing villages, and three African Nova-Scotian communities with historic roots dating back to the 18th century.

In many ways, the unique populations and expansive geographies are the biggest challenges faced by rural detachments like Digby. The remoteness of some areas can make it difficult for RCMP officers to respond to calls, based on the sheer distance they have to travel.

"If something happens in the city, the cavalry shows up. In the rural areas, the closest officer for backup could be 40 kilometres away," says Supt. Martin Marin, the district policing officer for southwest Nova Scotia. "You really have to know who your partners are and use all resources."

Long and Brier islands are perfect examples of hard-to-reach rural communities. Located southwest of Digby, the islands sit off the tip of a long peninsula, which is fittingly named the Digby neck. The neck takes just over half an hour to drive before the road dead-ends at a small harbour. There, a ferry runs every hour to Long Island, and further still, a second ferry runs to Brier Island. The whole journey can take just over an hour — if you time the trip with the ferries.

"We're a slave to the ferry schedule," notes Cst. Colin Helm, the school liaison officer for Digby detachment. He says the remote location of the islands has made the communities there unique from anything he's policed before.

By the numbers

Digby County

1 detachment: Digby

Population: ~17,300

RCMP officers: 16

Halifax Regional Municipality

7 detachments: Lower Sackville, Cole Harbour, Tantallon, Preston, Musquodoboit Harbour, Sheet Harbour and North Central

Population: ~403,000

RCMP officers: 193

HRP officers: 531

Colchester County

3 detachments: Bible Hill, Stewiacke, Tatamagouche

Population: ~38,000

RCMP officers: 35

"When you get on the ferry, it's almost like you're crossing a border into another country," says Helm. "As soon as people see the police cruiser coming up the Digby neck, they put it up on Facebook and text all their neighbours. They know we're coming before we even set foot on the islands."

Digby RCMP don't get too many calls to Long and Brier islands. This is partly because of the small population — about 500 on both islands.

"This is as rural as rural gets — trust me," says Helm, referring to Brier Island. "Everyone on the island lives on these two streets, so you really get to know your neighbours out here."

Stacks of metal lobster traps and buoys line the gravel road next to the ocean. Most of the houses here are weathered, with boats and ATVs parked outside on big grassy lots.

On his patrols, Helm waves to everyone he sees. Most of them are familiar faces, and he knows the backstories of each person.

"Janet likes to walk up and down these roads," says Helm, as he waves out the window to an elderly woman shuffling down the street with a walker in the rain. She turns and gives him a big smile and waves as he passes by.

Helm says one of the most important parts of rural policing is visibility — community members want to see police officers walking or driving up and down the streets to feel safe. It's often on these patrols that officers spot things that are out of the ordinary.

"I like coming down the side roads because you never know what you're going to find," says Helm. "You can be doing your rounds and something will catch your eye — someone with mental health issues, someone who's intoxicated, or even a domestic violence case."

Helm tries to make it out to the islands a few times per month. The rest of his time is spent visiting schools, planning safety initiatives, problem solving with communities and responding to general duty calls when the need arises. Officers here often get to investigate files to the end, following them through to court. There aren't specialized teams or court liaison officers immediately available at the small detachment.

"Working in the rural areas, you almost have to be a jack of all trades," says Helm. "But I love it. That's what's so amazing about rural policing — you learn so much every day."

Urban: Halifax, N.S.

A shift at the Halifax District RCMP's Sackville detachment begins with a muster meeting. Eight general duty police officers file into a boardroom at the detachment, beginning their four days on duty after three days off. Unlike Digby, which operates an average of 19 hours per day with police on call for the remainder, Halifax District follows a 24-7 policing model.

"Even though it's Wednesday, today is like a Monday morning for us," says Sgt. Craig Smith, the commander for Watch 3. He's in charge of approximately 20 officers at three out of Halifax's six detachments: Lower Sackville, Cole Harbor and Tantallon. He also keeps tabs on Halifax's Musquodoboit Harbour, Sheet Harbour and North Central detachments during his shifts.

As watch commander, Smith oversees the day-to-day running of Watch 3, offering leadership, direction and a helping hand when needed.

"My job is to say 'what do you need?' to officers and get them those resources," says Smith. "If they update me on what's going on, I'll trust them to do their job. I'm just here for support."

Smith assigns officers additional tasks based on the latest crime hotspots — areas that have high crime density. For the past eight years, Halifax District has used numbers and statistics to inform their policing tactics. Every three weeks, the watch commanders, the leads from investigative sections and officers in-charge meet to go over the latest crime trends and statistics.

Sheila Serfas is the crime analyst who reviews data from investigations and calls for service, and leads the meetings. She notes what the current crime trends are and maps out the crime hotspots, showing the numbers and types of crime in different areas.

