A blending of experience

Paul Chapman
October 27, 2011
By Paul Chapman
The first order of business for the newly incorporated town of Bathurst, New Brunswick, in September 1912, was to elect a council. It met again a month later, in October 1912, to hire a police constable. The Bathurst Police Force (BPF) was inaugurated before the end of that same year and what has followed is 100 years of service to their community. The first police chief was paid $45 a month and had four constables to call in for help as needed. The force shared one revolver, which was kept at the station and had to be retrieved when needed. Bathurst had dirt streets and wooden sidewalks in its early years and officers had a variety of unusual duties, including making sure stovepipes were cleaned to prevent fires, spreading salt on hills and bridges when ice formed and recording the name of strangers who came to town. If the stranger found work, the officer was responsible for collecting a poll tax. One hundred years later the BPF is responsible for protecting and serving what has since grown into the City of Bathurst, located in the northeastern part of New Brunswick. There are now 32 officers, 11 dispatchers and four civilian members. As a side note officers no longer have to hurry back to the station to get the town revolver.

The first order of business for the newly incorporated town of Bathurst, New Brunswick, in September 1912, was to elect a council. It met again a month later, in October 1912, to hire a police constable. The Bathurst Police Force (BPF) was inaugurated before the end of that same year and what has followed is 100 years of service to their community.

The first police chief was paid $45 a month and had four constables to call in for help as needed. The force shared one revolver, which was kept at the station and had to be retrieved when needed.

Bathurst had dirt streets and wooden sidewalks in its early years and officers had a variety of unusual duties, including making sure stovepipes were cleaned to prevent fires, spreading salt on hills and bridges when ice formed and recording the name of strangers who came to town. If the stranger found work, the officer was responsible for collecting a poll tax.

One hundred years later the BPF is responsible for protecting and serving what has since grown into the City of Bathurst, located in the northeastern part of New Brunswick. There are now 32 officers, 11 dispatchers and four civilian members. As a side note officers no longer have to hurry back to the station to get the town revolver.

The days of collecting poll taxes have long since passed. The BPF has evolved into a modern efficient force, technologically advanced and a leader in integrating work with other forces in the region and beyond.

Bathurst is one of the earliest continuously settled regions of Canada, tracing its European roots back to the early 1600s when French missionaries settled into this sheltered harbour on the Bay of Chaleur. Four rivers converged there and sand dunes created a protected harbour from high winds, roving pirates and privateers; an ideal location for loading fresh water, meat and fish.

The native Mi’kmaq people, who welcomed and traded with the early European settlers, called it the ‘bay of fish,’ but it now has the name given it by Jacques Cartier, Bay of Chaleur, which translates roughly to “bay of warmth” because of its warm saltwater beaches in summer.

Growing from a settlement relying on trading in the 18th century to the shipbuilding industry in the 19th century and mining and pulp and paper in the 20th century, Bathurst is a blue collar city, serving as both the geographic and economic centre of northeastern New Brunswick.

With a population over 12,000, the city serves a population more than three times that size in surrounding communities who gravitate to Bathurst for recreation, shopping, business and entertainment.

There are three other law enforcement agencies in the immediate area – a municipal force serving a group of neighbouring towns and villages, another from a neighbouring city and the RCMP, which is contracted to police the unincorporated rural areas and many other municipalities in New Brunswick.

The Chaleur region is one of the most bilingual in the country, with large Francophone and Anglophone populations. Most officers also speak both of Canada’s official languages.

Co-operation and communicating has been critical to maintaining the success of the century old municipal force. It is part of an integrated policing system that is a model for New Brunswick if not Canada. That spirit of co-operation and openness, along with a close connection to the community it serves, is the reason the BPF still exists.

Council has never seriously considered any other policing option, explains Stephen Brunet, who has 21 years experience as a Bathurst municipal politician and is serving his third term as mayor, because they have always been satisfied with the work of the municipal force.

“City council has always been happy and felt good about the level of service we receive. Of course you could always make it better with more money and more officers and more equipment, but we have to live within our means.”

