LETHBRIDGE - It's 7 p.m. on a Friday night, and after several months of planning, the Lethbridge Police Service has approved my request to go on my first police ride-a-long in the city.
I waited in the lobby of the LPS headquarters to meet Acting Sergeant Mike Williamson who I would be going with that evening. I brought a camera with me, my recording equipment, a notepad and anything else I thought I might need to get through the evening.*
I've been on ride-a-longs before, with RCMP in northern Alberta and with EMS in Saskatchewan, but I was anxious to see what happened on a given night in this city of nearly 100,000.
Williamson greeted me around 7:30 p.m., telling me that he had just finished meeting with his officers prior to heading out on shift. His shift was 12 hours long, and I was welcome to stay for as long as I'd like.
He got his equipment ready, gathering his high-powered rifle to put in his vehicle, checked his specialized body armour that probably weighed 40 pounds and felt like concrete, checked his emergency lights and then briefly explained the call system to me.
He also made sure he had his ammunition to use if necessary, traffic cones, a fire extinguisher, police tape, a sharps container, naloxone and masks.
Because he was an A/Sgt., we wouldn't be heading out on all the calls that evening; but mainly the ones rated higher priority. Before we left the premises, he took out his notepad and wrote down the time of his inspections, what he inspected and whether there were any issues.
It's was still light outside as he drove towards south Lethbridge. Already, there were 16 calls pending - everything from traffic violations to domestic issues, to public intoxication, to more serious calls.
The calls rate from one to five, depending on how serious are. The higher the number, the lower the priority. The dispatch calls came in every couple of minutes, and Williamson told me it was likely to be a very busy night.
As an A/Sgt. Williamson said his duty was to make sure all his officers were safe, to answer any questions they may have, to approve arrests (all arrests must be approved in writing by a supervisor), and to go to higher-risk events.
Williamson said he always dreamed of becoming a police officer but didn't do so right away. He grew up in Coaldale, and started out as a recreation director, then transitioned into financial services, where he spent nine years.
In 2003 he applied to both the Calgary and Edmonton police services and got a job in Calgary. The day he was to leave, he got a call from the Lethbridge Police Service with a job offer, which he accepted.
Beginning in patrols, he soon became part of the downtown Lethbridge bike unit and then worked in local schools. His specialty however, is economic crimes.
"I might be a little bit passionate about that. It's where it's at. It's one of the most interesting fields I've ever been in."
In 2016 he took a leave of absence, where he began working for the Alberta Securities Commission, after he was asked to help form a criminal economic fraud unit.
"A lot of guys, they're afraid of frauds. It's not what you see on the street. But you get to deal with things like organized crime, outlaw motorcycle gangs, on a very high level. Eastern European crime families, the Italian mob. But you also get things like internal thefts and investment frauds."
In 2017, he came back to work at LPS, began working patrols, and taking exams in the hopes of becoming a full-time Sergeant.
Around 8:15 p.m. Williamson got his first call; a 9-1-1 hang-up in a neighbourhood near the Superstore. After canvassing neighbours, he found out a vehicle with B.C. plates was in the neighborhood earlier in the evening but left.
Shortly after, another 9-1-1 hang-up call came through. This time in the central-south area of the city, and it appeared that a child may have been crying. We went to the home to speak with the occupants.
Nearly a dozen children lived in the tiny, sparsely furnished rental home with a couple of adults. They told Williamson they had been in Canada for just a few years, and that someone accidentally dialed 9-1-1. He explained to the adults that if there was an accidental call, they needed to tell that to the dispatcher. He took down some information, and we left.
Around 10 p.m. the calls started coming with increased frequency, and because we were nearby, we were called to the supervised consumption site, where a man had overdosed on fentanyl and became violent. Staff managed to keep him contained to one room, while police and EMS raced to the scene.
As a ride-a-long, Williamson told me I was welcome to go wherever he went, however pictures of faces, names etc. were not permitted. The following description was my experience at that time, on that day.
