COVER STORY: Shore Patrol
When he’s seated inside the boat, he’s the good guy, says North Vancouver RCMP Const. Gary Goller, with a laugh. It’s his partner Const. A.J. Johnk’s turn to do the dirty work.
With a small vessel halted beside the North Van police boat, Johnk gets down to business. Armed with a checklist of must-have’s for boaters, he systematically runs through the onboard expectations. Life jackets? Check. Whistle? Yep. Flashlight? Right on. The group, one member of which is a retired cop from North Van, meets all the requirements and is sent on its way. Such exchanges, agree both Goller and Johnk, are representative of much of what marine policing is all about — public safety.
On a particularly beautiful Friday morning last week, Goller and Johnk’s patrol of the North Van waters takes them from the foot of Lonsdale to well inside Indian Arm. The water’s choppy that day, rocking the vessel each time it encounters a wave. “It takes a while,” says Goller, when asked about getting his sea legs.
“But you deal with it and overcome it.”
In addition to ensuring all boaters are requisitely equipped, officers are also looking for illegal fishing, drinking and other criminal code offences. When they can, says Johnk, they head deep into Indian Arm to check on a lady who lives in a remote cabin. She relies on a generator for power and has everything brought in by boat.
Depending on the size of the vessel, says Goller, tickets for boaters can be steep. Having no fire extinguisher or flotation device, for instance, can fetch a ticket of about $200. A vessel without the proper markings, name and port of registry on the hull, can be charged even more.
“We know people are just out for a good time,” adds Johnk.
“But people overlook things.”
North Vancouver RCMP has one boat, a 330-horsepower, 26-foot fiberglass vessel, docked in a protective slip in Deep Cove. When in operation, there are always two officers onboard. According to Const. Richard De Jong, spokesman for the RCMP, there are 13 officers trained to work the boat but it isn’t staffed 24 hours a day.
The cost of the vessel is about $120,000, all necessary equipment included. That cost, says De Jong, is borne by the province, while the detachment foots the bill for the officers’ salaries and the gas, which costs $200 each time the vessel goes out.
In late August, North Van RCMP, Transport Canada and volunteers from the RCMP community policing office and auxiliary constable program undertook a large-scale boating initiative in which 56 boats were checked, 15 of which received warnings for various infractions. Such a program, says De Jong, is done “over and above” the RCMP’s regular marine patrols.
But it isn’t all lifejackets and whistle checking, says De Jong. The waterways can be avenues for more serious offences and police boats can become a first line of defense.
“In criminal matters, you move from routine patrol to investigative set quickly,” says De Jong.
“This is a port city and can be the site of the importing of illicit drugs and illegal immigrants.”
With a little help from friends
When needed, marine units from surrounding detachments may assist North Van officers. Richmond RCMP was recently given its first boat, donated by the Steveston office of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Coquitlam RCMP also have one boat, as do the New Westminster and Port Moody police forces. The Canadian Coast Guard’s Pacific Region fleet, which has an office in Vancouver, patrols about 27,000 kilometres of B.C. shoreline including North Shore waters.
Assistance can also be given by the Vancouver Police Department, which has a two-vessel marine unit operating round-the-clock. In an email to The Outlook, Const. Jana McGuiness, spokesperson for the VPD, says the marine department has “mutual aid agreements with outside jurisdictions as safety on the water is a priority no matter where an incident is occurring.”
The RCMP also operates West Coast Marine Services, its largest marine unit, from detachments in Prince Rupert, Port Alberni, Campbell River and Nanaimo. It acts as a support service to land-based units and provides frontline policing to remote coastal communities. Like the Coast Guard, West Coast Marine Services monitors a lot of shoreline, nearly 42,000 kilometres worth, and responds to requests for service when needed.
“But like anything, those calls must be prioritized. If need be, we can muster a crew and go overtime," says Mike Lariviere, operating support officer from West Coast Marine Services.
"But those decisions are made by each of the detachments. They say ‘we’ve got this situation to take care of’ and that will take the place of regular patrol.”
Municipal jurisdiction ends at the high-water mark, or where the water meets the land. As such, the West Vancouver police force does not patrol the waters surrounding the municipality. Each of the aforementioned camps can and does when their help is requested.
West Vancouver does enjoy an active coast guard auxiliary team. The 26-member squad practices search and rescue exercises once a week and each member is required to live a short drive from the team’s vessel, currently moored at the West Vancouver Yacht Club. The group does not, however, have any enforcement capabilities.
“They aren’t law enforcement but I believe, in a lot of situations, they are our first line of support,” says West Vancouver Coun. Michael Evison.
“I believe they provide a service no one else can do.”
But, with a significant amount of coastline, a busy ferry terminal, substantial waterfront real estate and the country’s first marine-protected area in Whytecliff Park, what does West Van do in a water-related emergency when law enforcement is needed? Should West Van have a police boat?
“We don’t have the calls for it,” says Jag Johal, spokesman for the WVPD.
“We rely on [the] services of North Van RCMP and the VPD. We lean on the expertise of the other guys and they’re readily available when we need them.”
Marine services, adds Johal, isn’t simply a matter of “getting a boat and driving off.” There are training requirements, each officer must be certified to operate a vessel, and cost concerns. The 2011 WVPD budget was $11.9 million and even a small boat, like that of the North Van RCMP, could represent a significant portion of the budget.
“Of course cost is a factor. Marine policing is not cheap, but effective in the long run,” says Kash Heed, Liberal MLA for Vancouver-Fraserview and former chief of WVPD.
“But what if the VPD is tied up? They are beholden to their jurisdiction and they should be. West Van is one of the most affluent communities in all of Canada, but you have to wonder if they are getting the service they are paying for.”
Heed, who led the WVPD for 19 months before resigning in February 2009 to run in the provincial election, calls himself “an unyielding proponent” of a unified metropolitan police force that would patrol the entire Lower Mainland. A force that size, he says, would have the operational capability to “respond to anything on the coastline.”
He says WVPD responded to burglaries at homes he knew were accessed via the water, and as the former head of the VPD drug squad Heed says “the coastline is used for significant drug trafficking” operations. Horseshoe Bay, he adds, is a conduit for the movement of drugs to and from Vancouver Island.
During his tenure at WVPD, Heed says he was looking at the feasibility of a marine unit, equipped with rigid hull inflatable vessels — small boats typically with twin 150 horsepower engines, used often by the RCMP — and moored close to the police station.
Officers, he adds, would be trained and rotated on marine patrol. When things were quiet in West Van, Heed says he envisioned a scenario where marine-trained officers would work the traffic beat and be able to access a police boat quickly, if needed.
“It would be difficult to justify a full-time, full-fledged marine unit in West Van,” he says.
“But you need the capability to not rely on somebody else. If you want to work within your own silo, then you must ensure the services meet the needs of the community. One of those needs, I believe, is marine policing and West Vancouver does not offer that.”