Author note: This is a first-hand account of a ride-along between myself, Const. Cody Gibson and Const. Alasdair Robertson-More on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. The names of individuals not affiliated with CPS who interacted with the police have been omitted for privacy reasons. Confidential information that identifies tactics or sensitive information displayed on computer-aided dispatch systems has also been omitted.
Const. Cody Gibson is a quiet man. He’s a fresh face in District 1, joining the Ramsay unit just over a year ago. Compared to the industrial buildings located in the area, the District 1 station is sleek, has lots of glass, and is found on the corner of 26 Ave. S.E. and 11 St. S.E., across from a fenced off plot of land.
Surrounded by a squadron of police vehicles, we wait for Gibson’s patrol partner to get their equipment ready and I try to make some small talk.
“So, why’d you become a cop?” I ask.
“It’s kind of what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says as he starts going over the incoming calls on the computer-aided dispatch system. “I worked in oil and gas before. Times got tough and I felt that this was a good time to give it a try. I applied and I was lucky enough to get hired.”
He tells me about all of the steps he needed to go through, including written and physical tests, multiple interviews, a polygraph, a psych exam and a full background check.
“Then your file gets presented to a selection committee and that’s when they make a decision to either select you, or not,” he says. “You can make it all the way there and still not make it.”
For Const. Gibson, the entire process took about six months. He then took classes with the police service, working patrol once he graduated.
While he tells me his story, Const. Alasdair Robertson-More has made his way to the van, securing the black shotgun in its carrier, inches away from my knees. He neatly deposits a bag full of extra hats, gloves and other things to stay warm on the floor of the van.
“Can never be too prepared,” he says. “Plus, it’s supposed to get pretty cold tonight.”
Compared side by side, both Const. Gibson and Const. Robertson-More share a few traits. They both have broad shoulders and little hair on their heads but Gibson has about an inch or two on Robertson-More’s 6-foot frame.
However, Robertson-More is a bit more talkative and tends to crack jokes.
As we roll out of the office — Gibson at the wheel and Robertson-More riding shotgun — I ask Robertson-More the same question I asked Gibson; why did he become a cop?
He tells me he’s been with CPS for about eight and a half years and prior to becoming a cop, he was a paramedic in Calgary.
“My background was as an Army medic and I was in the reserves at the same time and I was kind of getting frustrated with the hospital wait times,” he says. Generally, paramedics need to wait with the patients they pick up while they are admitted into a hospital.
Sometimes, paramedics are forced to wait for hours on end.
“I went to the U.S. Navy on their hospital ship in the Pacific for two months and had a fantastic experience,” he continues, adding in that a lot of the people who visited the hospital ship had never taken themselves or their children to see a doctor before because of the region’s lack of medical access.
“I felt really, really good about what we were doing. And then I came home and I was excited to get home as a paramedic, back to the lights and sirens, and heart attacks, and saving people and then I got slammed with a bunch of, ‘oh I stubbed my toe and I need an ambulance,’ just stuff like that.”
He decided his work as a paramedic wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life, so he gave himself six months to figure it out.
“Funny enough, I was dating a female police officer and just hearing her stories from work every day, it appealed to me because it had the balance of trying to help people and manage situations that I got from EMS, but had the tactical elements that I loved from the military,” he says.
Heading westbound on 9th Avenue. through the community of Ramsay, we can see the lights of the downtown core shimmering in the distance while the Calgary Tower shines a bright blue.
Before we make it into the downtown core, Gibson pulls the van into a Starbucks parking lot where a fleet of police cars, trucks and vans are also waiting.
Robertson-More explains to me as we walk in, “This is kind of a ritual for us. We like to meet here and chat for a few minutes. It’s a nice way to catch up, because we don’t know when we’ll see each other again.”
“And who knows what may happen,” he adds after a second.
Inside, there are seven officers. Gibson and Robertson-More take a seat while one officer is very animatedly talking about pinball. The conversation flows from pinball, to growing up on a farm, to kidney stones and a handful of other stories in between.
After letting the coffee warm them, Robertson-More looks at Gibson and me.
“Ready to go?” Robertson-More asks.
“Yup,” Gibson says. I just nod.
And like that, the officers get up, clean off their tables and head back into their vehicles to take on the next nine hours of their shift.
