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Building on social capital

There is nobody who knows Edmonton, Alberta quite like S/Sgt (Ret.) Clif Chapman. From post-war northern burg to down-on-its-heels metropolis, from City of Champions to resurgent oil boomtown, Chapman has been on the front lines of policing in Edmonton for the last half-century. You could say he’s grown up with the city. And now, he’s telling its tales from his unique perspective.

I met up with Chapman on a chilly January morning at Edmonton Police Service (EPS) headquarters to hear about his long history with the service. As we sat down with our cups of coffee, he reminded me of how pampered police can be today: “One time in the late 1960s, I was doing a funeral escort on a motorcycle…in -47 wind chill! My buffalo fur coat had so much frost on it I looked like the Abominable Snowman!” I pulled my steaming mug closer.


January 30, 2012
By Lucas Habib

There is nobody who knows Edmonton, Alberta quite like S/Sgt (Ret.) Clif Chapman. From post-war northern burg to down-on-its-heels metropolis, from City of Champions to resurgent oil boomtown, Chapman has been on the front lines of policing in Edmonton for the last half-century. You could say he’s grown up with the city. And now, he’s telling its tales from his unique perspective.

I met up with Chapman on a chilly January morning at Edmonton Police Service (EPS) headquarters to hear about his long history with the service. As we sat down with our cups of coffee, he reminded me of how pampered police can be today: “One time in the late 1960s, I was doing a funeral escort on a motorcycle…in -47 wind chill! My buffalo fur coat had so much frost on it I looked like the Abominable Snowman!” I pulled my steaming mug closer.

Chapman began by taking me back to the beginning of his career, when police operations couldn’t have been more different than they are today. “I started walking the beat in 1960, in the days before we carried portable radios,” he explained. “We had call boxes a half-hour’s walk apart in the downtown area. You’d walk into some of the all-night restaurants like ‘The Night and Day’ or ‘The Phoenix’ and you could expect any kind of trouble – and nobody knew where you were!” It’s a quaint anecdote of days gone by, but in the era of 24-hour dispatch and patrol car GPS tracking, it seems slightly foolhardy.

Chapman told me that as a result of being out on the street on his own, it became essential to use common sense, down-to-earth policing in order to avoid trouble.

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“You had to be fair and just in your neighbourhood if you wanted to get help from the public in a fight.”

While we chatted, he kept referring back to the Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Policing, especially #7 – ‘the people are the police and the police are the people’. “When I used to do school visits,” he reminisced, “I would tell kids ‘if it wasn’t for the police, your mom and dad would have to take their turns spending the night patrolling the town – so instead they just pay a bit of tax to have me do it!’”

Chapman clearly served as a model officer who conducted himself by that aphorism. He spun tales about getting saved by a member of the public during a bar fight, and about treating the worst offenders with the utmost respect. That kind of policing builds social capital, something Chapman cashed in on many occasions. (By the way, when I said ‘model officer’, I was being literal. For some extra cash, he modelled for advertising photo shoots in his spare time – to his fellow officers’ amusement.)

After a few years in traffic, communications, and the downtown division, Chapman was assigned to the brand-new EPS tactical unit in 1973. Soon after, he led the virgin, underequipped team down to Montana for a tactical competition with the FBI. Fearing a severe whipping, Chapman made sure to add some “Canadian secret weapons” to their arsenal – strong Alberta rye and 12 per cent alcohol Molson Stock Ale. With judicious use of those the night before the competition – “it probably hampered their abilities a little bit” – he was able to pilot the EPS squad to near-complete domination of the FBI.

Returning home from the conquest, though, Chapman soon found himself on the pointy end of one of Edmonton’s scariest police calls to date – man-with-gun-and-hostage. Police hostage.

“It was New Year`s Eve, 1973,” began Chapman. “One of my men was being held hostage by a completely unglued guy with a shotgun. The suspect was calling for me by name, so I went into the apartment. He wanted me to hand him my shotgun. I told him, ‘I don’t hand it over to anybody, but I’ll go back outside and give it to my men.’” At this point, Chapman paused, recalling a night that has ruined every New Year’s Eve for him since. “I turned and walked out – the longest few steps I’ve ever taken. I fully expected that he might fire. The vest I was wearing felt like a postage stamp on my back.” He recalled that Lawrence Welk was playing on the radio as an announcer counted down to midnight.

Emptying out his reservoir of courage, Chapman returned to the apartment in order to protect his partner’s life. At various points throughout that long evening the suspect jammed the shotgun barrel into Chapman’s neck, and threatened to blow his head off. With two police officers hostage, the gunman was certainly in control. Chapman realized that the waiting game was one he was bound to lose once (IF?) something set this guy off.

“After a while, he sat down in a chair and started rocking. I noticed there was a pattern – rock, rock, rock, look down at the floor. I signaled to the other member, and the next time he looked down, I was off across the room. He looked up as I grabbed the barrel and we were fighting for our lives. I managed to block the trigger and pump the three rounds out of his shotgun. The other hostage took his back. It was over, and we had survived.”

In 1989, Chapman finally retired, with the New Year’s Eve ‘party’ standing as his scariest career moment. After taking just one year off, he returned to EPS as part of a pilot project having retired members answer 9-1-1 calls. Chapman was one of the initial four, but the test run was so successful that there are now over 50 retired members filling this role. “We used to have sworn officers answering all 9-1-1 calls as well as dispatching police, but it was too difficult to fill the increasing demand,” confirmed Sgt. Merle Doherty of the EPS 9-1-1 Police Dispatch Section. “We still have sworn members doing the dispatching, but all of our 9-1-1 call evaluators are now retired members. We’re the only service in Canada doing this.”

Chapman loves the efficiency of this system – after 17 years as a 9-1-1 evaluator, he still hasn’t retired (for a second time) – he now does quality control for the dispatch centre. “Having that police knowledge really helps separate the wheat from the chaff,” he declared. “As retired cops, we know the hot spots in the city and we can see things from an officer’s point of view.” Chapman told me that on a few occasions, he even ended up acting as an impromptu negotiator!

After over 50 years with the Edmonton police, Chapman says he has no idea when he might re-retire. He’s collected about 160 stories from his career, and hopes to roll them into a book someday. Soon, Edmontonians may see Chapman on stage at a suddenly-trendy live storytelling event, unspooling tales of his days with EPS.

After spending a couple of hours with him, I can vouch for both his natural storytelling abilities and the great material he has to work with. And although he’ll eventually move on from EPS, the city will keep growing – a little bit safer and a little bit more human thanks to people like Clif Chapman.


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