Night on the town

Const. William Sturgeon with the Hay River RCMP says there is no job like the RCMP for training and travel opportunities. Photo by Sarah Ladik NNSL

Const. William Sturgeon with the Hay River RCMP says there is no job like the RCMP for training and travel opportunities.
Photo by Sarah Ladik

Pulling out of the residence on the reserve, police receive a call for service at the Hay River Legion, where they were informed an adult female was intoxicated and causing trouble. The dispatcher in Yellowknife said that although her family was trying to remove her, they were as yet unsuccessful.

When officers arrived on the scene, the woman was inside, yelling and waving her arms. In the course of trying to get her to leave the Legion, Const. William Sturgeon received information that the woman was not supposed to drink alcohol as a condition of her release on a previous assault charge. The officers handcuffed her when she resisted arrest and placed her in an RCMP vehicle. Sturgeon went back into the Legion to speak to the woman’s husband for a moment before getting in his truck and taking copious notes. When he was finished, both trucks pulled out and headed back to the detachment office where they escorted the woman to a cell for the remainder of the night – about eight hours, until she sobered up.

Sturgeon said it can be difficult to balance the enforcement side of policing with the outreach work officers ideally do, especially with a small detachment like Hay River’s. He also said there is no anonymity in a town this small.

“Work becomes like a family,” he said. “We have friends outside the RCMP, but we don’t go out and have a few beers. Even when we go to functions or something, everyone knows who you are and acts different.”

The night shift begins at 7 p.m. on Fridays, but police officers generally take about an hour to acquaint themselves with what happened over the course of the previous shift and get ready to start patrolling.

Sturgeon, part of the RCMP detachment for Hay River, got ready to head out at 8 p.m., gathering a ticket book, a notepad and regulation blue pens.

“We write down everything,” he said. “So much of police work is writing – this job has really improved mine.”

Officers rely on their notes to create reports for eventual court cases but often judges will require to see the original notebooks as well. Convictions depend on properly completed paperwork as much as solid policing and Sturgeon said it can be embarrassing for the force as a whole to have cases thrown out because of shoddy note-taking.

To this end, sometimes the two officers on night shift patrol together, and sometimes one stays at the station completing reports and catching up on desk-work while the other goes out.

Sturgeon said night shift is a good time to get that kind of work done because the detachment can be a busy place during the day. An average impaired driving charge carries with it a minimum of six hours of work on the day it happens.
Before pulling away from the detachment, Sturgeon recalibrates his vehicle’s radar machine. He said if anyone contests a ticket, he has to be able to prove that he checked the machine before heading out for the night. The two tuning forks he uses to do so are also checked and registered with the department on a yearly basis.

Sturgeon pulls over a vehicle with several young people on the reserve to check if the driver has a valid licence. The driver does, and after radioing in the licence plate and driver’s licence information to check all was in order, the vehicle drives away.

Sturgeon said people now knew the cops were out and would scurry away into their houses. As he drove by houses, he looked for indicators that people were intending to drive impaired.

He said that if a car is idling in a driveway full of people, and they turn it off when he drives by in the RCMP vehicle, he’ll stop and check them.

The evening is a good time for police to deliver documents like subpoenas, said Sturgeon, as people tend not to be home in the middle of the day and legal documents need to be handed to the person directly. He said officers have to sign an affidavit assuring they delivered the document as well.

Tonight, one intended recipient isn’t home and Sturgeon continues on his patrol. Crossing the ice road to the Hay River Reserve, he said there is no other job like the RCMP.

“There’s all kinds of opportunity to travel, we’re always going on courses for new things,” he said. “There’s always good training.”

Heading back across the ice road to Hay River, Sturgeon follows a vehicle staying hard to the right, almost driving in the snow bank. Again, this is the sort of behaviour that can indicate a drunk driver and they get pulled over once they hit Riverview Drive. The driver said they were just trying to avoid potholes and they drove off shortly afterwards.

Sturgeon said impaired driving is a big problem in Hay River, with the ratio of incidents to population an indicator of a fairly
lax attitude towards the offence.

In general, alcohol-induced crime is high in the community, including violent offences like assault. He said personal crime is generally more prevalent than crimes against property, such as breaking and entering.

After a vehicle whizzed by him in Old Town, Sturgeon pulled around and followed the driver back to his house nearby. When Sturgeon got out of the truck, the driver of the vehicle started yelling at him to get out of their yard, saying the police had no right to be there.

A brief chat with the driver in the back of the police truck ensued, with Sturgeon asking why the driver was being so irate. They had been stopped before and had never caused a scene. The driver apologized for his behaviour, said he had been having a rough day, and went home.

“You become a really good negotiator,” said Sturgeon. “This job, it’s all talking to people and a lot of the time they’re not in good shape and you have to deal with the situation as calmly as possible.”

Just after 10 p.m. Sturgeon headed back to the station for a quick coffee, but  he – along with the other officer on duty – was called out to a disturbance on the reserve a short time later.
The officers were familiar with the complainants; they had a history of drinking too much and causing disturbances. When the two officers arrived on the scene, they talked to the couple in their home for several minutes and convinced them to head to bed.

Sturgeon said it’s always a gamble to trust people to hit the sack for the night and not cause more trouble, but in this case his judgment was sound and there were no more calls related to that particular couple during the course of the shift.

Sturgeon said there are a number of indicators for impaired driving, including driving way below the speed limit.

At 11:30 p.m. he stopped a vehicle that failed to dim its brights and was going 20 km/h down the Mackenzie Highway, just before the West Channel Bridge.

As it turned out, it was a man driving his inebriated friend home in an unfamiliar vehicle. Sturgeon said it was rather amusing because the driver used to drive a truck with broken headlights and had once been stopped three times in one night by three different police officers on account of those broken lights. It figured he would be stopped for having his brights on this time.

Just before midnight, Sturgeon pulled over a vehicle containing several young men for going 125 km/h in a 90 km/h zone on the Mackenzie Highway. He issued the driver a ticket for $115 and five demerit points.

Sturgeon stopped a vehicle just after 12 a.m., after the driver had dropped off passengers known to police to be involved in the local drug trade.
The driver was evasive when Sturgeon asked her who her passengers had been and where she had picked them up, saying she
couldn’t remember.

Sturgeon told The Hub that although he was free to ask questions, she was free to not answer them. The driver was submitted to a breathalyzer test, passed, and went on her way.
Sturgeon said that kind of stop keeps certain people aware of the police presence in town.

“There are about 100 people in this town who we see on a regular basis,” he said. “Without those 100 people, you would barely need cops here. Lots of people don’t even know there is crime here.”

Sturgeon headed back to the station to complete paperwork and have yet another coffee.

Winter is always quieter for the RCMP in Hay River than summertime. Sturgeon said he credits the 24-hour daylight with the rise in crime in the summer, along with the colder weather being too bitter to brave without good reason.

In 2013, the seven officers at the Hay River detachment responded to more than 3,500 calls – or an average of over 400 each.

While the norm is about 10 calls a day, Sturgeon said during the summer the holding cells can have up to 15 or 16 people in them in one night. In the course of a year, the detachment sees about 1,000 prisoners, with stays varying from a few hours to a few days.

Overall, most crime in town is related to, or the result of, alcohol and drug abuse. Sturgeon said most of the calls the detachment gets are for nuisances, impaired driving, and domestic abuse stemming from alcohol consumption.

Although Friday night was quiet, he said he expected more calls as the bars closed and people started going home.

-Sarah Ladik