Yellowknife, NWT – “I did 26 years’ military police and decided, you know what? Time to retire.”
Retirement, for Steve Hitchon, is municipal enforcement in Yellowknife.
The latest recruit to the city’s municipal enforcement division (MED) is in his late forties and six weeks into the job. Prior to that, he was working in Israel and south-west Asia. Not long ago, he called Afghanistan home.
“I’ve done a lot of time in Afghanistan, south-west Asia, and as a TASO (tactical aircraft security officer) transporting prisoners, inmates, Al Qaeda – that type of stuff – around the Middle East,” says Hitchon, pictured above.
“My wife is an air traffic controller with NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command) and she’s being posted here next spring, so we decided, why not? Let’s come to Yellowknife. That way we can still be together.”
Yellowknife’s MED, also known as by-law officers, have made headlines in recent weeks.
First, a video circulated of a man in his sixties being pushed to the ground by a municipal enforcement officer. The man’s side of the story has since been widely publicized. Municipal enforcement is obliged not to provide its side until the case reaches the courts, but it is clear officers believe there is more to it.
This week, an independent review of how municipal enforcement works in the city – entirely separate to the above incident and commissioned well beforehand – goes in front of the municipal services committee for public scrutiny.
Neither the stories nor the review introduce Yellowknife’s by-law officers themselves. Moose FM spent two days riding with officers from the team to discover more about where they come from, their backgrounds and experience, their outlook and what it takes to do their job.
Daryle Foster is a corporal with the MED, like Hitchon, and has had his job for more than a decade. Prior to that, he worked a similar position in Inuvik.
His shift begins at 7am at City Hall, inside an unmarked, white Ford Explorer. (There are usually two 7am-7pm shifts and two 12pm-12am shifts per day. In total, there are two corporals and six officers, alongside a parking enforcement officer and support staff.)
The SUV’s interior is equipped with radar guns facing both ways and a laptop which acts as a GPS, a dispatch, and a means of checking licence information.
There is also a video camera, with a separate screen. The camera records continuously – when an officer activates the vehicle’s lights or presses ‘record’, the last 30 seconds are stored (to be sure of capturing the incident in question) along with anything else until the incident ends.
Microphones are worn to record sound throughout, though several times in our presence the microphones did not work – to the officers’ frustration. They see the recordings as a vital back-up.
At the end of each shift, the data from the cameras is wirelessly transferred back to City Hall, where it remains, archived. Anyone who goes to court is entitled to see the footage relating to them. (Officers must also keep their written notes, says Hitchon, for a minimum of seven years after an event.)
Municipal enforcement in Yellowknife combines an oversight of parking, dog licensing and community safety with traffic policing.
Within half an hour of his shift starting, Foster has pulled over a truck for speeding and a larger semi for ignoring a stop sign. That sets the pattern for his morning, much of which is spent patrolling the city’s various school zones.
“We’re spending a fair amount of time in the NJ Macpherson school zone,” Fosters explains, “because the school there called and said they were concerned by the number of people speeding through their school zone.”
Officers will tell you their job simply involves doing what the people have asked of them: enforcing by-laws enacted by popular demand.
The school zones are a case in point. As Foster sits and waits by a busy four-way stop, working the radar gun, he explains that parents want their children to be safe around busy roads.
The problem can come when those parents themselves are the ones caught, hurrying to ferry children from home or reach work in time.
A day later, Hitchon pulls over a black truck which has blown a school-zone stop sign – only to see the truck activate its own red-and-blue flashing lights.
Inside, a member of the RCMP and a young boy are in the front seats. There seems little reason for the unmarked truck’s emergency lights to have jumped into life, other than in the hope of avoiding a ticket.
On Thursday, with the school rush over, Foster swings by the library – often a source of mild public nuisance complaints – and turfs out a man found sleeping in a corner.
He then heads to the swimming pool, which is deserted but for a couple of swimmers and a woman manning reception. She has a photo of Travis Casaway, the violent sex offender whose presence in Yellowknife was recently publicized by the RCMP, taped to the desk.
When Foster asks how things are, she taps at the photo and volunteers: “He was in here last week.” (Casaway has since been handed a court order specifically banning him from the pool, among other conditions.)
Friday finds Hitchon across town, persuading a gentleman to tidy up his yard.
The house in question has a dented vehicle parked on the sidewalk, a truck in a state of disrepair sitting on top of a nearby bank of earth, and other scattered debris.
“We give an individual 14 days to rectify the problem, and this one was (issued a notice on) the 14th of September – he’s had more than enough time, he’s had an extra two weeks,” says Hitchon as we pull up.
A man eventually answers the door and is, immediately, both apologetic and embarrassed in tone. Hitchon is polite, verging on friendly, even though he is essentially there to point out the hefty costs coming the man’s way if nothing gets done.
“I’m terribly sorry,” says the man. “This will be gone.”
“No, no,” replies Hitchon. “You’ve cleaned up a lot already and we appreciate it. But we’ve got to get that thing off the sidewalk. Especially now, with the snow removal.”
The conversation over, Hitchon returns to the car and says: “Half the problem is sometimes if you come to them with the wrong attitude and you are a little aggressive. It can cause a small problem to get large. I try to be very friendly, first names, ‘thank you for your cooperation’.
“This case here, the gentleman requests an extra week. Is it going to cause the city a big problem? No. So why not work with the individual?”
Fine, but the man has had a month already. Is the extra week going to help?