While smaller, rural detachments don't use statistical analysis very often due to a lower frequency of crime, Halifax District has found the model invaluable.

"When we started the process of mapping, these streets were littered with property damage, motor vehicle accidents, you name it. Now it's not anything like that," says Serfas. "In the summer we used to see 150 thefts from vehicles per month, now we barely see 30."

Serfas also takes the numbers a step further, digging deeper to offer recommendations to police. "Not only do we look at the data, but also what can we do about it," she says. Based on the data, the District's top priorities are mental health, youth and drugs, since they take up the majority of officers' time.

While some crimes can be predicted with data, others can happen without a moment's notice. During a recent shift, Halifax District RCMP was on high alert. Three major calls came in within hours of each other, and it was Smith's job as watch commander to co-ordinate.

"We had a call for a car bomb, a school shooter and a crash involving a school bus," recalls Smith, explaining how unpredictable and busy urban policing can be. "You've always got to have the radio on and run to whatever's happening."

Smith says it's extremely important to know what resources are at your disposal, especially when there are major calls. One of the RCMP's key partners is the Halifax Regional Police (HRP). The HRP polices Halifax's downtown core, including the former cities of Bedford and Dartmouth, while the RCMP is responsible for suburbs like Sackville and the surrounding communities of what was known as Halifax County.

"Because of the geographic area, we work together on a daily basis," says Halifax Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais. "The neat thing is you can have a crime committed in RCMP territory that's being investigated by HRP and vice versa."

Blais says the two agencies are seamlessly integrated, even sharing a radio frequency to maintain continuity. Along with working together on the front line, the Halifax District and HRP also have integrated criminal intelligence teams, including a major crimes section, special enforcement sections and support teams such as legal advising, emergency response and forensics.

"For the RCMP, it's great to have the HRP because they know every nook and cranny of the city," says C/Supt. Lee Bergerman, officer in-charge of the Halifax District RCMP. "For HRP, they have access to our specialized units as well as our wealth of Canadian policing knowledge and best practices."

Blais also thinks the partnership is invaluable.

"In an integrated unit, you check your badges at the door," he says. "When rubber hits the road it's about the work getting done — we have the same goal."

Urban and Rural: Bible Hill, N.S.

An hour's drive north of Halifax is a quaint community called Bible Hill, which is part of three communities in the RCMP's Colchester District. The small farming village sits beside the larger town of Truro, separated by the Salmon River. On one side is the RCMP's jurisdiction, and on the other is Truro Police Service.

Although the two police agencies patrol adjacent communities, they are not integrated on the same level as Halifax District. For the most part, they patrol their own jurisdictions, only cross-pollinating in the event of a serious incident.

This is partly because the specialized teams such as major crimes and traffic services for northeast Nova Scotia are located in Bible Hill. In this regard, the Bible Hill detachment has all the benefits of a larger detachment, while also giving members the opportunity to be self-sufficient.

Colchester County shares many of the same priorities as Halifax District: mental health, youth engagement and drugs are all at the top of their list, as well as alcohol abuse and impaired driving.

To combat drinking and driving, officers set up checkpoints once per day, blocking off intersections to check for sobriety as well as drivers' valid licence, registration and up-to-date vehicle stickers.

"We pick a different spot every day, it's a game of cat and mouse," says S/Sgt. Allan Carroll, commander for Colchester County RCMP. Carroll says working in a smaller detachment means everyone helps out where they can — even the commander. "I'm old school. I like to get out and work with the guys."

For local school liaison officer Cst. Lorilee Morash, alcohol and drug education is also a priority. Each year before school lets out for the summer, she goes into high schools and runs workshops for students. Youth have a chance to test drive a go-kart, play sports and run around the playground — all with impaired goggles on.

As Morash organizes the teens into groups, she encourages them to consider how hard even the simplest task, like walking, can be when intoxicated.

"In the rural areas like this, the only way to get around is driving cars, trucks or ATVs," says Morash. "This is a reminder for them to think twice about doing that if they've been drinking or doing drugs."

The Bible Hill detachment often does joint patrols with the Department of Natural Resources, checking for impaired all-terrain vehicle drivers in the summer and snowmobile drivers in the winter.

"Every time we go out patrolling [the trails], we find someone who's impaired," says Cst. Gavin Naime, an officer in Bible Hill. "But it's not about handing out tickets, it's about being out there. Our presence is often enough to deter people."

Although the priorities of different RCMP detachments change with the populations they police and their location on a map, for the officers running them, the goal is the same.

"I enjoy interacting with people — it's why I became a police officer," says Naime. "I want to support those who need it. Making a difference in someone's day is my goal. If I can do that once per shift, I'm happy."