A Day in the Life: Hitching a ride with Niagara’s finest on a Saturday shift of policing in Pelham

Constable David Brown on the job. JOHN SWART PHOTO

BY JOHN SWART
Special to the VOICE

The receiver squawks, and a call from Dispatch ends our conversation. The call identifies our cruiser, and Constable David Brown’s easy chatter stops, his senses now completely focused on the message. In rapid succession Brown replies with a calm, eerily soft “10-4,” takes quick but thorough looks left, right, ahead, and in the rear view mirror, snaps on the flashing emergency lights, and smoothly forces the gas pedal toward the floor, pressing us heavily into our seats.

It’s 7:00 P.M. The streets of Fonthill are relatively quiet this Saturday night, and a full moon provides extra visibility. There is urgency but not frenzy in Brown’s deliberate actions, although personal injury, even lives, may be at stake on this call. Brown pushes the powerful cruiser south on Pelham Street, preparing for a turn onto Highway 20 through a red light. The siren is toggled for extra safety—startled traffic instantly stops and pulls out of our path. The siren is extinguished and the cruiser bounds up the hill, Brown’s hand ready at the switch, anticipating every intersection or daydreaming driver who fails to respond to the flashing lights.

Dispatch continues. A John Doe, resident at a Pelham group home, age 16, is outside the home and has smashed a window with a shovel. He is extremely agitated, and staff have locked the doors in an attempt to keep him from re-entering. As we speed to the location, which Brown is familiar with, Dispatch continues to relay pertinent information, calmly, clearly, with no hyperbole— data, including Doe’s police record, which will assist Brown in reacting to the incident.

Brown surveys the situation as we roll into the driveway toward the rear of the home, concentrating intensely. A cement patio is strewn with fragments of destroyed electronic devices and shattered glass. Jagged edges of glass remain wedged into the frame of a steel door’s obliterated window. The short stair leading to the deck is missing its top step. It lies upside down on the patio where it was pitched in rage after Doe ripped it out, four long, rusty nails protruding from it. The shovel lies on the ground randomly, temporarily out of the offender’s reach.

Doe is sitting on the patio, backpack on, furiously working a fidget spinner. Brown approaches, his voice sternly raised but steady. Doe stands, is patted down and searched, has his backpack removed and placed a safe distance from him, and Brown begins to question him. A young woman emerges tentatively from a second, intact door to the house, and is recognized by Brown as the caseworker in charge of the home.

A second constable, Darren Barrow, arrives at the scene and assesses it before approaching, recognizing the genuine possibility that Doe might flee at any time. With back-up now in place, Brown escorts the offender into a cramped hallway, where Doe, the caseworker, both constables and myself all stand. Barrow continues with attempts to de-escalate the situation, while Brown and the caseworker leave to discuss what’s happened. Doe is adamant he wants to return outside without accompaniment, a request that Barrow cannot accommodate.

Both officers expend an infinite amount of patience with the young man, but it is clear he’s not going to cooperate, is not yet calm enough to be left at the home. Brown repeatedly explains the options to Doe, including going to jail if he persists. At a stalemate, Brown arrests Doe for mischief, handcuffs him, and places him in the secure back seat of the cruiser. Judging the situation under control, Constable Barrow leaves. Five minutes pass with the Doe left alone in the cruiser, a strategy Brown has used before to calm offenders. This incident is not yet complete.

Brown began his policing career in 1982 in London, England, with Metropol, where he served for eight years, mostly in uniform. His assignment was in a politically charged area during a time when urban centres in Britain were facing increased ethnic and racial tensions. Family in Canada inspired him to emigrate, and he joined the Regional Niagara Police Force, where he has served for 27 years. Six years ago the Pelham assignment became open, which Brown accepted, and he now serves our community from the Welland detachment.

Brown, who resides in Wainfleet, has no regrets leaving England, but admits to, “missing the guys from home occasionally.” Regarding Pelham, he enjoys his detail here, yet is a Wainfleeter at heart. “Pelham is nice, and it’s catching up with Wainfleet slowly,” he says with a laugh.

Brown is a big man, well over six feet tall, solid in his bullet-proof vest, with the ability to produce facial expressions that generate warmth or strength as required. He has received distinguished awards for his community work, including 2010 Divisional Officer of the Year in Port Colborne and again in 2016 for the Welland detachment. It’s his person-to-person expertise that Brown must use on the majority of his Pelham calls, including the one we’re on.

Brown reunites kids with mom. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Brown approaches Doe in the cruiser, and finds that he’s cooled down. “The handcuffs make it real,” states Brown later. Within minutes, the cuffs are off, the suspect is out of the cruiser, and Brown and he share smiles and conversation for another half hour. Doe and Brown walk to the back door of the home, where a conversation with the case worker is followed by Doe’s re-admission to the residence.

“He just wanted someone to listen to him,” says Brown. “He doesn’t know who his birth parents are, and his foster mother recently died. He didn’t go to the funeral, didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, and it just keeps turning over in his mind. He’s frustrated and confused, and now he’s destroyed his laptop.”