On the road
7:15 p.m.: As we drive into the core a dispatch comes in; someone has just called about what may be an overdose in the TD Square Shopping Centre.
As we drive towards the location, I ask the cops, “Do you guys respond to a lot of ODs?”
“Yeah we do, but it seems to come in waves though,” Robertson-More says. “Like, we’ll go a week without hearing one on the radio [and] I’m sure they’re happening but all of a sudden you’ll see eight calls in a shift.”
Both of the officers are trained to use Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray that is used in emergencies to treat opioid overdoses. However, the men have their gripes with how the opioid crisis has been treated in the province.
“To me, it’s a stopgap measure but not the answer by any means,” Robertson-More says.
“A lot of it is to protect us, just in case we get exposed,” Gibson chimes in.
As we drive eastward along the train tracks, Robertson-More elaborates.
“The problem is the opioid lasts longer than the Narcan does. Just because you give someone Narcan, it’s doesn’t mean they can just get up and walk away because the half-life of the cure is a lot shorter than the half-life of the drug, so there’s a risk that they get up and walk away and collapse 20 or 30 minutes later.”
Another problem: opioids can alter a users level of consciousness. If an unconscious person comes to, their fight-or-flight mechanism can kick in and this may can cause them to become violent.
He tells me that essentially, a point has been reached where the police have the problem of trying to solve a healthcare issue on their hands.
“So, you’re pretty vocal about this. What should be done?” I ask.
Robertson-More tells me he doesn’t think the solution is to simply legalize fentanyl for use. However, he thinks a safe supply of the opioid needs to be provided so that people can use it in a safe manner.
“Addiction is a healthcare issue, it’s a healthcare disease, so why not treat it like a healthcare issue instead of making them continue to go out and steal from cars?” he says. “They’ll smash into cars to steal two bucks of change in the centre console just to get their next fix, so they can go to a supervised consumption site and use it, but why?”
He continues, saying, “What are we preventing? We’re preventing the death aspect of it, but we’re not really taking care of anything in the long run,” Robertson-More says.
“So it’s like putting a Band-Aid on?” I ask.
The calls start coming in
As we drive closer to the overdose call, a message comes down the line stating that another CPS unit is already at the scene.
“Somebody beat us to it,” Robertson-More says, letting out a laugh and sigh of relief. “You always want to be the first one there.”
Throughout the evening, a few more dispatches start coming in. A mental health call comes through and the officers respond to find a severely jaundiced man living in the darkness and squalor of his home on the first floor of a downtown apartment building. The floor is littered with liquor bottles, he says his lights have been shut off by the landlord and he doesn’t care if he dies due to his condition.
“The problem is the opioid lasts longer than the Narcan does. Just because you give someone Narcan, it’s doesn’t mean they can just get up and walk away because the half-life of the cure is a lot shorter than the half-life of the drug, so there’s a risk that they get up and walk away and collapse 20 or 30 minutes later.” – Robertson-More
After 30 minutes of convincing the man that he needs to go to the hospital or else he may not see the following morning, paramedics come collect the man and take him to the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre.
“A lot of what we do is reasoning with people, and really just trying to help them solve their problems,” Gibson confides to me.
Later, the officers are summoned to the Ship and Anchor pub on 17th Avenue. A man tried to dine and dash, and in the kerfuffle, he swung at a bouncer, missing completely but managing to injure himself.
However, Robertson-More and Gibson have their suspicions. The man claims he dislocated his left shoulder but while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, they note that he begins holding the other shoulder in pain. They also remark that the man’s pain seems to move, first starting in the left shoulder, then the right shoulder, then his left arm, and then his right hand.
Despite their suspicions, the cops wait in the cold for the paramedics to come, while curious onlookers ogle the scene. Once the paramedics come, the officers help load the injured man into the ambulance and he’s taken away.
Back in the van and out of the -20 C cold, Const. Gibson hops into the driver’s seat and jokingly says, “You know, I much prefer being a cop in the summer.”
“I prefer everything in the summer,” says Const. Robertson-More with a laugh.
Const. Gibson starts up the van and circles around the block. By now, the ambulance is gone and we drive off back to the District 1 office so the officers can get some dinner.