“… I honestly don’t know that. This is the third time I’ve been here now. At least I can say we’ve done our best, and we’ve done everything we could do to help.”
Coming off decades in the military police and elsewhere, Hitchon is big on two things: officer safety and communication.
In previous lives, he has been shot at in Victoria while investigating a lumber yard break-in, watched a man die – impaled by his own steering wheel – having reached the scene of an accident, and has survived “combat roles” in Afghanistan (he can’t go into further detail).
He works to this rule: “Discretion and communication are probably the two biggest parts of this job. You talking can get you into trouble, but also de-escalate a situation awfully quick.
“At the end of a conversation with your wife, how easy is it to say, ‘I’m sorry, dear, I love you’?”
With six weeks of municipal enforcement in Yellowknife under his belt, what does Hitchon make of his new job, his ‘retirement’?
“This is calm,” he says, comparing the city to one of Canada’s smaller military bases. “I look at the incidents we have been involved in and they are very minor in nature, compared to some more-serious offences.
“It took me a while to get out of the mindset of domestic policing. But I love it, I don’t mind doing this at all.”
Hitchon does miss having a gun at his disposal. His weapons as a by-law officer are pepper spray, a baton, and words.
“Every so often it’s like, ‘Oh, I wish I could still do that as a police officer.’ But things I can’t do now? That’s why we have the RCMP.”
The RCMP act as back-up when MED officers reach the limit of their powers.
That relationship exists because by-law officers in Yellowknife blend parking fines and community work with traffic and public-nuisance duties in a way that is uncommon elsewhere in Canada. They have more responsibility than many by-law officers down south, yet not quite the powers – they feel – to fulfil their mandate.
“We are unique in a lot of ways, compared to other places in Canada,” says Doug Gillard, the city’s manager of municipal enforcement.
“Usually, places do by-law enforcement and then the police do traffic. In Yellowknife, we do the traffic.
“In the line of work we do, we are going to come into contact with criminal offences such as impaired driving. Our mandate is to contact the RCMP immediately, but we will take measures to ensure the offence doesn’t continue – if somebody tries to leave, we would probably effect their arrest if we were capable of doing it.
“So there is a bit of ‘blurred lines’, there. I think that it would be helpful for the territorial government to enact a Police Act, like they have in other jurisdictions, so they can more clearly define our role and the RCMP role.”
While on patrol, Hitchon says: “Some of the stuff we do is very much like the police. The traffic is like a small-town police agency.”
One of his frustrations is being unable to do the job – the way he would like – when drunk individuals are causing a public nuisance.
“We would call the RCMP and let them know,” he says, explaining the current solution. “We can arrest them for intoxication, or for public safety, and nine times out of 10 they’re going to ask us to bring the individual over to their detachment.” And at that moment you’re acting on their authority? “That’s correct, yes.
“It would be nice to have the power to be able to act on it. Sometimes the RCMP are busy, you don’t want to keep bugging them all the time.
“To be able to act on it and bring the individual to the cells till he or she can sober up? It would be nice to have the authority there to do that.”
That is one of the recommendations contained in the independent review of municipal enforcement, to be discussed at the city’s municipal services committee this week. Limited powers under the Liquor Act are proposed, enabling by-law officers to do more.
Officers say steps have already been taken to address other perceived weaknesses in the review. The report says more training is needed and many procedures for officers to follow are either out-of-date, unclear, hard to find, or all three.
Hitchon says he has helped to update 18 procedures in his six weeks here.
“Some are outdated. Things change, so we’re updating them to be more 21st-century. The way we do things is different now.
“Once they’re done and signed off, we’ll have hard copies in the office and electronic copies in the vehicles. So if officers do have questions about how to deal with certain issues, they’ll be able to pull it up in the vehicle and it’ll be there in black and white.
“We’re going to get into more use-of-force training and emergency medical response training. I did a lot of training with the Canadian Forces and Ontario Provincial Police – I’m taking a lot of their training manuals, because I know them very well, and we’re going to hopefully take those training manuals and bring it up to that standard.
“Every quarter we’ll conduct training. If you don’t train, you don’t have the skill set to do your job.”
Foster, who had read a draft version of the review and agreed with some but not all of its findings, says: “I don’t think people are quite aware of the training we have. We are fairly well-trained.
“Coming from a background in different organizations, the city is a good employer and does keep us up on training.”
Gillard adds: “We definitely have the tools to do our job. We have the training and – at this point – as far as manpower levels? I think they’re adequate.”
If Hitchon wants anything to change, it’s sitting in the car. This is a snowy Friday so he needs to be out on patrol with the road conditions as they are, but his greatest enjoyment came on the trails when he first arrived.
“Foot patrols and bike patrols are the way of the future, not patrol cars,” he says.
Foster agrees. “Sometimes this feels like a thankless task, but there are other times – especially this summer, when I was out on foot patrol on the Frame Lake trail.
“It was amazing, the amount of people that stopped and talked to me, and thanked me for being out there.”
Hitchon continues: “You start building rapport with the kids – if you’re sitting in a white car, all they see is you shoulder-up. You get out there, they see you as a person.
“They get to know you by name, you get to know them by name. There’s an issue going on, they can come up to you, where they would never do that before – they wouldn’t just walk out and stop a patrol car.
“I walk the trail, I come over and sit in front of the post office and chat.
“Everybody has a story and everybody wants to tell you their story – if you’re willing to listen.”