Then Brown moves to the positives. “Doe always goes to Tim Hortons to use their wi-fi, and last time he had a chat with the manager. She offered him a job. Now he has an incentive to work, to replace his laptop. He told me he loves being outdoors, to hear the birds sing, to get some quiet and comfort.” Brown sees hope ahead.

Brown explains that caseworkers generally don’t want charges laid, that their main concern is de-escalation and the safety of everyone in the home. However, since he officially placed Doe under arrest, in part to snap him into reality, there will be a “caution” on his record, and a report, which will serve as a guide for future interactions.

“Pelham is mostly social policing,” Brown says. “Mental health issues are the most prevalent calls here. There isn’t a lot of criminality in Pelham.”

He talks about presentations he does to school kids regarding the dangers of social media and sexting.

“The kids don’t get that it can be distribution of child pornography, a criminal offence,” says Brown. We discuss drugs, which he considers to be mostly a mental health issue as they relate to Pelham, and the fact that Pelham contains three group homes.

We roll into Centennial Park just after dark, and his comments about social policing are immediately borne out. Tucked into the most remote, darkened corner of the parking lot sits a newish SUV. We approach in the cruiser, and Brown calmly gets out and walks to the vehicle. The driver’s window of the sport ute slides down, and Brown begins a conversation which is out of my earshot. After a few moments, he’s back in the cruiser.

“She’s had a big argument with her husband, and had to leave the house to cool down, to be alone for a few moments,” says Brown. “She’s still crying.”

My mind is filled with thoughts of self-harm, retribution, what might happen to the woman next.

Brown continues, “When I asked if she was okay, if she was thinking of doing anything stupid, she told me she has a ten- year-old child at home. She’ll be okay, she’ll have to work things out.”

Brown has assessed the situation, applied his years of experience, training, and intuition, asked the right questions, and made a decision that this woman’s evening will work out okay. We leave, but return shortly to check what has happened. The car is gone, and hopefully the woman is back at home as Brown anticipated.

Each shift starts in the briefing room. Its walls are covered with crammed bulletin boards, sheets of information organized left to right: health and safety, memos, missing persons, drug case law, confidential informants, Hell’s Angels/outlaw motorcycle gang info, drugs (subdivided into drug vehicles/drug locations/drug dealers), wanted persons/persons of interest, Mental Health Continuum – Road to Mental Readiness, and the Oath of Office.

Here the officers learn of the previous shift’s activities, anything they might expect on their upcoming shift, special objectives, and which bad guys are in the Region. It is very much a scene from Hill Street Blues, where Desk Sergeant Michael Conrad tried to keep order while addressing Sipowicz, Belker, Renco and the group.

Briefing notebooks are at the ready, but the chatter stays light. Someone has started a new diet of sushi and Ensure. There’s discussion of who’s the fastest in foot chases, and Brown gets roasted over being propositioned by a ninety-year-old in her nightgown while investigating a late-night burglary.

The jokes quiet when each officer confirms the identification numbers of the equipment he’s chosen for the night—his cruiser, radio, taser, additional special firearms. The final words of the briefing, “Be safe,” resonate deeply. These officers face potential injury, even death, every shift, and must cope with situations beyond imagination for most of us.

During the night, Dispatch calls to all cruisers. A male has secured his apartment door, closed all ventilation, and turned on the gas stove without lighting it. He’s called 911, and is threatening to light a match and blow himself and the apartment sky high. Would you or I be able to respond?

Do you de-escalate the situation, or smash your way into the unit, knowing there’s an unstable individual inside with four unlit burners filling the air with explosive natural gas?

The Welland officers assigned to the call responded by diffusing the situation without injury to anyone.

There can be unexpected humour amid the chaos that is sometimes policing, as a 1:45 AM run to Wellandport proved. It’s not uncommon for Brown to respond to calls west of his Pelham territory, as he may be the closest officer in the vicinity, although it is officially the Grimsby detachment’s jurisdiction.

Dispatch informs all units of a brawl at the Wellandport Community Centre, 30 persons involved, with one person down in the parking lot, ambulance en route.

Brown pilots his cruiser west at high speed on a mostly abandoned Canboro Road, lights blazing and siren howling into the dark night. The red and blue strobes illuminate everything reflective within a huge arc as the cruiser flies, causing farm wagons, trailers, signs, tractor lenses, fence lines explode distractingly into vision then disappear. The road narrows at these speeds, shoulders become slim bands of gravel too narrow to offer room for evasive action. I pray none of the approaching cars is being driven by a drunk. Brown’s hands are steady on the wheel, moving slightly right-to-left like a tennis player anticipating a serve. His shoulders are taut, eyes intent.

Brown cautions me to stay in the cruiser as he approaches the crowd outside the Community Centre, but there is no active fighting visible, and guests are surreptitiously leaving the scene in ones and twos. Two Grimsby detachment cruisers arrive as Brown questions the group. Brown explains to the Grimsby officers what’s transpired so far, has a final conversation with the group milling around, and returns to the cruiser.

