As the sun peaks over the horizon, Cst. Don MacKenzie finishes his last shift as an Oxford Community Police Service officer.
His in-coming shift relief, while reporting for duty at the same Dundas Street headquarters in the City of Woodstock, dons a different badge, shoulder flash and attitude.
At 7:01 a.m. on Oct. 19, 63 officers of the now defunct Oxford Community Police Service (OCPS) became members of the bornagain Woodstock Police Service (WPS).
“Everything we have been waiting for has come to fruition,” says MacKenzie, whose dad was the last chief of the former WPS. “It’s nice the political turmoil is done and we know where we are going... we know what our future is.”
Around 6 a.m. OCPS quietly ended its reign with a false alarm call in the north end of the city.
Signs were placed by the phones reminding staff to answer “Woodstock Police” as officers took pictures of one another under Woodstock Police banners erected throughout the station.
“You can feel the momentum building in the station,” says Chief Rod Freeman, who came in just after 5 a.m. to see out OCPS and usher in the new force.
At 8:02 a.m. officers cleared their first Woodstock call – a heated domestic argument between two residents over a cabbage resulting in a breach of probation charge.
OCPS was created in 1999 as a partnership between Woodstock and three surrounding townships: Norwich, East Zorra-Tavistock and Blandford-Blenheim. It was a controversial process, taking nearly two years to complete, as was the partial disbandment of the force. “We worked very hard to get where we are at 7:01 a.m. today and we are proud to have accomplished it,” says Freeman. “How many times can you be part of the creation of a new force? It’s a rare event.”
To the general public, the transition is seamless. Besides large ads in local newspapers announcing the rebirth of the WPS, it is difficult to notice the change of guard – but to the officers, it’s more than new letters on the front of the building.
“It’s a brand new fresh start for officers,” says Cst. Randy Rudy, driving down the still empty streets of downtown Woodstock. “As a resident of Woodstock, I am personally excited about it and think citizens will see a real front line difference.”
Rudy was one of eight officers on the first day shift patrol of the new WPS. “It’s a chance for us to prove ourselves to the community, create a new identity here. We as officers and as a police service will dictate how this will unfold,” says Rudy, adding it’s an opportunity to reconnect with the community, “get in their faces and work together.”
Excitement has bubbled since the Ontario Civilian Commission on Policing Services approved the proposal for a Woodstock-only police force on Sept. 4.
“When the Oct. 19 date was set, it immediately improved officers’ morale,” says Freeman.
“My hope is to make this the premiere police service in the province – one that our members can be proud of and a police service our community of Woodstock can be proud of – just as they were of the previous Woodstock Police Service.” The former WPS had been a thriving force in the Friendly City since the 1800s and had grown to include 38 constables, five sergeants, an inspector, deputy and chief in 1998.
Today, WPS is made up of 65 uniform members, supported by 26 fulltime and 12 part time civilian staff, in a community of about 37,000. The city has five patrol zones, including a downtown foot patrol, and boasts a domestic violence unit, criminal investigations branch, containment team, drug unit and a canine unit – even with a now reduced size.
While a handful of officers and civilian staff from the former WPS remain, the chief is quick to point out this is “a new Woodstock Police Service.”
“It’s a new century, with new members, and we want to create our own culture… it’s an opportunity to move forward,” Freeman told the first WPS shift during morning briefing as each member was issued new badges and warrant cards.
“We’ll do it all together. There will be bumps… but we will come out on the stronger side.”
Besides the name itself, there is little comparison between the old and new WPS when it comes to appearances. The big, green “W” from the 1998 WPS shoulder flash has been replaced with a more modern design.
The new hat badges and shoulder flashes were redesigned using the same blue, red and white as the OCPS but now sport the Canadian flag and scales of justice with the slogan “Protecting our Community.”
Freeman says the officers were actively involved in designing and creating the badges.
“It’s something the guys can be proud of because they came up with it,” he adds.
New graphics were installed on 17 cruisers after five surplus vehicles were sold at auction and everything with letterhead was reprinted to reflect the new force crest. Besides a new look, WPS is also under the direction of different management.
