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WEARING OUR MISTAKES


December 18, 2014
By Morley Lymburner

2192 words – MR

A particularly nasty watering hole in Toronto’s notorious Jane Street corridor, the Beverly Hills Hotel bar was long known for payday fights. The unit commander insisted on stationing two pay-duty officers there to keep the battles down.

The officers this cool rainy Friday evening were Ron and Jack, very experienced and tough as nails, a fact well known to every hood in the area. You simply did not cross swords with them unless you were uninitiated or just plain stupid.

I stopped by to make sure they were well supplied with coffee; another officer had beat me to it. The routine was for area patrol cars to occasionally drop in and I was happy to hear it was quiet.

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The “10-33, officers need assistance” radio call came about half an hour after my visit. Spinning my scout car around on busy Jane Street, I floored it… my slant six Plymouth sputtered indignantly, then begrudgingly responded.

I arrived to find a large crowd of bar patrons mixing it up with two officers. Ron and Jack were lying on the sidewalk by the door, surrounded by pools of blood. Others, including two bar bouncers, had blood soaked cloths over their heads. Ron’s face was completely covered and he appeared to be unconscious. The left side of his face was covered with a bloody cloth but he at least was sitting upright, with assistance. I noticed a large crowd fighting in the parking lot and at least two other officers flailing away at a couple of men.

Police cars began arriving in great numbers as I ran to my car radio to advise the dispatcher we would need at least two ambulances and a supervisor as soon as possible. I ran back to rejoin the fray just in time to see a third officer go down. I managed to swing heavily at the person standing behind him, who was firmly holding the officer’s cross strap and pulling him around.

I heard a crack as my nightstick landed hard on his collar bone and a howl of pain as he quickly released the officer. I then felt someone firmly grab at my cross strap. The officer I had just released quickly dispatched my assailant. We both decided it was time to ditch the cross straps, wrapping them in our left hand and putting them to better use as weapons.

The upshot of all this was many injured officers. Ron went to the hospital unconscious with a broken (torn away) jaw, broken nose and two black eyes. Worst of all, his gun and nightstick were missing. It took him a year to recover after surgery and he retired shortly thereafter.

Jack had a broken nose and left wrist and black eye, along with a variety of other cuts and bruises. His gun was also missing but later recovered. A waitress had spotted it on the ground and scooped it up for safekeeping.

After investigating the combatants (all members of a local biker club) it was discovered that bar room conversations had circulated that the best way to take out an officer was to grab his cross strap from behind. Place one hand on their back and pull hard on the strap so the tension over the front pin prevented the flap from releasing. It was just a matter of time before someone would try it and the best targets were the two officers who could be found every Friday night at the same place.

Word spread among officers in our unit and all decided that future calls to that hotel would be sans cross strap. About two weeks later I was dispatched to the bar and removed my cross strap before entering. My patrol sergeant was waiting for me as I left. A brief lecture about being out of uniform followed, and a documentation to the boss was deemed appropriate.

It took several years of arguing and many grievances for the cross strap to be officially removed, finally recognized as a dangerous accouterment with no real purpose other than cosmetic. We wore them because that’s what soldiers wore.

{The Mike Ferguson tragedy}

Fast forward to 1999 when RCMP Cst. Mike Ferguson shot and killed Darren Varley. The only officer working for nearly 180 miles around a remote prairie town, Ferguson fought with the intoxicated Varley prior to taking him to the detachment. The suspect was so violent that he punched out the scout car window.

During a subsequent struggle inside the detachment holding cell, Varley managed to pull Ferguson’s exterior armor vest (something the RCMP supplied and encouraged officers to wear) over his head, temporarily gaining enough control to grab his sidearm.

An understandably panicked Ferguson struggled to regain his firearm and shot Varley twice, once in the abdomen and once in the head. After a tenacious three prosecutions it was determined that Ferguson’s first shot was in fear. Amazingly, in two seconds flat, it was determined his adrenalin level had dropped to the point that anger replaced fear as he fired his second shot.

Ferguson went to jail. Was it a faulty ruling, flawed judgement and/or poor understanding of the real world by the courts? All these things are wonderful fodder for sociologists, medical experts and legal beagles.

Would any of this have happened if his exterior armour was concealed?

In honour of Ron, Jack and Mike I confess my absolute hatred of anything that gives a bad guy the advantage. History has taught me how long it takes to move an object as large and cumbersome as police bureaucracy, however this inertia pales in comparison to changing something which has gained voluntary compliance.

Most police leaders have taken a passive approach to exterior armour, relinquishing their responsibility to keep officers safe. This modern ideal boils down to less perceived risk (for them) and is the easy way out of rules and regulations that require monitoring and enforcement. In other words, if they do not make a regulation there is nothing to defend. This is why officers today are given the option of wearing their body armour exterior or interior. Little thought has been given to safety. When an assailant overpowers an officer by using their armour against them, senior RCMP policy makers feel all they have to say is that the officer was given the choice.

Can top managers really argue they have no knowledge of harm? They could claim no one has worked out the odds of an officer being shot instead of being overpowered during a career. Ron, Jack and Mike certainly found out.

