It’s 9 p.m. and we’ve just met up with two other police cruisers in the Loblaw’s parking lot when the radio crackles and a frightened voice calls for help.
“Shots fired, shots fired.”
Constable Mark Aird hits the lights and sirens, tosses his yogurt out the window and pulls a quick 180-degree slide in the snowy parking lot. After an initial adrenaline spike, Aird quickly calms himself and focuses on the task ahead.
“You’re going to do exactly what I say,” he tells us as the three cruisers head north at a frightening speed.
But no more than a minute later, dispatch orders all units to stand down. The call was a false alarm; a misguided youth entered an idling cop car and made the whole thing up. He’s safely in custody and will face charges of public mischief.
Aird describes what went through his mind when the call came in.
“When shit like that goes down, we go back to our training,” he said. “It’s a nightmare scenario for most private citizens, but we come charging in. Our training tells us we’re not allowed to think we’re going to lose. We can’t lose. Second isn’t good enough.”
This is one of many lessons in policing we learn during our 11-hour ride-along last Friday with Aird. A five-year veteran of the Kingston Police Force, Aird was a military police officer before he joined the Kingston force. He also spent some time peacekeeping in Haiti during the 2004 rebellion.
The night starts at 5 p.m. with a tour of Kingston’s new, state-of-the-art police headquarters. The $34-million dollar facility opened last January.
Aird, who’s been a police officer since 2001, greets us after going through line-up, when he and his shift partners go over lists of wanted criminals.
After signing waivers releasing the Kingston Police from any liability for our safety, we head to Detention Intake, the area where detainees are held overnight upon arrest.
Our stomachs churn as Aird shows us Cell 25, a 10 by seven room that, unlike the others, has no toilet.
“Sometimes we have to wait for people to poop out the drugs that they’ve swallowed,” he said.
Aird said the ‘Lord of the Ring,’ a man who swallowed a stolen $5,000 ring, was detained for almost a week.
“X-ray verified it was making the journey,” he said. “I was on poop sieve duty that night.”
Cell 26, a much larger multi-prisoner cell, is empty now. Aird said the night of the Aberdeen Street party, the cell was so full that people were sleeping on the floor.
The next stop is the breath room, where we’re introduced to the Intoxilyzer 5000c, a fancy breathalyzer machine. Aird is a breath tech—a qualification he received in 2003 by taking a two-week course.
Aird said he’s only been summoned to court twice on a drunk-driving charge but has never testified.
“In Toronto they fight them tooth and nail. The crown will actually bump charges down to careless driving because there’s so many,” he said. “Here in Kingston we have a very high conviction rate.”
His record-high for a breathalyzer test was a blood alcohol content of 0.34—the legal limit is 0.08.
“These are seasoned alcoholics. They’re driving around with a blood alcohol content that would kill most people,” he said.
Moving on, Aird takes us to a large, padded room where the officers train to use force. Pepper spray, Tasers and batons are all considered intermediate weapons, Aird said.
“It’s like pressing your forehead to a frying pan,” he said of being pepper sprayed, adding that the pain caused by a Taser is comparatively brief.
“You get shot with a Taser and the minute the guy lifts his finger you feel as good as you do now, maybe a bit weak,” he said. “I’ve been Tasered twice and I’ve been pepper-sprayed three times; I would rather be Tasered every time.
“I screamed like a little girl. It’s involuntary and ridiculously embarrassing.”
When Aird asked us what we’d do faced with a knife-wielding opponent, we suggested shooting him in the leg to slow him down.
“Have you ever seen a target of a leg?” he replied, incredulous. “We don’t shoot people in the leg. I’ve got to live.”
The weight room, which makes the PEC look like an antique home gym, is our next stop on the tour. Aird said police officers today are in better shape than ever before.
“With the rise in pop-culture of mixed martial arts, people are more violent than they’ve ever been. You don’t see many fat cops anymore; you can’t be one.”
At 6:30 p.m., with The Police’s “Roxanne” blaring over the radio, we leave the lot in Car 103, our home for the night. Since there are two of us, we take turns sitting in the back, which has bars on the windows, limited legroom and a bolted window blocking access to the front. Although Aird says the back seat has been well-cleaned, urination, defecation and vomiting are commonplace occurrences—and there’s no escape: the back doors can only be opened from the outside.
The car is also equipped with a laptop computer showing which cars are in service, not available or at the scene of a crime.
Aird receives his calls to duty first by radio dispatch, then by computer-assisted dispatch. The police force divides Kingston into nine zones, but Aird is a rover, meaning he can go where he pleases.
