Blue Line

First Nations force tackles organized crime

November 7, 2022  By Brittani Schroeder

The AMPS SAVE Team. Photo credit: Brittani Schroeder

Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service protects its community through new SAVE team

Along the shores of the St. Lawrence River, the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service (AMPS) is hard at work guarding their waterways from increasingly crafty foe: members of organized crime. The AMPS is a First Nations police service located on the reservation of Akwesasne (pronounced ACK-weh-SASS-nee) near Cornwall, Ont. There are about 16,000 members in the Haudenosaunee (pronounced hoh-DEEnoh-SHoh-nee) and Mohawk community. The Akwesasne territory straddles three borders — Ontario, Quebec and the U.S. — on both banks of the St. Lawrence River. There are two separate police forces that cover this territory: AMPS in Canada and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police in the U.S. The AMPS recently celebrated their 50th anniversary and have a team of around 50 members, sworn and civilian. Although this territory is divided by many borders, the residents consider themselves to be one community.

In early June, Blue Line had the opportunity to visit the Akwesasne community to learn about their territory and the police service’s new Snowmobile – ATV – Vessel Enforcement team, known as SAVE.

The SAVE team

The SAVE team was developed three years ago through provincial and federal funding to combat crime on the waterways that run through the reservation.

In 2017, a proposal was made to create a full-time marine unit to police the St. Lawrence River and surrounding waterways. The river often serves as a highway for smuggling and other crime.

“There’s always been the RCMP, OPP and the U.S. Border Patrol on the water, but we’d never had an Akwesasne police presence out there,” said First Nations Sgt. David “Eddie” Thompson, leader of the SAVE team.

The Akwesasne chief and deputy chiefs pitched the problem to the government. With the rising smuggling numbers that the RCMP was reporting, along with more organized crime groups coming in from the Toronto and Montreal metropolitan areas, Akwesasne needed to be out on the water patrolling their jurisdiction.

First Nations Sgt. David “Eddie” Thompson and Cst. Vaughan Starblanket. Photo credit: Brittani Schroeder

In 2018, a two-year pilot project was initiated, and the SAVE team was formed. The first year was full of figuring out logistics, like what the team would need, and doing the groundwork to get the team up and running. Plans for a boathouse were developed and the team worked from one small vessel. The SAVE team was taught by the RCMP on how to patrol the area as a new marine unit, and soon the team started being “more proactive and took over the jurisdiction with regular patrolling,” said Sgt. Thompson, who was brought onto the team as a constable before being promoted to sergeant in 2020.

Cst. Christian Zimmer has been working alongside Sgt. Thompson on the SAVE team since the fall of 2019. He said, “The SAVE team is a huge piece of the puzzle that hadn’t been here for law enforcement for so long. With the political turmoil and the exploitation of the community of Akwesasne by criminal organizations because of its geographical location and uncontrolled land borders, as well as having the St. Lawrence River, it has been overrun for decades with organized crime.”

The team’s mandate is to combat organized crime and smuggling activities in the Akwesasne territory. Since its inception, the SAVE team has grown in the number of AMPS members and the number of vessels they have access to.

“We seize all kinds of contraband that come across our waterways,” said Sgt. Thompson. “The biggest seizures we’ve made have included cannabis, which is trafficked across the river and headed for the U.S. It’s our job to intercept it before it crosses that international border. We’re talking about hundreds of pounds of cannabis each week, sometimes that number is up in the thousands.”

A wealth of team successes

The SAVE team recently secured a multi-million-dollar transfer agreement from both the Quebec and Ontario governments for the next six years to keep the team going thanks to their achievements over the last three years.

In terms of success, Sgt. Thompson looks at the major cooperation between the AMPS SAVE team and outside agencies, both in Canada and the U.S. “We partner with so many agencies, like the RCMP, the Canadian Border Services Agency, known as CBSA, the OPP, our on-road patrol members of the AMPS, U.S. Border Patrol and Customs, Homeland Security, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police and more,” said Sgt. Thompson. “They are a big part of what makes us successful.”

Running a training exercise on the waters of the St. Lawrence River. Photo credit: Brittani Schroeder

Along with the partnerships with other agencies comes a strong sense of trust and communication between members.

“Before the SAVE team, I didn’t know many people in the other agencies. Now we’re at the point where we’re communicating with these agencies daily and we’re gathering and sharing intel, and they’re sharing their intel with us. We’re building on our success and together we’re identifying targets and those involved in criminal organizations,” said First Nations Cst. Corey Thomas, who joined the team during the spring of 2020.