Access to specialized services is sometimes an issue but the co-operative approach developed with neighbouring law enforcement agencies means help is never far away.

“Why do you need it all when it’s right next door?” asks Brunet rhetorically. “Our neighbours have a dog unit and we have a forensics unit. How many times are you going to need that dog unit or that forensics unit. We trade off those services and it makes sense for us to have some of the specialized services and for them to have different specialized services.”

{Community based}

Deputy Chief Bernie Allain has served with the force for 42 years. He was hired by legendary chief Jerry O’Neil, who headed the BPF from 1953 until he was tragically killed in a car accident in 1973.

“It went by so fast. It’s just unbelievable. It’s been 100 years, I am almost half of that” he says laughing. “Policing was very different in those days, everything has changed. It’s a 360 degree turn. From the equipment we use to the cars we drive, the way we communicate and gather information – it’s all changed since I started.”

One thing that hasn’t changed, notes Allain, is the BPF’s connection with the community. “When I first started it was what I noticed. All of the older members were from around here and if something happened, in a small community everybody was talking about it and so before too long they had solved the case or (identified) the problem.”

“In fact,” continued Allain, “I saw Chief O’Neil, more than once, arrive in the morning and read in the log book about an incident such as a break and enter. He would speak to the day sergeant, go in his office and make a couple of phone calls and before the day was out, a person was in his office confessing to the crime.”

Even today, confirms Brunet, that connection is a major strength. “They seem to have their feet on the street, even though they are not walking like they used to, but they seem to know what’s going on in the city. I am proud of how safe our city is. Whenever there is an incident, I am very confident that they are going to figure out what’s going on.”

Allain agrees that the close community connection members feel and their personal involvement has been key to the continued success.

“There were lots of people that have come and gone during my time here and mostly people that stayed were from around here or they left and gained experience somewhere else before returning home.”

{Joint force operations}

One of the most significant points of pride of the BPF is its work with other agencies. The force hosts the North East Integrated Intelligence Unit, which includes two RCMP members and an officer from each of the three area municipal police forces. The unit is responsible for combating all organized and major crime in northeast New Brunswick.

The BPF has a long tradition of being part of joint force operations (JFO), notes unit member Sgt. Allan Willet. “We really are a model of integrated policing. There is nobody that can work with another police agency like the Bathurst Police Force. We have the longest joint force operations agreement of any police department, certainly in New Brunswick.”

The BPF signed its first JFO agreement in the early 1990s and the program has been developed and enhanced over the years. “Partnership is a must” if the BPF is to continue being a relevant policing agency, Willet says, “and when you get the support and training from the top to the bottom, the mix of officers and the different experience they bring to the unit, you get some really street smart policing.”

The unit was part of the biggest cocaine seizure in Canadian history and has been recognized for many other successful operations. Experience gained with the unit has allowed BPF members to work across the province and sometimes across the country. That spirit of co-operation goes beyond major crime and even sharing resources.

When seven young basketball players and their coach’s wife were killed in a terrible accident that made national and international headlines, “police departments from around the province sent officers to patrol our streets while our officers attended the funeral,” Brunet says. “Officers from Grand Falls, Woodstock, Miramichi came, and others I am sure I have forgotten. It was a gesture from other departments whom our police have worked with over the years.”

{Community policing}

The BPF is a testament to the value of community policing, the benefits of co-operation and partnerships and leadership. The leadership of each chief has inspired members. One of the most famous was Lazare Roussel, who served form 1925 until his death in 1953. Reputed to be the best woodsmen, hunter and police officer in the province, he was said to be the equal of a dozen men in an emergency. His feats included heroically rescuing men caught in log-jams during spring log drives on the Nepisiquit River.

Current chief Eugene Poitras worked his way up through the ranks and enjoys the respect of BPF members. In his second year as chief he has a nice blend of experienced and young officers.

BPF officers are valuable members of the community and the citizens they serve recognize the value of having their own police force. Officers have lived up to their mission statement – to pursue professional excellence while protecting the lives and property of their citizens and visitors.

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