The Niagara Parks Commission (NPC) celebrated the 125th anniversary of its police service in June, honouring those who protect the 1,325 hectares of parklands and throngs of tourists who visit each year.
"The Niagara Parks Police Service (NPPS) is one of the oldest police services in the province of Ontario," stated NPC Chair Janice Thomson. "Our police play an integral role in ensuring the safe and enjoyable stay of the almost 10 million visitors who come to Niagara and Niagara Parks each year."
The NPPS was founded in 1887 to protect the lands and visitors of Niagara Parks. "It's my understanding that they were the first policing in the area and that was because of all the popularity that had grown around the falls," said chief Douglas Kane.
"It appears that there were all kinds of hucksters and people taking advantage of it so the government wanted to regain that area and turn it back to the people so that they could come here and not be bothered and hampered by thieves or other people that might take advantage of them."
Officers patrol a 56-kilometre area that stretches from Niagara-on-the-Lake in the north to Fort Erie on the south, dealing with millions of visitors and looking after everything from lost children, crowd control and motorists looking for directions.
"Our main function is to make sure that tourists are safe and that they can come to enjoy the falls at any hour of the day and night," said Kane.
Officers respond to routine calls for service, provide proactive 24/7 patrols, manage the concentrated pedestrian and vehicular traffic, maintain the peace and enforce federal and provincial statutes. NPPS officers also coordinate the security for large scale and high profile events hosted on NPC lands, including New Year's Eve celebrations.
Officers are all Ontario Police College (OPC) graduates and a number are specially trained in high angle and swift water rescue techniques to respond to emergencies in a unique and naturally challenging environment.
Other training includes identification services, technical accident investigations, radar traffic enforcement, police motorcycle and bicycle operations, marine enforcement operations, police canine, first aid, physical fitness training and quality service.
Civilian members receive OPC training as communicators and a fire safety officer has training from the Ontario Fire College.
The service maintains bicycle, motorcycle and marine patrol capabilities and added a canine last year. Nia, a black female German Shepherd, assists in search and rescue and detecting explosives. She also acts as an effective ambassador for the service. The name Nia, short for Niagara, was chosen from over 250 entries in a spring 2011 contest.
The NPPS is particularly proud of its partnerships with emergency services on both sides of the international border and private sector partners providing aerial and river based tour experiences.
Provincial offences officers join the service with first aid training and are generally enrolled in police foundations or criminology programs at college or university with a view towards a career in law enforcement.
Many Ontario police officers in Ontario began their careers as students with the Niagara Parks Police Service, including Kane, who worked as a student officer in the 1970s before moving on to the Niagara Regional Police Service. He retired as a superintendent, having "come full circle to complete a very rewarding career."
Kane still remembers standing out on Falls Avenue as a teenager, whistle in his mouth, directing traffic to and from the country's most popular tourist attraction.
Kane had long dreamed of becoming a cop and, like so many before him and so many since, cut his teeth as a summer hire with the Niagara Parks Police. He learned a lot of valuable lessons back then, but there's one in particular that's always stuck with him: "Never stop the horses at your beat."
It's practical advice at it's best, especially on those sizzling dog-days of the peak season. Best to let the next guy down the line deal with the proclivities of buggy-pulling equines.
"It's a great place to work and this is a great job," said Kane. "It's like a family here. It really is. The people really want to be here and are happy to come to work every day. I always tell everyone I couldn't have planned things any better at this point in my career."
Kane, who plans to retire in June 2013, spent most of his policing tenure in St. Catharines with what is now the Niagara Regional Police Service.
"It's a different kind of policing here," he said. "It's tourism policing. You deal with everything from lost cameras and passports to lost people to overseeing rescues in the (Niagara) gorge. It's all about keeping the public safe, though and making them feel safe. People like to see police officers in the parks. That's why they feel comfortable enough to be wandering around at all hours, 2 or 3 in the morning – because they feel safe. That's why this service is so important."
A couple of years ago the Ontario government toyed with the idea of disbanding the service, wondering if the duties that eat up about $3 million a year (paid by the Niagara Parks Commission) could be performed more efficiently and cheaply by the NRP. In the end, it survived the challenge.
The service, with 20 full-time officers plus support staff and around 30 seasonal hires, clearly holds a warm spot in the hearts of those close to it. Kane said invitations to the June celebration were sent to every former Parks officer still active in policing and more than 100 accepted the invitation.
"That's very nice that people want to come back," Kane said. "The officers do enjoy their time here and some never leave."
Technically the Parks police are deemed special constables. A local police force, such as the NRP, is allowed to appoint officers to carry out policing in a specific area. Parks police officers are armed and receive the same type of training as municipal police officers.
Typical calls for service include vehicle crashes (approximately 100 per year), theft, mischief, counterfeit currency and break-ins. Other more serious incidents include fatal motor vehicle collisions, suicides and attempted suicides, the recovery of bodies, cross-boarder activities and searches in the gorge for missing and injured people.
"We are extremely proud of the legacy we have established during the last 125 years," said Kane. "I know that with the support of the Niagara Parks Commission, our emergency services and private sector partners, we will continue to serve a culturally diverse, worldwide visitor community, which continues to chose Niagara as their travel destination."