Former chief Ron Fraser, who led the OCPS from its creation, announced his retirement earlier this year. He was replaced by Freeman, who was hired as deputy chief in September 2007, leaving his post as chief of the Orangeville Police Service.
“I’ve relocated my family here for the long term, believing very strongly that this is the community I wanted for my wife and to raise my two young sons in,” he says, adding, “Woodstock is a safe community, there is no question about that... (but) we will always strive to be safer.”
Freeman started his police career in 1978 and the 52-year-old has proudly served the communities of Timmins, St. Thomas, Fergus and Orangeville.
He is passionate about policing and has earned a number of awards, including the Ontario Medal for Police Bravery for his role in rescuing a 13-year old girl trapped under the Beatty Dam in Fergus. He has also been inducted as a Member of the Order of Merit for the Canadian Police Forces.
Eighteen-year policing veteran Daryl Longworth began as deputy chief this fall. He was born and raised in the city and has a long history with the WPS, dating back to 1989 when he joined the auxiliary unit.
Longworth signed on with the Halton Regional Police Service in 1992, serving Oakville, Georgetown and Milton before leaving in 1995 to return to his roots with the WPS. He spent 10 years in the criminal investigations branch before quickly rising through the ranks to briefly become inspector in February and then deputy chief in October.
Fourteen OCPS officers of various ranks were displaced by the reorganization but have since taken jobs with the Ontario Provincial Police, who now police the departed townships.
While Woodstock Mayor Michael Harding regrets they were unable to keep such a unique partnership alive, he says he is enthusiastic about “going back to our roots...
“They will be able to concentrate solely on urban-style policing,” he notes, adding officers will be better known to the community.
Concerned about the drug trade in the city, Harding says the chief has already made a personal commitment to eradication. “I think Rod will bring back a former aggressive policy on drug enforcement.”
OCPS spent the summer of 2008 targeting dangerous drug dealers from out-of-town who chose to set up shop in Woodstock. Numerous arrests were made during multiple, simultaneous drug raids.
“This targeted effort was very successful,” says Freeman, but he adds that illegal drugs continue to pose a big threat to community safety.
The service was recently embroiled in a number of high priority investigations – most notably the abduction/murder of 8-year-old Victoria Stafford, which made headlines across Canada.
“The incredible magnitude and extreme intensity of this criminal investigation taxed the resources of our police service and cut deeply into the physical and emotional wellbeing of all our staff,” says Freeman. Victoria is now a constant reminder that the “unthinkable can happen here,” he adds.
A combined investigative effort between OCPS and the OPP resulted in the arrest of two suspects who are currently before the courts facing a variety of criminal charges. It had also been less than a year since the local force discovered off-duty OPP Cst. Laurie Hawkins and her family, who had suffered an accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in their Woodstock home.
“The accidental death of an entire family had a significant impact on our community, was an enormous loss for the police community and took a tremendous toll on the emotions of a large number of our own personnel,” says Freeman.
Also, just over a year ago in November 2008, officers were thrust into a murder investigation that had them digging for evidence and a dismembered victim in the backyard of a Woodstock home – that case is currently before the courts. Only months earlier, patrol officers responded to a tragic car crash where a four-month-old baby boy was killed. A woman was charged with impaired driving related offences.
“Throughout all of these challenges, our officers and support staff demonstrated the depth of their commitment to duty, professionalism, resilience and their immense talent in bringing these serious investigations to conclusion,” says Freeman.
Prior to the partial disbandment, the crime rate for the OCPS was 5,913 offences per 100,000 population, with a nine per cent decrease in reported crime occurring between 2006-2007. The population served by the OCPS was upwards of 62,000, compared to Woodstock’s 37,000, however the majority of calls originated in the city.
“About 80-85 per cent of our work was in the city,” says Freeman. “We may see an initial drop in calls for service but our workload won’t change too much.”
What you will see, he says, “is an organization that has been revitalized, with a second wind able to address all issues, with a new energized police service dedicated to ensuring community safety within the City of Woodstock, in partnership with our citizens.”