Police officers often earn a bad rap, but life at VicPD is no easy gig
It’s Saturday night and I’m in the back of a police van.
I’ve only ever been inside a paddy wagon twice before. The first was at age six, when a winter-stalled car left my mother and I near-frozen on the side of the highway. The female officer tucked me into the back seat and handed me a small doughnut while the heater blasted tears off my cheeks. The second was a few years ago, when a good-natured security cop gave a couple of visitors a driving tour of Ottawa’s Parliament Hill in mid-January snow.
This time is different. I’m on my first ride-along with the late-night division of the Victoria Police Department, and we’re flying along Douglas Street. The sirens are deafening, and flashes of red and blue strobe off every building we pass. Cars push to the side to get out of our way. Women in short dresses and high heels leap to the sidewalk as we careen through three red lights. A cop car appears beside us and my first thought is, “oh shit,” before I realize where I am — a dumb smile crawls across my face.
We turn onto View Street and I hear my own gasp, certain, at this speed, we’ll tip the wagon. A crowd wavers up ahead, just outside Touch Lounge. Partiers have swarmed the street and already two cop cars are there with lights flashing. We’re still speeding toward the crowd. People are running. I close my eyes. Someone is going to die.
We screech to a halt, and before I can un-squeeze my lids, the officers are out of the car. “Stay close to the vehicle,” they yell back at me before disappearing into the crowd. I hesitate, then unbuckle and run up to see why girls are standing with hands over their mouths and boys are awkwardly moving forward for a closer look.
There is a man lying in the gutter. He isn’t moving — knocked unconscious — while paramedics flutter over him. The air is thick with noise: sirens, shouting, the click-clack of heels. The man is still lying there when my officers run back to the van. They say nothing and I race back to join them.
We peel out of View Street, shackled with our first mission: find the assailant.
The Late Night Great Night division of VicPD was organized in 2009 as part of the City of Victoria’s strategy to make the downtown more user friendly after hours. Friendly would not be the operative word I would use on a night like this, but there’s no shortage of excitement. It’s the second-to-last night of Rifflandia weekend, and the crowd has long since dispersed from concert venues to party up any remaining hours downtown.
Our evening starts at 10:30 p.m. as editor Grant McKenzie and I wait outside the station to meet the officers who will escort us through our night on the town. Soon, two officers come to the door, one of which is that night’s overseer of the late-night division, Sgt. Derek Tolmie.
Tolmie is quick to express his concerns in working with reporters from Monday — not always known for our pro-police mantra. What I don’t say is that the hesitance is mutual, but we shake hands and load into a large wagon, designed for what I can only guess is mass drunk collection.
“Do yourselves a favour and buckle up,” says Tolmie. “I’m kind of a wild driver.”
As we travel uptown to “show the colours early” at the Upper Deck Sports Lounge and Red Lion, Tolmie explains that he was once in an incident that left a person dead, so he knows all about what it’s like to deal with the media. He’ll tell us anything that doesn’t jeopardize a case, but asks we be sensitive to his other officers — like the cop in the passenger seat — who are training for future plainclothes work and need to remain anonymous.
We ask questions, make small talk, take photos and I wonder how I can make a story out of this. Then, the radio blurps out an indistinguishable set of numbers and words. Without blinking, the sirens are on and we’re in our race to View Street.
The night unfolds like a storybook. We scour the late-night club scene for our assailant, getting tips from the radio that the known-to-police suspect may have been seen heading for Cactus Club, then Boutique Lounge, Sopranos, 9one9, Monty’s and others.
We follow the trail, always one step behind, questioning and cuffing individuals along the way. I fall back so I can watch how the two officers work the joints, how they stare through the haze of sweat and dry ice with narrowed eyes, how they brush dancers out of their way, while my feet are stepped on and I’m knocked around by the smush of crowd: women wearing dewy skin in place of clothes, men outfitted in cologne and beer stains.
All eyes are on us. They stare cold at the police, but it’s Grant and I that seem to confuse them — dressed neither in highlighter uniforms nor club-appropriate garb.
One bouncer comes over to ask what’s going on. The tension is thick, and my guts are jumping warning signals, but we keep moving forward, closer to our suspect with each bar.
“People truly do not understand what we do, because if they did, there wouldn’t be a video going viral with police knocking someone to the ground,” Tolmie tells us. “Bad things and wrong choices can happen on any job. You see plane crashes that shouldn’t have occurred, but you never see people telling the pilots how to fly.”
Tolmie started with the force in 1987 as a volunteer, then became a reserve officer in 1991 while he was finishing his degree in criminology. In 1995, he was hired as a full-time officer with VicPD.