“Some of those guys were my neighbours. They’re ‘fleeters. Seems a group from Dunnville were bored with their Mudcat Festival, rented a limo, and came to the Wellandport Stag and Doe to start trouble. The call to police was placed by the limo driver. The Dunnville crew took his keys so he couldn’t leave until they were ready to go. They’re gone, it’s over now, and of course no one will talk. ‘Nothing happened here,.” he says. “Just ‘fleeters and ‘catters.”

I notice one of the Grimsby cruisers parked among the guest’s cars, and realize the officers’ job at this occurrence isn’t finished. On the way back to Pelham, we hear that a taxi van has been ordered to get impaired attendees home safely.

Brown excels at the social aspects of policing, a trait that shows itself throughout the shift. Before briefing, a fellow officer shared a photo on his phone of Brown walking four-year-old twins back to their Mom the day before. She’d called 911, saying that her kids were missing. The family lived just 100 metres from the recreational canal.

Brown was first to arrive, and saw the pair next to a pickup, one of them trying to climb in. As he recounts the story, I imagine the kids trying to start the truck. Brown’s experience took him to a darker place. “Abduction, kidnapping, or worse,” was all he said, happy that he was able to return the kids to mom safely. Then the smile again, and he adds, “I think they liked being found by the police.”

There were two young lads at Centennial Park having a post-baseball beer, and two 20-somethings ready to roll a joint at Harold Black Park. In each case Brown appraised the situation, considered public safety and the law, and intuitively made decisions that reflected common sense and good policing.

The social aspects of policing aren’t easy, positive outcomes aren’t always guaranteed, and Brown can become drawn-in emotionally with those whom he interacts.

“Missing person, female, 16-years-old, hasn’t come home tonight, and isn’t responding to phone calls or texts,” says the dispatcher. The 911 call was made by the girl’s mother. A Pelham address is given, Brown responds to Dispatch that he’ll investigate the call, acknowledging to me that he’s been to this address before.

Minutes later he rings the doorbell, is greeted in a friendly and enthusiastic manner by the mother, as she would a close neighbour or friend, and invited in. We learn that mother and daughter argued over new friends that are unacceptable to mom, and over an incident at school, and that daughter Jenny (not her real name) wasn’t home when mom arrived this evening. Brown and mom discuss some of the history between mother and daughter, and common ground from previous visits is reviewed.

Brown cautions that Jenny is now 16 and legally does not have to respond or come home. Mom brightens to change the subject, tells Brown that Jenny now has a part-time job, and is expected to report for work the next morning, another reason Jenny should come home tonight.

Although there appears to be understanding between Brown and the mother, Brown walks a fine line as he explains the law while being supportive. He suspects that Jenny has run away for the evening and is likely at a friend’s, but cannot discount that something more sinister may have happened.

Inside the cruiser, Brown works with Dispatch and learns that they have already contacted some of Jenny’s friends, and located her at the home of the new friend in question.

The friend’s home is immaculate, and the new friend’s mom is standing on the porch, awaiting Brown’s arrival. Brown identifies himself, and explains that he’d like to speak with Jenny. When she sees him, Jenny runs to Brown and gives him a big hug. She confirms the argument with her Mom, and says directly that she needed a break from the bickering, so she came here to her new friend’s home, and was welcomed.

Brown confirms this with the friend’s mother, and questions Jenny. What happened at school, how’s school going otherwise, I hear you’ve got a new job, do you want to stay here tonight?

Jenny’s answers are to the point and without guile. She notes with pride that she’s going to graduate this year, and go on to college. Brown asks what she’ll be studying, and she replies that she wants to go into law enforcement. Brown is momentarily dumbfounded, and hesitantly asks if he has anything to do with her decision. Her answer is affirmative, and Brown beams.

We return to Jenny’s mother’s house. Brown informs her that Jenny is safe, and will not be returning home tonight. He also states that she has contacted her new employer and changed shifts so that her new job won’t be in jeopardy.

As mom rants, threatening to cut off Jennie’s phone and employ other discipline, Brown does his best to suggest that she be conciliatory with Jenny, work things out, and try to keep the relationship such that Jenny will want to return home.

It’s clear that Brown wants the best for both mother and daughter, and will assert what influence he can to ensure a positive future for them. But he’s a police officer, and understands the limits of the law. On this night mom won’t be swayed, and Jenny doesn’t have to come home; an impasse. Brown is disappointed and frustrated, but Pelham no longer has a missing teenager, and everyone is safe. He has accomplished all he can here tonight.

As we cruise Pelham, anticipating the next call during this ride-along , my eyes have been opened to the incredible number of ways that Niagara Regional Police Officers, their inside teams, and their professional dispatchers interact with our community. Their Oath of Office, reading in part, “To the best of my ability, preserve the peace, prevent offence … faithfully, impartially, and according to the law,” doesn’t begin to describe all the services that these men and women provide for us.

The radio comes alive.

“Welland hospital staff reports a naked, dripping wet man in their emergency room. Claims he was jumping in and out of the canal and lost his clothes,” says the dispatcher, in her usual calm, emotionless voice.

Brown laughs.

“Part of the appeal of the job is just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’re wrong.”

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