Nothing can replace street level intel

The tragic death of two Fredericton Police officers creates another sad incident reminiscent of Moncton in June of 2014. These incidents cause a crushing blow to the morale of cops and citizens alike and my sympathies are extended to the families, friends and entire communities of these fallen heroes.

At the time of the Moncton tragedy people asked me if a gun registry would have saved the three officers. Sadly the Fredericton shootings brought up the same question. Given that in both these cases the suspect was unknown to police, had no criminal record and only a few firearms but access to plenty of ammunition, I can only answer no… but with a slight caveat.

The facts at this still early stage in the Fredericton matter is still rather murky but some people in the community did know the alleged suspect had anger management issues. In the Moncton case people failed to report the suspect’s bizarre activities to police soon enough – and possibly in both cases police lacked the ears to the ground to know what was happening in the community at a micro level. This is not to dismiss the qualitative value of records; police must develop a responsible nexus to draw out the best information possible from both sources.

Certainly the current popular buzz is against police keeping any records of street activity except in extreme circumstances. A certain recipe toward repeated disasters. But it begs the necessity for a deeper conversation and I will attempt to introduce you to some subtleties developed through my understanding and experiences.

As a rookie detective back in the early 80’s I was surprised to find a tall stack of files on my desk when I arrived at my new posting. I thought I might as well get at it and selected the top file. It detailed how two hoods victimized a storekeeper who heard one culprit call the other “Squid”. I asked around the office and a detective suggested I should call the “Whiskey Dicks” and see what they know.

“Who are these guys?” I asked, and was told they were plainclothes officers who inspected taverns, kept an eye on the plazas and streets and otherwise cultivated people in high and low places. I asked the radio room to have one of them call me.

Within five minutes I was explaining that I was looking for a suspect named “Squid” and probably his buddy for a rash of shoplifting incidents. “We know Squid but what did his buddy look like?” the voice on the phone asked. I read the description from the incident report and he said “that sounds like Tom. We’ll round them up and have them in to you shortly.”

My sense of wonderment only increased when, true to his word, they entered the “D Office” with two men and several boxes of clothes, stereo equipment and music tapes found in their car. A whole lot of crime in the big city was now solved. Just like Butch Cassidy in the movies I was asking once again “Who are these guys?”

As I began my interview the “Whiskey Dicks” began digging in the occurrence files and pulled out 10 more incident reports. Sure enough, they matched the descriptions on each one. I asked them about the two suspects. They knew them for just hanging around taverns and buying booze for underage kids but didn’t know they had got into boosting (shoplifting).

They promised to check out a few more of their buddies and, true to form, there were more arrests over the next few days and more charges laid against “Squid” and company.

Since I was the new guy I relied heavily on officers like these who kept their ears to the ground. They related to everyone. Bartenders, waitresses, variety store owners, clergy and school teachers where among the wide array of company they kept. School teachers would supply them with school year books to act as a rogues gallery of those who chose not to find an honest profession. Oddly enough, fire fighters were another good source. Almost all had a wide array of secondary jobs and they tended to meet cops and chat at many fire incidents.

The firearms registry itself could not, nor was it meant to, stop shootings such as Fredericton or Moncton. The gun lobby would like to reduce the issue down to this singular point which, of course, gives them the answer they expect and want. Up to this point governments have fought the battle by encouraging the opposing emotions of the pro and anti lobby group instead of working with each of them to find common values.

The gun registry debate put it on a political and hence emotional level and this doomed it from the beginning. The cops, on the other hand, only saw it as a tool to get guns off the street and another method to find, and get at, the bad guys. One more emotional reaction.

I have always professed “responsible gun ownership” as the key. We register vehicles and licence drivers but we will never know if that saves lives. People are still killed in cars every day. The difference is the accountability process for something that can cause a lot of carnage. A motor vehicle owner’s sense of responsibility increases dramatically with the knowledge they are licensed and tested. With this attitude moved over to a gun registry police would not have to worry about the law abiding portion who have demonstrated responsibility and can focus on the much fewer gun abusers.

The Canadian public must have assurances from those who want to have guns that they are responsible about their care and ownership. If they love hunting and guns, the extra effort should be worth it to them. The government’s job (and vicariously, the anti-gun lobby) is to ensure the laws are not overly onerous or complicated and enforcement by police is not heavy handed. Striking this balance, in my estimation, will create a workable environment, far from perfect, but tolerable to all.

Nothing, however, can replace a vigilant and watchful body of police officers. You can store data, register people and their property, monitor the Internet and still not know what is really going on. There is no shortcut or easy replacement for good old foot pounding and street slogging to learn what is really happening out there.