Experience is the best teacher

Simon Martin
October 03, 2011
By Simon Martin
The 'highlight of his policing career' is how Toronto Police Service (TPS) Insp. Paul Vorvis describes his nine month tour helping to train Afghan recruits and police as part of the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan (NTM-A). "It's good to be back home and I'm proud of what we have accomplished as a group," he said. "I would encourage other police officers to consider doing it." Vorvis was part of an 11 person contingent from the TPS. The Toronto Police Service had a history of working in war torn areas like Bosnia, East Timor and the Sudan but had a bad experience a decade ago. Somebody had gone over and served and when he came back had a lot of problems so they stopped participating in missions. Chief Bill Blair had a certain amount of trepidation when they once again began sending officers over to Afghanistan in 2008; he definitely did not want a repeat of what happened a decade earlier. It appears TPS Chief Blair was listening to Vorvis. Since his return in August 2010 two more TPS groups have gone to work with the NTM-A. Now Blair said he is strongly considering increasing the force's participation.

The 'highlight of his policing career' is how Toronto Police Service (TPS) Insp. Paul Vorvis describes his nine month tour helping to train Afghan recruits and police as part of the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan (NTM-A).

"It's good to be back home and I'm proud of what we have accomplished as a group," he said. "I would encourage other police officers to consider doing it." Vorvis was part of an 11 person contingent from the TPS.

It appears TPS Chief Bill Blair was listening to Vorvis. Since his return in August 2010 two more TPS groups have gone to work with the NTM-A. "The officers came back as enthusiastic about the missions as when they left," said Blair. "I asked several of them 'if you could do it again, would you?' and they said they would."

Now Blair said he is strongly considering increasing the force's participation.

"The Canadian mission has changed. I think it's really important to recognize that," he said. "There has been a refocus on the training component of the Canadian contribution."

The TPS had a history of working in war torn areas like Bosnia, East Timor and the Sudan, said Blair. "We had a bad experience ourselves a decade ago. Somebody had gone over and served and when he came back he had a lot of problems," he said. "We stopped participating in missions for a period of time."

That's why Blair had a certain amount of trepidation when the RCMP approached in 2008 about reinstating the force's involvement in international missions; he definitely did not want a repeat of what happened a decade earlier.

"We wanted to make sure we got it right this time," he said. "A lot of thinking and investment went in at the front end surrounding how do we make sure our people are healthy, both physically and psychologically, before they are selected to go."

After much careful thought, Blair agreed to send a contingent. The RCMP coordinated the program on behalf of the federal government. Blair said some 25 police services from across Canada are involved in the mission. He was effusive in his praise of the RCMP for its leadership role and commitment to the program. At any one time the RCMP has about 30 officers stationed in Afghanistan and the TPS has at least 10 officers, he said.

"The Mounties encouraged us to participate. I want to encourage others to participate. We're doing something that I think is really important," said Blair.

The mission that Vorvis and other Canadian police officers are participating in can be deemed equally as important as military operations. However, the task of training an Afghani Police Force to be effective and respected by the country's citizens has many hurdles, said Vorvis. Language, culture and illiteracy are all huge barriers in the training process.

With an illiteracy rate of 87 per cent amongst police recruits, you can't just hand out pamphlets and textbooks. Blair said you have to try some unique approaches to teaching.

The culture of policing is much different in Afghanistan, said Blair. Historically, police and citizens didn't have much interaction. "The police were part of the security plan. They did guarding of buildings and security checkpoints. They didn't answer calls for service the way we do now," he said. "If you had a domestic with a neighbour it was just the will of God type thing and nothing really was done about it."

Afghanis will need a paradigm shift in the collective mentality of their society to embrace the new role of their public institutions. "We're getting the police to transition from doing security to actually being a police service," said Blair. "It's difficult because they don't have the infrastructure or the mind set for that right now."

The Afghani Police Service becoming a trusted pillar of society is the key to other changes, Blair said. An effective police service can make people feel safe and people who feel safe can go to work and send their children to school, he said. "A safe community is a better place to live. That can create respect for government. Prosperity is an incredibly powerful thing," he said.

Vorvis summed up the mission as training people rather than teaching combat. "It's not about going on night patrol, it's about mentoring a district commander. We don't want warriors, we want police officers," he said. "The military performs a hugely important role but that's not our role. Our role is to teach policing."

The NTM-A's mission in Afghanistan is two-fold: train the Afghani army from a military standpoint and train the Afghani police from both a military and policing standpoint.