A police chief once asked me why I dislike exterior armour and I offered to demonstrate. He agreed and an obliging sergeant presented his back. I jammed my left arm between his shoulder blades, under his exterior armour, and began moving him around the room. All he had to do to escape, he told me, was strip away the Velcro flaps. I invited him to proceed and began tapping his gun. His hand went down to hold it and we continued our dance. The chief’s eyes widened and his mouth was agape.

The gun was in a security holster, the sergeant suggested. “Are you willing to bet your life on that?” I asked. “Mike did and lost.”

You have no way of knowing who will be a motivated attacker, from where they will come or their knowledge or training – yet far too many officers are willing to give away this one major advantage. Six handles and you are at their mercy. Tell them how many children you have. Maybe they will let you go.

To determine the validity of my argument, watch a judo fighter. They gain control over their opponents by grabbing whatever they can. Is this effective? Are you willing to bet your life to find out?

The only reason police wear external body armour is because soldiers wear it and everyone feels secure if they look like the TAC team on television.

{There is a light}

Some police leaders are courageous enough to enact policies designed to protect their members. One came to me several years ago to ask for help in countering a grievance against a ban on exterior armour. I supplied him with many articles and material from the Blue Line Knowledge Portal, including my seven points of concern. External carriers:

  • Supply assailants with at least six handles capable of incapacitating officers in an altercation;

  • Encourage target realignment to the head by armed assailants;

  • Encourage a sloppy, unprofessional appearance in shirt sleeve dress;

  • Add four more layers of nylon over a shirt so are hotter than concealed armour;

  • Give a false image to the public of an aggressive, combat zone stance;

  • Could be a cop killer’s defence against a “murder one” charge; and

  • Should be replaced by quality wick-away undergarments.

{The grievance}

This agency hired an experienced police officer from another organization that allowed external body armour. Almost from the day he was hired he started a campaign against the “no exterior carrier” policy, first asking to be allowed to wear it, then rallying others against the policy when his request was refused.

He brought it up as a contract negotiation issue and the agency agreed to form a committee to research the pros and cons. It looked into the subject and agreed the existing policy was appropriate given the various safety concerns.

Undeterred, the officer obtained a prescription from his family physician saying that “for medical reasons” he should be allowed to wear external armour. The dangers of exterior carriers were explained to the doctor, who later withdrew his prescription. The officer filed a grievance. The chief assigned his deputy to deal with the issue through the union representative in an informal dispute resolution forum.

The deputy was given carte blanche to do whatever he could to satisfy the complainant, short of issuing the external carrier. The officer was subsequently offered the best and lightest vest on the market, the best available moisture wicking under garments, the lightest and best uniform shirts available and even a device that was supposed to stop excessive sweating. None of this was satisfactory and it became clear nothing but an external carrier would settle the issue for him.

Finally a Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) representative got involved and had union lawyers look at the policy. They determined it was reasonable, not discriminatory and within the chief’s right to manage the organization.

{The policy}

<Title: Body armour
Reference: Use of force specialists

  1. Purpose

The purpose of this policy is to ensure police service members wear their issued body armour while on duty, concealed from view for officer safety reasons. The police service and board of police commissioners place the greatest emphasis on officer safety. While it’s virtually impossible to develop a policy to cover all possible scenarios it must be recognized that the police service encourages members to wear all their protective equipment, in particular body armour, at all times, including those times where this policy doesn’t specifically mandate it.

In those activities where the policy indicates body armour is not mandatory it’s still encouraged and recommended but is left to the responsibility of each individual to judge its appropriateness. Members must always be cognizant that the police function unfortunately is wrought with unexpected situations and even the most routine of situations may end up posing a serious officer safety concern.

  1. Policy

While on duty, members of the police service will wear their issued body armour under their uniform shirt concealed from view at all times, except as noted below in the procedures section.

  1. Procedures

Operational patrol and traffic personnel – Shall wear their complete body armour (front and back panels) concealed from view under the uniform shirt at all times while engaged in operational duties. Members engaged in clerical duties (writing reports etc.) may remove their armour, however shall not leave the office or deal with the public without their armour properly in place. Armour may be worn on the exterior of shirts when the officers are wearing other outer garments such as jackets, rainwear or reefer coats.

Plainclothes officer – Shall wear body armour at any time that an arrest or search includes safety concerns. It is strongly recommended that plainclothes officers wear body armour at all times however it is recognized that there are situations where body armour may jeopardize a covert operation or procedure to the detriment of the involved officer’s safety or procedural effectiveness.

Operational personnel assigned to administrative duties – Shall wear concealed body armour at any time there are anticipated safety concerns.

Administrative personnel – Shall wear concealed body armour at any time they are called out to attend serious incidents where safety issues are a concern.

Exception – The only members authorized to wear body armour externally are tactical response officers and those actively engaged in motorcycle traffic duties. Those so involved have the option of wearing an external carrier with police or traffic clearly identified across the back.

It is the responsibility of the NCO i/c of each section to ensure, on a daily basis, the members under their direction are complying with this policy.>


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