Blue Line


March 15, 2013  By Joel Johnston

Vancouver Police Department (VPD) officer Joel Johnston has been Blue Line’s defensive tactics editor since 1994 and a consultant and researcher to both police and government agencies. He is recognized for his no-nonsense approach to use of force in the Canadian context. In this three part series he reflects upon the evolution of use of force standards and equipment in Canadian policing.

{The beginning}

Although it was 28 years ago, I still remember with clarity and fondness my days at the old Justice Institute of BC – Police Academy, in the high-rent area of Vancouver’s west side overlooking English Bay. It was headed by a salty, sharp-tongued, powerful-gripped ex-RCMP staff sergeant director and replete with a true cast of characters as instructors (and classmates). We were known as “the Expo class” – a mass hiring of some 70 people prompted by the 1986 Vancouver World’s Fair.

My colleagues have, for the most part, gone forward with successful policing careers, some serving alongside me in Vancouver since the beginning. Others decided that policing wasn’t for them and moved on. Most are in the “twilight” of their careers at this point; some have already retired and sadly, some have passed away.


{Policing in the 1980s}

A great deal has changed in policing since 1985. We became police officers three years after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “Old school” policing remained the order of the day. The Charter warning card was the size of a standard business card. I had an “attaché case” for my reports and patrol supplies. It was pre-emergency vehicle operation standards, pre-Young Offenders Act, pre-independent investigations offices, pre-police complaints commissioners, etc. “Check cards” were completed on the street by hand. Reports to Crown counsel were hand-written in triplicate on carbon paper, or hammered out with a typewriter. General occurrence reports were one page long. The Internet was used only at universities. It seemed a much simpler time.

We were issued .38 caliber Smith & Wesson Model 10 revolvers – the first in the VPD to receive the new “bull barrel” S&Ws, a source of great consternation among some senior members. We were also among the first to be given the “new speed-loaders” – a big step up from the “speed strips” of the past. Along with the sidearm, we were issued a hefty 26-inch polycarbonate baton with rubber grommet to hold it in the belt ring. One set of handcuffs rounded out our “force options” – all carried in leather holsters on a leather belt along with large 3-D-cell Mag-Lights (which doubled as a force option under the correct circumstances). These were essentially the days of fists, clubs and guns.

My first assignment was the “skids,” now known more commonly as the “Downtown Eastside”. I worked in a mobile patrol assignment initially and then was afforded the opportunity to “walk the beat.” This was – believe it or not – a sought-after position. We dealt with robberies, assaults and drug-dealing for the most part. The ancillary crimes to drug addiction (theft-from-auto, B&E, shoplifting, etc.) rounded out our calls. The robberies and assaults usually involved knives, bottles, pint glasses, blunt objects and bodily force. Some ended as homicides. The big drugs being dealt were “T’s & R’s” (Talwin & Ritalin), which were fabricated into a poor-man’s heroin, heated in a spoon and injected directly into any open vein.

Despite its unpleasantness, this was perhaps the best place to learn the ropes of policing and it was only my secondment to the Vancouver City Gaol that took me away from the skids. All newly-hired VPD members had to do their “inside time” – in the Gaol, at the public information counter or in the communications center. The Gaol was by far the best assignment for those interested in crime and crooks. There was plenty of action – processing freshly-arrested drunk, high, angry, emotionally-charged folks. It gave you a good look at the regular “clients” and an opportunity to practice your pugilistic skills with some regularity. Assignments in patrol in the south of the city and in traffic enforcement followed.

{Igniting a passion for training}

The sergeant in charge of the VPD Training Section asked me in 1990 to take over use of force training from self defense/karate expert and former RCMP Depot self defense instructor John McKay, who had been promoted to corporal. I was practicing Shotokan karate with considerable zeal and had always been very interested in officer safety. However, at the time I was particularly enjoying my assignment riding a new Harley-Davidson police motorcycle, working with a great bunch of guys and writing well-deserved traffic violation reports (TVRs) and traffic ticket informations (TTIs) as a member of Traffic “B – shift”. The request to take this position wasn’t really a request, however, so I reluctantly accepted the assignment. This set the course for the rest of my VPD career.

I “became” the VPD Fitness Coordinator in September, responsible for recruit candidate fitness testing, in-service fitness programs and semi-annual force options training and re-certifications.

{Rapid change}

A number of high-profile use of force incidents garnered attention during the late 1980s and early 90s. In July 1988 a mentally ill man named Mario Deiana stabbed his landlord to death. I remember the general broadcast that afternoon shift. Two of our plainclothes members were first on scene at the call in District 3. Deiana immediately advanced aggressively with the still-bloody butcher knife held menacingly overhead and was shot dead. During the inquest, former RCMP S/Sgt. and BC Police Academy defensive tactics trainer Doug Farenholtz recommended police try out a new “jalapeno pepper spray” to stop aggressive people.

