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Recent mass shootings in the Maritimes have led Charlottetown’s police department to assemble its own serious incident response team.
The City of Charlottetown has spent more than $130,000 in the past 10 months on capital purchases for members of the unit.
Charlottetown Police Service’s priority tactical response and containment unit was officially launched last April to replace the Emergency Response Team (ERT), which was a joint effort by city police and the RCMP.
The national police force decided to move ERT to Fredericton, N.B., in 2018.
Charlottetown Deputy Police Chief Brad MacConnell said that gap left the local force with a big concern — if a serious incident were to occur here, the closest emergency response was six hours away.
MacConnell points to two big examples as reasons why an incident response team is needed here — the mass shootings in Fredericton in 2018, where four people were killed, and Nova Scotia last year where 22 people were killed.
“We recognize there is a gap in elevated tactical response, certainly in our jurisdiction," MacConnell said on Wednesday. “We wanted to fill that gap so we, over the course of the year, have acquired some additional training for eight members of our force."
Charlottetown’s tactical team consists of eight officers — seven men and one woman — who are members of the department that carry out regular police duties on a daily basis. They have advanced training to deal with crisis situations. Two of the officers on the team are on duty at all times.
MacConnell said that lowers the cost of operating such a team since they are regular members of the force. The extra cost comes in capital purchases for the equipment.
What the department has purchased so far have all been approved by city council under the 2020-21 capital budget.
Those purchases include a $90,000 drone that is equipped with a thermal imaging camera, which is used to detect heat sources. This drone was used to help locate a missing woman last month. Offices were able to narrow the search area to the North River Road and Beach Grove Road intersection.
One of the officers who is a member of the tactical team and is a trained drone pilot activated the thermal imaging camera. Within 15 minutes, the drone detected a heat source and officers on the ground were directed to the location where a woman was lying in the snow in medical distress. She was then transported to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for treatment.
The capital purchases have also included $30,000 for tasers, which are outfitted with a camera that activates automatically when it us pulled from its holster, as well as $12,000 for protective shields and helmets for the officers. MacConnell said the tasers have been used in Charlottetown.
“We’ve equipped them with the necessary life-saving tools and non-lethal tools to make situations have better outcomes," MacConnell said, adding that the training and equipment the tactical team has led to a peaceful conclusion to the armed standoff last August near Euston Street.
Const. Shaun Davis, a member of the tactical team, said they also have access to a 40 millimetre launcher that can fire a CS gas canister that contains pepper spray. It has an effective range of about 30 yards.
“It allows us to resolve a situation without having to go in and heighten the issue," Davis said. “It’s all about de-escalation. This tool allows us to do that at a distance. We can use it on homes, vehicles or on a person. It allows to de-escalate situations without having to get too close and endanger people."
Members of the tactical unit work in their fatigues each day.
MacConnell acknowledges they will stand out when it comes to normal police duties.
However, the deputy chief is quick to point out that if a crisis situation unfolds, such as an active shooter, the department wants the team to be able to respond immediately and not have to return to the station to change their clothes and gear up.
“We want them available and ready in situations where seconds count,’’ MacConnell said. “We are aware of the sensitivity these days of a militaristic look. They are very conscious of their look (in public). We haven’t had any issues or complaints from their appearance so far.’’
While the tactical team is based in Charlottetown, MacConnell said they are more than willing to help out with any incident that may arise provincewide.
Not everyone is keen on the idea of having a tactical unit.
The Guardian asked Charlottetown engineer Josh Biggley for his thoughts. Biggley was critical of the city’s police department two years ago when it brought in high-tech cameras to collect driver licence plate data. Biggley received a ticket for expired registration in the mail and while he readily admits to being in the wrong, he said this technology constitutes an indiscriminate collection of personal information.
In this case, Biggley said he is generally against the militarization of a police force.
However, he added that there is an even bigger need for proper civilian oversight when it comes to the actions of police and any related complaints that may arise from police action.
As for civilian oversight, it has been suggested by justice departments in the region that an Atlantic Canada-wide civilian oversight body be created.
To cite a recent example in the region, the New Brunswick family of Chantel Moore demanded answers last year when the Indigenous woman was shot and killed after Edmundston police responded to her apartment for a wellness check. The incident was investigated by Quebec’s police watchdog with the report being forwarded to the province’s public prosecution service. The family wants the report made public.
Conversations on body cameras continues
Conversations about purchasing body cameras for police officers in Charlottetown are ongoing.
Deputy Police Chief Brad MacConnell said the department purchased two cameras in 2013 as part of a pilot program but it was discontinued.
“We did it because there is a national conversation happening regarding body cameras," MacConnell said.
Recent violent and fatal incidents involving police in Canada and the United States have prompted louder calls for more widespread use of body cameras by police in order to combat alleged brutality and racism.
However, experts remain divided as to whether cameras improve transparency and accountability in police interactions with the public.
There are also privacy issues to be dealt with. Officers require permission to activate the cameras before entering a person’s home, for example.
Halifax and Toronto both have pilot programs in place now.
It is also a capital budget concern. Council would have to approve the purchase.
One of the body cameras the Charlottetown police force had at one point broke during an assault on an officer who was responding to a call. The department was seeking restitution in the amount of $531.50.
However, costs can range anywhere from $800 to $1,000 per camera.
Dave Stewart is The Guardian's municipal reporter.
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