Q and A: delving into policing issues early in 2024
The city has the rare honour of not only having one of the only, but one of the oldest municipal police forces in B.C. with the Nelson Police Department.
The NPD has been evident on the city’s streets since its inception in 1897 but, even with over 120 years in operation, the 20-plus contingent is not without its challenges and issues as it faces an ever-changing policing landscape.
The issues of officer recruitment, evolving street issues, officer caseloads and overtime are complicating the smooth and efficient delivery of police services in the Heritage city.
The Nelson Daily recently asked Nelson Police Association president, Const. Adam Sutherland, about several of those issues and how they are being handled on the inside.
The Nelson Daily – With early January, 2024 marking the one-year anniversary of the death of two Nelson Police Department officers — Wade Tittemore and Mathieu Nolet — from an avalanche north of the city (near Kaslo) how has the NPD contingent been able to cope over the last year?
Adam Sutherland – The loss of two of our members was significant in many ways. Both were exemplary officers: hard working, selfless, conscientious – just amazing guys.
Their loss also represented roughly 10 per cent of our non-commissioned police officers which would be similar to Vancouver Police Department losing 400 police officers overnight. We were very fortunate to have our brothers and sisters from the RCMP come and assist us while we grieved that tragic loss
TND – It’s a post-pandemic world for the NPD. Has policing changed in the last year since the pandemic restrictions have abated?
Adam – Yes, there have definitely been changes over the past year in terms of how policing is done, however, it is difficult to infer to what extent any of those changes are the result of the pandemic versus some other variable. The job is always changing in subtle ways that accumulate to big changes over time, so it is difficult to isolate the effect of any one event.
TND – In 2014 an audit was performed on the NPD to determine whether the staffing levels were sufficient for the workload, and it was found the NPD was understaffed. Has the NPD caught up in that time? Has the level of calls for service increased and nudged that needle even further?
Adam – To my knowledge, 2023 was the one of the highest call volumes ever for NPD. When adjusted for population, the file load per member has consistently placed NPD amongst the busiest municipal departments in B.C. In 2022, the NPD ranked second to Victoria as having the highest call load per officer – given the staffing disruption of 2023, compounded with an unusually high call volume, I would not be surprised to see NPD take the top spot for highest call volume per member.
TND – Despite the lure of small town life and the vast recreational and lifestyle opportunities Nelson affords, it has been hard for most business sectors to recruit and retain specialized employees from outside the region due to the high cost of living here versus the wages that are offered. It’s no different for the NPD. How hard has it been for the NPD to recruit and retain officers with wages and benefits stagnating locally, but increasing elsewhere?
Adam – I can say that despite ratifying a new contract at the beginning of 2023, we are still the lowest paid municipal department in B.C. and our health benefits are not just the worst amongst B.C. police officers, they are amongst the worst of any industry in B.C. Currently, our health benefits are comparable to the retail sector while our colleagues at the RCMP, for example, have benefits that are immeasurably better. It was only just last year that we were able to successfully negotiate maternity benefits into our contract, but it still trails all other police departments in B.C. and is not very inclusive of a lot of same-sex arrangements, and this has hindered retention. Overall, compensation has definitely been a challenge in recruiting and retaining officers.
TND – What is the level of stress on the NPD officers — and the resultant overtime incurred — having to answer so may calls for service for street-related issues?
Adam – It’s considerable. The call volume is significant for a small department and we are understaffed. Our members do an amazing job with what they have, but at the moment we are generally only triaging and there is little left over for proactive work. The community has been afflicted by a significant increase in certain types of crime, but with an inability to do proactive work, a lot of it is unattended to. Currently, the policing model of NPD is very much a reactive model.
Added to the stress of a high workload, there is a lot of scrutiny on police officers and officers are paying a heavy price for perceived mistakes, and this reality weighs heavy on officers when they are dispatched to a call. Not only are they having to navigate the nuances of their numerous responsibilities, but they have reason to fear the consequences of a mistake that could cost them several thousand dollars in suspensions and/or media scrutiny.
TND – More than one year ago the Province made possession of small amounts of controlled substances legal, but it did not legislate where those substances could be used. Since that time, usage on the streets of communities across the province has greatly increased, as well as greatly increasing the workload on local police services like the NPD. What sort of effects have transpired within the NPD and what challenges do you have?
Adam – Initially, the main challenge was educating the public. As many people did not know that the law had changed, they were still calling in complaints of open drug use, and so our members were spending considerable time educating the public on the legislative changes. A year on and the experiment continues and our enforcement focus has shifted to accommodate the wishes of our elected officials and, hopefully at the conclusion of this experiment, there will be enough data to know how to shape more permanent solutions.
TND – How much time do NPD officers spend with the marginalized street population in relation to calls for service as a whole?
Adam – It would be difficult for me to put a number on it, but it is significant. Mental health-related calls and calls concerning the street population would make up the majority of what we do, but I don’t think that this is specific to Nelson as homelessness and poor mental health are concurrent and interrelated societal problems.