We walked into the supervised consumption site and I was shocked at how busy it was. It was teeming with people. They were sitting in the waiting room. They were lined up out the door. They were in the alley behind the building. People were everywhere waiting to use.
According to my observation, about 80 percent of those using or waiting to use, were indigenous. In fact, ARCHES says overall about 70 percent of users of the safe consumption site are indigenous. Many, I was told, came from extremely poor backgrounds where alcohol and drug use were rampant, some suffered from FAS and others grew up with mental or physical disabilities.
As we approached the room where the man was overdosing, I could hear his guttural screams and the pounding on the walls. Tears began to stream down my face. How did the staff deal with this daily? I watched, as four emergency workers including Williamson held the man who appeared to be around 6'4" down, while they injected him with naloxone. He began to calm down but refused any further medical treatment. The weary staff at the site told paramedics that if there were any other problems, they would contact them again.
Not long after, another drug-related call came in. This time, from a beautiful home in a well-to-do neighborhood on the west side. The parents had called 9-1-1 on their daughter, who was screaming about someone trying to kill her. Williamson put on his lights and sirens, and we travelled at what seemed like lightening speed from the north side, to the west side home.
Another officer also arrived on scene and he and Williamson went to the home together. I stayed behind them, listening to one officer speak to the married mother of several children who admitted that after being sober for one year, she began using crack again days before, because of what she described as relationship stress. Williamson went inside the home to speak with the parents. Ultimately, the woman calmed down as well, and was driven home by the other officer.
Just before midnight, the calls started coming in one after another, after another; a man at a theatre had been in an altercation and was arrested. He was bleeding and needed to be taken to Chinook Regional Hospital where Williamson signed his arrest papers. There were people gathering in an intersection and fighting in another area, there were several domestic disturbance calls. It didn’t stop.
At one of the nightclubs not far from the supervised consumption site, another problem. Several people were hit with bear spray, according to witnesses. As we arrived, a young woman and man were screaming out in pain on the sidewalk. The man, shirtless and the woman in a pretty dress, was crying. They described the alleged assailant to police, while paramedics flushed their eyes, face and hair with saline solution and told them to quit rubbing their faces.
The two were apparently on their way to the club, when someone biked past them, and simply sprayed them, ending their Friday night party plans.
The final call we went on around 12:30 a.m. was for a potentially suicidal male. His mother was worried about him and asked police to go to his apartment. We arrived at the scene, and headed up the stairs to his place.
Williamson and another other officer weren’t even sure the man was there, but they knocked loudly over and over for about 10 minutes. As they were about to leave, they heard something inside and asked for the man to come to the door. He did, then screamed at the officers that he hadn’t felt bad for several hours, and in so many words, told them both to get lost.
At 1 a.m. I decided to call it quits, but not before talking with Williamson about what he loved about his work, what was taxing, and whether he had a good support system.
"I've been in some very unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “But it's all about perspective and how you take it. I do have a good support system at home in my wife and my kids. But we also have supports here, if we need them."
He told me the police service has counsellors and psychologists anytime they need them. He also said they frequently debrief the more serious calls, so they can go home to their families and not project the stress of the day on to them. However, he also explained that he rarely talked about his calls with his family, and there were certain rules they also followed.
"My wife and I, we don't talk about the calls I go on. I don't want to burden them with that. And I know they won't understand. And it's also stressful for them. If you ask my wife, probably over the 15 years I've been here, she probably knows of one to two calls. Other than that, I try not to bring it home."
The family also knows that when he is off duty and they run into someone he has dealt with in the past, they immediately leave and ask police for help, for everyone's safety.
The best part of his job? There wasn’t one specific thing, however, he said he loves to see files reach their conclusion whether that results in charges or not.
"We wear so many different hats. We can be a counsellor at one moment. We can be a police officer at one moment. We have to have our mental health hat on. And being able to make a difference in our community. That's probably the most rewarding part."
As we enter the LPS property, Williamson invites me to go on a ride-a-long again sometime. I hope to do that.
**NOTE: No names, faces or specific identifying characteristics of anyone have been described in this story.
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