Blair visited Afghanistan in the spring for a week and was amazed at the Canadian officers quality of work. He said because we come from such a pluralistic society in Canada, we have lots of experience dealing with the ethnic tensions that characterize much of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Canadian police officers have made a huge difference by sharing their experience and values, he said. "It has improved the country's ability to secure its own borders, deal more effectively with insurgencies and helped build a more respectful and trusting relationship with the citizens."

In particular, Blair remembers being at Camp Nathan Smith talking to officers who understood what the profession of policing means to the country's future. Whether it be about how citizens should be treated or building respectable relationships with people, he said they spoke with such eloquence on the subject that it made him very proud to be associated with the mission. "What a potential change that could make if you have a police service that adopted those values, learned those skills and served that country that way," he said.

Although Afghanistan has become much safer in recent years, it is now without risk. There has been a sea-change since the Canadian military left Kandahar, said Vorvis. Canada's police contingent was split between Kandahar and Kabul but is now just in Kabul. It was a very hot war in Kandahar, making it a pretty risky environment for officers to train. Even with Canada's less militarized mission things are still a little dangerous. "I wouldn't minimize the environment," said Blair. "There is risk. It would be foolhardy to ignore. People have to be aware of their security."

That being said, Vorvis said Kabul is a little more comfortable in both temperature and lifestyle. Officers in the Kandahar region would often send a picture of a thermostat at 50 Celsius home to family. Kabul is more similar to Canada, he said, even offering some connection to home. Vorvis was able to call his wife most days and Blair's Blackberry was going off like he was back in Canada.

Blair urged Canadian police officers to think about doing a tour of international policing, noting the TPS results have been extraordinary. "Our people have gained incredible experience and confidence. They come back better than when we sent them, more capable of making a strong contribution here," he said.

Vorvis is a great example. He returned very fired-up about the mission with many ideas about how to go forward and now is part of TPS staff planning for international police operations. Blair said officers sent to Afghanistan are often given jobs with much more authority than they had in Canada, really challenging their skills. It takes them out of what are often routine policing duties and puts them into extraordinary duties. "We send people over there that are punching above their weight and they do an incredible job," he said.

The feedback from participating officers has been great and reflects the thorough planning done before the TPS decided to join the mission, said Blair. It has a rigorous selection process for prospective candidates, ensuring they are physically and psychologically fit with a stable home and financial situation. There is no shortage of officers applying. "I think it's an extraordinary adventure and many of our police officers want to serve," he said, "but we want to make sure that they can serve and remain healthy through the experience."

One of the most important aspects of the program is picking the right people and making sure they are going for the right reasons, he said. Officers usually are drawn to the mission because they want to serve or are looking for an adventure. Many former military personnel view it as a chance to serve their country while still remaining part of the police profession.

Blair and his colleagues did their due diligence to make sure officers feel well supported, modelling their program after the Toronto Military Family Resources Centre. Every officer who serves in Afghanistan goes through a training program and all families are assigned a TPS family liaison officer for support and to keep them connected.

There are also staff psychologists for officers and their families. "I'm not suggesting to you it's perfect," said Blair. "That's a sacrifice for families to be separated in that way. We provide as much support as we can." Vorvis said the support network for families and spouses has paid dividends because they are able to support each other. He cited one instance where the wife of an officer had a family emergency. She wasn't able to get a hold of her husband but the support network was able to track him down within 45 minutes.

The TPS also has a reintegration framework in place for returning officers. There is always a large contingent of police and family at the airport to let participants know they haven't been forgotten.

Coming back home is usually a very difficult transition, said Blair. Going from an exciting nine month mission to the routine of family and work life is tough. He said the TPS provides lots of support during this time to make the transition as easy as possible.

With a third generation of officers participating in the Afghanistan mission, Blair said there is also much more institutional support. Those considering signing up can talk to an officer who has already gone, he said.

Ottawa has approached the TPS to contribute officers to missions in Haiti and Darfur. Blair said it's much easier to commit to doing that when you have the framework already in place to support your officers overseas.

Officers have to make many sacrifices but money is not one of them. They are well compensated, said Blair. The TPS also gets some money, which it tries to invest back in its people, he added.

Many police services have approached Toronto to see what it's doing, said Blair. "We were cautious. I wanted to make sure as a police service that we made the investment right up front to make sure that we did the right thing by our folks who wanted to participate in these missions," he said. "I think its worth sharing with other police services that it has been a very positive experience for us."

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