Let’s go ride-along
9:00 p.m.:Back at the District office, the officers make small talk and watch Sportsnet while I start chatting with a handful of constables. The night has been pretty quiet for everyone, and there’s almost a dozen officers in the room who’ve come for dinner.
According to Gibson, having this many officers in the mess hall at a single time is rare.
“So what’s the most rewarding part of this job, and what’s the most challenging?” I ask the small group of officers around me, while another bigger group loudly discuss the merits of MMA fighting.
Gibson says, “sometimes you really do feel like you’re helping people. Like, when you go to a [domestic violence call] and the person’s spouse has been beating them and you get there, stop that, arrest the person and protect [the victim] from that person, that’s really fulfilling and really enjoyable.”
“And the most challenging?” I ask, not prepared for the answer.
“Finding dead people. Especially dead children. That’s the hardest part of it,” one officer says, deadpan.
While the other cops talk about Ronda Rousey and UFC, the air on our side of the room gets heavy from this offhand remark. But before I get a chance to ask the officer about his experience, everyone goes silent, listening to the radio in their ears.
And in a flash, there’s a flurry of activity. All the officers drop whatever they’re holding, grab their coats and bolt for the door.
Robertson-More and Gibson are already steps ahead of me.
“Let’s go ride-along!” they holler, as officers run to their vehicles.
“Code 200, officer in need of assistance” Gibson explains gruffly, shifting the van into drive and taking off into the night.
However, by the time we get close to the call — the Cash Casino on Blackfoot Trail— a group of units have already responded and everything is under control.
“Well that was anti-climactic,” Robertson-More says. “Sorry about that, ride-along.”
Suicidal and homicidal
The last call of the night was to a local drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. A man who is labelled as suicidal and homicidal is threatening to hurt himself and the paramedics who were called to bring him to the hospital.
Driving up to the building located, Robertson-More asks the paramedic if the person they were coming to see is someone they’ve encounter on a regular basis.
The paramedic confirmed, indeed it’s the person Robertson-More encounters regularly.
The building didn’t look like a rehabilitation centre. On the outside, it looks like a simple apartment unit and there’s nothing too distinctive about it.
But on the inside, it’s completely different. Wood floors mix with clean white walls. Paintings of flowers and tranquil landscapes hang on all of the walls.
The cops take the lead, knocking on the door where the man is. He opens it up, asking them why they’re there.
They tell him they’re going escort him to the hospital, as he is a danger to himself and others in the complex.
He tells them he didn’t want to go, but the officers don’t back down, telling him they’ll use force if necessary even though they don’t want to hurt him.
“Can I bring my smokes?” the man asks.
“Yes, you can bring your smokes. Now let’s go,” Gibson huffs.
Out rolls a tough looking old man in a wheelchair. No teeth, a red bandana on his head and electric blue tattoos snake along his body. He looks like he’s 60 years old, but it’s hard to tell with the fresh looking tattoos.
Before loading him into the ambulance, they check both his person and his wheelchair for knives and other weapons.
Apparently, he’s banned from the Peter Lougheed Centre for bringing in weapons and threatening patients and staff so they decide to bring him to the Rockyview General Hospital.
The tattooed man is loaded into the ambulance and Robertson-More goes with the paramedics. Gibson and I follow close behind in the police van.
It’s getting late and the night has been pretty quiet overall. Gibson tells me it has been even slower than usual for a Friday night.
As we drive to the hospital, I recount what I’ve seen and heard tonight; the jaundiced man, the dine and dasher, the Band-Aid approach to dealing with opioids and the guy with the knives.
With the faint sounds of Nirvana playing on the police van’s FM radio, Gibson turns to me and asks, “Was this at all what you were expecting?”
“No,” I say as we get to the hospital. “Not at all.”
After spending a few hours waiting in an intake area for patients who require an ambulance, the man is eventually admitted into a secure location. The tough looking security guards have met him before, and are wary of his presence.
“Oh you’re back,” the eldest of the three security guards says. “You’re not going to give us trouble right?”
The man just shakes his head.
“Alright, you can go in there,” she says. “We’ll keep an eye on him, officers.”
As we leave the hospital and head back to the van, a call from the district office comes in, signalling that it’s time to go home.
I ask the cops what’s next for them.
“Sleep,” Robertson-More says. “And then we come back tomorrow for another night.”
Editor: Whitney Cullingham | firstname.lastname@example.org