We zip down to the student Ghetto, where we run a car’s plates through the computer. By typing in the seven digits, Aird obtains the owner’s complete identity, including his or her criminal record and vehicle permit expiry date.
When asked how the Kingston police view Queen’s students, Aird said officers understand what it’s like to be stereotyped, and the majority of police officers don’t think of Queen’s students one way or another.
“No one’s saying you can’t have fun,” he said. “Just don’t burn a couch.” Aird added that Queen’s students usually get themselves arrested.
“I’ve never arrested a Queen’s student who didn’t talk themselves into jail,” he said. “We deal with the worst of you.”
But he expressed stronger feelings when asked about the Aberdeen Street party.
“We all hate it,” he said. “It’s a ridiculous event, huge waste of the city’s money and it’s grotesquely unsafe. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets really hurt.”
Aird said he remembers turning a known sexual predator away from the area last year.
Break-ins in the Ghetto
—especially during reading week and the Christmas holidays—are also taken very seriously by the police, he said.
“The criminal community in Kingston thrives on the school schedule. We’re inundated with calls after reading week and Christmas.”
Although Kingston has a drug problem, Aird said Queen’s students don’t really contribute to it.
“Queen’s students love their weed, but the hard stuff like methamphetamines and crack cocaine is the real problem.”
As we drive north on Montreal Street, we pass a fire near John Counter Boulevard. Aird receives instructions from dispatch to block off the southbound lanes of Montreal Street.
The result is a frustrating half hour spent re-routing traffic down Division Street.
“Good police work relies on people skills,” Aird said. “Traffic stops are an exercise in patience and faith in humanity.”
Around 10:30, after the shots-fired call, Aird takes his lunch break. He uses his break to work out at the station, and eats his lunch later in the car.
Kingston Police routinely find themselves in dangerous situations. In the last 40 years, two Kingston officers have been killed in the line of duty: one detective was shot in the head and a patrol officer was killed in a vehicle collision during a high-speed chase.
When we’re back with Aird, he tells us the spontaneity of police work makes it a dangerous profession.
“What people don’t understand about the dangers of policing is that you never know,” Aird said. “You knock on a door and don’t know who’s on the other side.”
Officers often face threats of retribution from those they have arrested, Aird said.
“I had one guy tell me he’d kill my family—I get that a lot.” Aird said he’s even received death threats while working out at a local YMCA. His response?
“Bring it on.”
Aird said Kingston is a logical place for organized crime, which keeps the police busy.
“The unique thing about Kingston is that it’s a small town within two hours of Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and New York State,” he said. “It’s a nice town for a criminal crossroads. Then add to that the nine federal penitentiaries—Kingston becomes the hub of the criminal wheel.”
But aside from a few routine ID checks, and stopping a man on a motorbike with a maximum speed of 28 km/h who had been pulled over twice already, it’s a quiet Friday night in Kingston. By about 12:45 a.m., all 20 police cars on duty are in service, but none are occupied at a scene.
Waiting in the Money Mart parking lot on Division Street with Constable Ashley Newman, we learn that only two officers on duty that night are female. The ratio of women to men in any given patrol is about one to 10.
“We’re treated a little differently,” Newman said. “If I’m with Mark, they’ll talk to the guy first. They won’t even see me.”
At about 1:40 we join drunken revelers at the Pizza Pizza in The Hub, where a young man with no shoes on is unconscious.
Paramedics and fire rescue deal with the man, while Aird takes care of crowd control.
Once he’s revived, we follow another car that takes him to detox for the evening, at the Centre at Clergy and Brock Streets. After the man has spent a few unco-operative minutes there, we’re radioed to head back.
Since officers travel alone, two cars always take offenders back to the station. When we return, his pockets are emptied—among other things, he has $334 U.S. on him.
At almost 3 a.m., six officers are back at the station. Although people are tired, jokes are still bandied about.
It’s easy to see why police work requires a sense of humour. Aird said he’s dealt with some personal tragedies on the job.
“My last call before summer vacation was a car on motorcycle collision. The guy on the motorcycle died instantly. He was the same guy who recruited me to the military police. That’s how my summer started last year—as a pallbearer for his flag-draped coffin.”
Earlier that evening, Aird received a phone message from his two-year-old daughter, whose picture he keeps in his locker at the station. She reminded him to come home safely.
Aird said he draws strength from his daughter and his wife, a former Queen’s nursing student.
“They’re my reason to stay alive.”
Please see Thursday’s Journal for the final installment of A Day in the Life series.
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