“I’d say 90 per cent of our work is intel gathering,” says Tolmie. “But anyone who says police don’t profile is lying, because that’s all police work is … the biggest thing I’ve learned is to trust my gut. Your subconscious knows what your conscious hasn’t found logic for yet. But it knows.”
By 12:30 a.m., we’re stopping at Tim Horton’s, and a handful of other officers meet us there. They laugh and chatter for a few minutes while I nurse my black coffee, barely able to drink through the excitement. I ask Tolmie about his worst day on the job.
For all he’s seen, Tolmie tells me his nightmare call came just last year. It was from an Esquimalt elementary school, reporting that one of their Grade 1 students didn’t come back from lunch. Tolmie, the father of an 11-year-old, says his heart stopped. He dispatched 20 uniformed officers, along with a handful of plainclothes and, an hour and 45 minutes later, a plainclothes officer found the boy, hiding.
As we leave again, I check my phone and see a text from a friend: “My worries, maybe this is what cop spouses feel like every night!” Out of the four officers at coffee, three are wearing wedding bands. How does anyone live knowing their spouse is in danger’s way every night?
Tolmie says he married his wife because she’s not a worrier — she can sleep at night knowing he’s doing the best job he can, and he wouldn’t want it any other way.
Just then, we drive past a couple on Pandora. The woman is lying on the ground, too intoxicated to stand. According to Tolmie, she’s an instant candidate for the drunk tank, but we load the husband and wife into the van to be driven home instead. Just then, the radio bleeps and the officers swear as they respond that our unit is pre-occupied with a civilian matter.
“Really, we’re just highly paid babysitters with guns,” says Tolmie. “Everyone blames the police for having the laws we do, but it’s the politicians who are putting them in place. Unfortunately, we get the job executing those laws.”
After we fly back downtown, we park in front of Boutique Lounge again and watch, our presence preventing a fight between two angry young men. We stop to ticket one young woman with melted mascara for public urination. She blubbers that she’ll never do it again, but it’s the radio that saves her. A set of numbers and blurps, and we’re flying past people, around the block again. A dozen cop cars are sitting at the intersection and I know we’re in for something big.
Then, on the corner appears a Justin Bieber look-alike in handcuffs. He can’t be more than 16. The cops swarming him have it taken care of.
“You cost us a public urination!” Tolmie barks at one of the officers, but they laugh it off and we’re on our way.
All in a night’s work
“The trick is to just make it through these last few minutes and we can all go home happy,” says Tolmie, as the clock nears 3 a.m.
And then, just before it’s time to pack it in, a man is spotted peeing on the door of a downtown bank. One officer goes to speak with him, but the man suddenly starts yelling and throwing his arms around. Tolmie rushes over to help, and the man lunges at him. The officers tackle the man to the ground and haul him to the wagon. As Tolmie smiles and tells him to get inside, we can hear the man mouthing off. “I remember you! You’re the killer!” he yells, spit flying into Tolmie’s face. “Murderer, murderer! You killed that guy!”
Tolmie stays calm and coaxes the man into the wagon, locking it behind him. The man whoops and hollers, shouting again, “We’re driving with a killer! Woo hoo!”
“I guess you know my story now,” Tolmie says before I can ask the question. “In 2004, I was in a high-speed chase with a motorcycle, and unfortunately he had an accident in front of my car. I was too close to stop and ran over him and killed him.”
The van is quiet, and I am unsure what to say, as I realize the baggage Tolmie must carry to work every day. Later, when I look up the case online, I see that the perpetrator had robbed a liquor store and was carrying glass bottles that went through his abdomen. Tolmie took a leave, but eventually returned to the job.
As the shift ends, we haven’t caught the assailant from the first fight of the evening, and learn later that the suspect is still at large. But we take the rowdy man into the station, and get a full tour of the holding cells — we even overhear cellmates asking each other, “What are you in for?”
I’m bleary-eyed as I thank the officers and say good night. “This is probably the most exciting night I’ve had in Victoria,” I say to Sgt. Tolmie. He laughs and says, “It’s been a long time since a woman told me that.”
I feel like I’ve walked out of a movie set, complete with all the characters and special effects. But it’s the job I think of: where brutality and honour force people to put their lives at risk every day, often just to be hated. I think back to something Tolmie said near the beginning of this night.
“People say they want a visible police force but, personally, when I see police, my first thought is that something is wrong,” Tolmie says. “I don’t want to see them. I just want to know they will be there when I need them.”
I think a lot of us can agree to that. M