The BC Police Commission struck a committee in 1989 to study less lethal weapon technology as alternatives to firearm use. Its report, released in 1991, recommended, among other things, a province-wide field-test for pepper spray and the limited use of the ARWEN (Anti-Riot Weapon Enfield) rifle, which fired rubber bullets, by specially-trained emergency response units.

Three well-known American trainers – Bob Jarvis of Los Angeles, Roland Oulette of Connecticut and Larry Smith of San Diego – came to Vancouver in April 1991 to demonstrate the “Cap-Stun” pepper spray product. They said US police were impressed with it and that it had never caused death or serious injury but immediately disabled “all suspects, including those who may be mentally deranged, high on drugs or intoxicated,” adding that “it also works on vicious animals.”

Municipal police and the BC RCMP began field tests and Oleoresin Capsicum spray soon became an accepted component of police force response options – but not without controversy or problems. Special interest groups alleged pepper spray caused deaths and was being misused by police officers.

Perhaps chief among these problems was the reality that pepper spray wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. It did NOT “immediately disable all suspects.” Police found that it failed in many circumstances – most frequently when most-needed (violent, goal-oriented, mentally ill and/or drug-induced subjects). One of the most profound examples of this reality was the death of Oregon police officer Frank Ward, who was beaten to death by a man with a piece of firewood on a domestic violence call as he clutched his now-empty canister of pepper spray. Ward was trained that pepper spray worked on everyone. It didn’t and it still doesn’t. Some subjects actually become more enraged when exposed to it.

Then there was the infamous Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) in Vancouver in 1997, where a group of protestors were pepper sprayed en masse by Tactical Troop Commander Sgt. Hugh Stewart in November 1997. Never mind that they were violating the law, were fairly warned to disperse and were blocking the imminent motorcade route of the world’s most powerful leaders. This incident took on a life of its own (as is usually the case), spawning a lengthy and expensive inquiry and prompting then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien to utter the words “… for me, pepper – I put it on my plate…”.

Stewart was forevermore dubbed “Sergeant Pepper.” I still believe Stewart used necessary, appropriate and reasonable force under the circumstances. I was part of the combined VPD-RCMP Crowd Control Unit on standby at the venue. The alternative method of dispersal would have been shields and batons. It would have been ugly – and would have simply spawned a differently-focused inquiry.

Ultimately pepper spray has settled into being a less-controversial, better-understood force response option. Police officers understand its strengths and weaknesses, use it less frequently and the media and public have focused their negative attention on other police force response options.

{The “new” impact weapon}

Police impact weapon technology also changed during the ’90s when Armament Systems & Procedures Inc. (ASP) began manufacturing the ASP expandable baton. Coincidentally, in July 1990 two Port Moody police officers were disarmed by a violent career criminal while investigating suspicious circumstances in the wee hours at a strip mall. One officer confronted James Douglas Stephenson while the other watched two other suspects.

As they wrestled, the officer had Stephenson in a version of a headlock while the suspect was focused on taking his revolver. The officer shouted “he’s got my gun” as he was disarmed and, as his partner moved to intervene, Stephenson spun around, striking the second officer in his mid-section and knocking him to the ground. Stephenson then put the gun to that officer’s head and snatched his revolver.

As the first officer ran back to his vehicle to retrieve the shotgun Stephenson began shooting “Yosemite Sam-style” at him across the police car. The second officer had scrambled for a cover position and now unable to effectively respond or defend himself. The first officer fired the shotgun across the car at Stephenson, who began to move away while still firing. A single shotgun pellet struck him in the head, knocking him down. He died enroute to hospital. Unbelievably, neither officer was hit. The other two suspects never really involved themselves and fled the immediate area.

The subject of police force options came up during the Stephenson Inquest. Why did police officers not have other weapons to assist in controlling resistive, aggressive, violent people? Was it either the gun or your physical skills? Why were there no other control options or tools?

Pepper spray had not yet been introduced and the reality was that very few officers carried their issue 26-inch polycarbonate or wooden baton. They were heavy, cumbersome, intrusive, inconvenient and looked “aggressive” to the public. A survey revealed that 95 per cent of VPD officers left their baton in their locker or car when attending calls so the department decided to field test the ASP baton.

Ontario’s Nepean Police Department was also testing the ASP baton at the time and the field test results were very encouraging. All of the officers carried it all the time. The baton was lighter, low-profile and opened with considerable psychological effect (due to the visual expansion and simultaneous loud metallic “clack!” of the baton locking open). It was subsequently implemented across the board in Nepean and Vancouver. Other Canadian agencies soon followed suit.

The expandable baton has become standard issue to all Canadian police officers. Expandable baton technology has improved considerably and a number of manufacturers, including ASP, making quality “auto-lock” products. However, the baton does not seem to be frequently used by Canadian police officers.

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