For First Nations Cst. Vaughan Starblanket, who joined the team in summer 2019, the success of the team comes from their proactive policing. “This is what most cops want to do in their career; they see a crime committed and they take down the bad guys. We get to be proactive, rather than reactive out on the boats.”

“The SAVE team is a huge piece of the puzzle that hadn’t been here for law enforcement for so long.” – Cst. Christian Zimmer.

In 2021, the SAVE team seized over $5 million worth of contraband, which included cannabis, tobacco, cocaine and fentanyl, among other items. This was a combined effort between the SAVE team, the on-road patrol members of the AMPS, the RCMP, the CBSA and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police. They’re also seeing a large influx of illegal immigrants coming across the river.

From 2021 to 2022, the SAVE team is looking at seized contraband numbers totalling over $15 million.

Challenges along the way

Like every new project, the SAVE team has run into challenges during their first few years of operation. One of the biggest is policing a very tight knit community.

“We’re dealing with people we know, sometimes it could even be family members that we’re stopping on the water. No matter what, we need to do our job, and for the most part the community understands that. As long as we’re being respectful while on the job, we don’t get a lot of push-back,” Sgt. Thompson said.

Organized crime has been running those waterways for so long that for some, they don’t see the act of smuggling as criminal.

“They don’t see the damage it causes. It’s just a way of life for some people here, and it’s how they make a living. Sometimes we’re seen as the ‘traitors’ or the ‘bad guys’ for putting a stop to it, just because they don’t realize they’re helping the criminal organizations hurt other people and other communities,” said Cst. Starblanket.

Another challenge is the geography the SAVE team covers. Between dealing with the international border and coordinating with other agencies, the team can come up against a lot of barriers.

“Manpower can be a real issue, as I’m sure other agencies across Canada can attest to. When smugglers cross the international border line out in the river, I’m already on the phone with the U.S. agencies to coordinate with them so they can intercept the boat as it comes to their shores. But since they might be short on manpower too, it’s hard for them to manage it all sometimes. It’s always frustrating when we see them get away, but we’re limited to staying on our side of the border when we’re out in the water,” said Cst. Thomas.

Intercepting the smugglers across the river can feel like a game of cat and mouse, said Cst. Zimmer. Before the SAVE team was created, the waterways were described as the “wild west” because multiple crime groups were making smuggling runs every night, like the river was just a highway. “When we first started out, we were catching smugglers every single night. Now, they know we might be out there and they’re starting to think of different ways to get the contraband across the border. It makes our job harder because we need to adapt to keep up with their new tactics, but it’s a challenge we welcome,” he said.

Looking ahead

Of the SAVE team members that Blue Line spoke to, it was unanimous that they’d like to expand their team further.

Editor Brittani Schroeder at the helm of the SAVE team vessel, led by Cst. Zimmer.

“You can never have enough people for a team like this. I want to expand the team and make sure this is a permanent unit for the AMPS and the Akwesasne territory. That’s how we’ll continue making an impact,” said Sgt. Thompson. He also said he’s hoping to find a successor who will take over leadership of the team when he retires in a few years.

Another hope for the future includes a closer working relationship with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police and other U.S. agencies. They’d love to see a joint task force where Canadian members can be in the U.S. boats, and vice versa. “If we could do that, we would be able to catch even more smugglers than we are now,” said Cst. Thomas.

Cst. Starblanket and Cst. Zimmer both echoed these sentiments. “This river is huge, so the more people involved, the easier it will be on all of us. Until that happens, this area will continue to be exploited,” said Cst. Starblanket.

Cst. Zimmer also hopes that the SAVE team and AMPS can help educate other larger police agencies on the success of their team, and how they can implement something similar within their own departments.

As the team looks to recruit more members, Cst. Thomas said, “If you want the best job in policing, come to AMPS and the SAVE team.” This was reiterated by all those present.

In the hopes of sharing some advice to potential future policing recruits, Cst. Zimmer said, “Don’t shy away from the places people consider having a lot of crime or could be a rough area, because that’s where you’re going to learn the most and be exposed to the widest variety of things. Every day we see something new here; in just one day you can go from speaking to a kindergarten class, to executing a CDSA drug warrant, to seizing up to million dollars in contraband on the water. You have to wear a lot of different hats here.”

“This is community policing at its best,” said Sgt. Thompson. “We are a small community, but we deal with big city crimes. It’s the best job in the world.”

The photos below have been shared by Sgt. Thompson and are just some of the successful seizures by the AMPS SAVE Team.

Editor’s note: Cst. Christian Zimmer moved on to the OPP as of October 2022.

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