Wearing our mistakes

Lessons learned about a suitable measure of safety

It was a cool rainy Friday evening in September that I heard a 10-33 call to a bar at the rear of the Beverly Hills Hotel. This was a particularly nasty watering hole in the notorious Jane Street corridor in Toronto’s north west end. Long known for barroom fights on Friday paydays it was a location where our unit commander insisted two pay-duty officers must be stationed to keep the fights down.

On this particular night the two officers where Ron and Jack. Both officers were well experienced and, frankly, tough as nails. Moreover their reputations where clearly known by every hood in the area. You simply did not cross swords with these coppers unless you were uninitiated or just plain stupid.

I had passed by earlier in the evening to make sure they were well supplied with coffee and noted another officer had beat me to it. The routine was for the patrol cars in the area to look in on occasion and I was happy to hear it was a quiet evening. It was only a half-hour after I left them that the “officers need assistance” call came over the radio. I spun my scout car around on busy Jane Street and accelerated as fast as a slant six Plymouth could in those days.

As I arrived I noted a good number of patrons mixing it up with two other scout cars that had arrived ahead of me. As I got out with my nightstick in hand I noticed both Ron and Jack lying on the sidewalk by the door with pools of blood around them. Two bar bouncers and others had blood soaked cloths over their heads. Ron’s face was completely covered as he appeared unconscious. The left side of Jacks face was covered with a bloody cloth and he was still sitting upright with assistance. I noticed a large number of people fighting in the parking lot and at least two other officers flailing at a couple of men not far from where the officers were laying.

Police cars where now arriving in great numbers as I ran to my car radio to advise the dispatcher we would need at least two ambulances for the officers alone and would need a supervisor as soon as possible. I left my car on the run to rejoin the fray just in time to see a third officer go down. I got to the officer’s side and managed to swing heavily at the person standing behind him who was holding his cross strap firmly and pulling him around. As my stick came down on the mans collar bone I could hear it crack and a quick release of the officer was followed by a loud howl of pain. I then felt someone firmly grab at my cross strap as the officer I had released dispatched this person. We both decided it was time to ditch the cross straps and wrapped them into our left hands to use them as weapons as well.

The upshot of all this was a large number of hurt officers including Ron who went to the hospital unconscious with a broken (torn away) jaw, broken nose and two black eyes. Worst of all his gun and night stick was missing. It took him a year to recover after surgery and shortly thereafter he took his retirement. Jack had a broken nose and left wrist, and black eye along with a variety of other cuts and bruises. His gun was missing but later recovered from a waitress who saw 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 barroom conversations had circulated that the best way to take out an officer was by grabbing his cross strap from behind. The technique was to place one hand on the officer’s back and pull hard on the strap so the tension over the front pin would prevent the flap from being released. 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 straps. About two weeks later I attended a call at this location and removed my cross strap before entering. As I left the call I noticed my patrol sergeant waiting for me. A brief lecture about being out of uniform followed and a documentation to the boss was felt to be appropriate.

It took several years of arguing and many grievances for the cross strap to be officially removed as a dangerous accouterment that had no real purpose other than cosmetic. We wore them because all the soldiers in the past wore them.

The Mike Ferguson tragedy

Fast forward to 1999. Mike Ferguson, an RCMP officer, shot and killed Darren Varley. He was the only officer working for nearly 180 miles in a remote prairie town. Cst. Ferguson had fought with the intoxicated Varley prior to transporting him to the detachment. The suspect was so violent that he punched out the scout car window. During a subsequent struggle that ensued inside the detachment holding cell, Varley managed to pull Ferguson’s exterior armor vest (something supplied and encouraged by the RCMP to wear) over his head temporarily gaining enough control over the officer to get his sidearm released from his holster. 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 of the officer, two of which were hung juries, it was determined that the first shot was in fear and that, amazingly in two seconds flat, the officer’s adrenaline level dropped to the point that fear was replaced by anger and the assailant was intentionally shot a second time. Ferguson went to jail. Was it a faulty ruling, flawed judgement, poor understanding of the real world by the courts? All these things are wonderful fodder for sociologists, medical experts and legal beagles.

But what about that exterior armour thing? 

Would any of this have happened if that armour were concealed?

In memory 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.

When it comes to exterior armour most Canadian police leaders have relinquished their responsibilities to the safety of their officers by taking a passive approach. This modern ideal boils down to less perceived management risk for them and is the easy way out of rules and regulations that would require monitoring and enforcement. In other words if they do not make a regulation then their 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 the safety factors to the officers. Senior RCMP policy makers feel that all they have to say, when it comes to an officer being overpowered from an assailant using an officer’s armour against him, is they gave the officer the option of wearing it however they want to.

But can top managers of police services really claim no knowledge of harm? They could claim no one has determined the odds of an officer being shot over being overpowered during a career. Ron, Jack and Mike certainly found out.

I attended a police station not too long ago and the chief asked why I disliked exterior armour so much. I told him I would demonstrate if he wished. He agreed and an obliging sergeant presented his back to me. I jammed my left arm between his shoulder blades under his exterior armour and began to move him around the room. He advised that all he had to do is strip away the velcro flaps. I invited him to do so. As he did I began tapping his gun. His hand went down to the butt to hold it as we continued our dance. The chief’s eyes were wide open and mouth agape. I then heard the sergeant suggest that the gun was in a security holster. My response was plain. “Are you willing to bet your life on that. Mike did and lost.”

You do not know who a motivated attacker will be. You do not know from where a motivated attacker will come. You do not know the knowledge or training of a motivated attacker. Yet too many officers are willing to give them 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 how valid my argument is one need not go any further than watching a judo fighter. How do they gain control over their opponents? It is through what ever they can grab. Is this effective though? Are you willing to bet your life to find out?

So the only reason they are really worn is because soldiers wear them and every one feels secure if they look like the TAC team members on television. So it boils down to insecurity and image.

There is a light

There are some leaders of agencies with courage enough to engage policies designed out of concern for their members. One such agency came to me several years back to help them counter a grievance against their ban on exterior armour. I supplied them with my seven points of concern;

• External carriers supply assailants with at least six handles capable of incapacitating officers in an altercation;

• External carriers encourage target realignment to the head or lower body by armed assailants;

• External carriers encourage a sloppy, unprofessional appearance while in shirt sleeve dress;

• External carriers add four more layers of nylon over a shirt and, therefore, are hotter than concealed armour;

• External carriers give a false image to the public of being on an aggressive, combat zone stance (unapproachable);

• External carriers could be a cop killer’s defence against a “murder one” charge;

• External carriers should be replaced by quality issue wick-away undergarments.

In short… there is no valid defence for wearing exterior armour.

The Grievance

The agency supervisor explained they hired a well 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. He first asked  to be allowed external armour, then started to rally others against the policy. When this was unsuccessful it was brought up as a contract negotiation issue and it was agreed to have a committee formed to research the issue.

After researching the subject the committee agreed the existing policy was appropriate given various safety concerns.

Undeterred, the officer went to his family physician and obtained a prescription pad note saying “for medical reasons” the officer should be allowed to wear external armour. The dangers of exterior carriers was explained to the Doctor and he 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 officers issue’s 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 was going to settle the issue for him.

Finally the Canadian Union of Public Employees (C.U.P.E.) Representative got involved and had the policy looked at by Union Lawyers. They determined the policy was not discriminatory and was reasonable 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 the responsibility of each individual to judge it 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 is 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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