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Railway Police still serve a vital function

February 2020

Toronto Sun reporter/web editor Bryan Passifiume makes a good argument in a recent column that it may be “Time to re-examine (the) role of railway police” (Toronto Sun/Postmedia, 29 January), over accountability concerns relating to the investigation of a fatal train derailment. However, calling for their elimination shouldn’t be the only option.

Railway police in Canada go back to the early days of the cross-Canada railways. They were established for the protection railroad assets, cargo, railroad employees and the company towns that sprang up along the rail lines; taking over duties that had previously been undertaken by the Dominion Police and the Northwest Mounted Police, the two former federal police services that eventually became the RCMP.

As Passifiume notes, the fact that these fully qualified and empowered federal police officers (under the Railway Safety Act) are employed by private companies (Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways both employ their own constables), it can create a troubling conflict-of-interest when their officers are tasked with the investigation of possible criminal actions against their own employer. This was highlighted recently with the allegations by former CP Police officer Mark Tataryn that his investigation into a train derailment near in Field, BC in February 2019, was obstructed from within the company and ultimately shut down; a derailment that killed engineer Andy Dockrell, conductor Dylan Paradis and trainee Daniel Waldenberger-Bulmer.

The issue of accountability and transparency is certainly a valid issue and I’m not trying to downplay any of those issues. A possible solution to conflict-of-interest and accountability problems would be to make both CN and CP Police public agencies, either as a separate or an amalgamated agency, taking them away from the authority of corporate executives.

The issues of whether railway police should be maintained has been an issue for decades. Regardless of any positives that come from having railway police, the railway companies have been re-evaluating their own corporate priorities. Over the years, downsizing budgets and agreements with outside police agencies to provide policing services to the railways, have led both CN and CP to downsize their respective police services from a high of around 500 officers each nation-wide, to around 100 officers each today. At one point back in the late-1990s, it looked like both police services would be disbanded.

Both CP Police and CN Police were also once responsible for the policing of non-railway assets like their respective hotel operations and in the case of CP, their maritime and aviation assets. CN Police were once responsible for the CN Tower.

Admittedly, with the downsizing that has already happened in railway policing, it can be hard to argue against their complete disbandment.

However, I believe there still is a reason to maintain specialized police services such as railway police. While there are many common aspects with all police duties, railway accident investigation, like aviation accident investigations, are a specialized trade that would go beyond the expertise of the average street cop.

Railway police officers would also better understand the nuances of the railway industry.

The budgets of most public police services are stretched pretty thin these days, so how much of a priority would they place on the proactive enforcement and protection of railway assets? I could argue that policing of the railways by municipal agencies (including OPP and RCMP who act as municipal police) could fall victim to the deployment needs of that municipal agency. When a municipality is having major problems with drugs, gang activity or shootings/murders, how much manpower are they realistically going to dedicate to things like simple trespassing on railway property (no apparent theft or vandalism involved), or railway safety education programs?

When the Caledonia land dispute was at its height, the Ontario Provincial Police re-deployed officers from all over the province to Caledonia, sometimes leaving (particularly rural) detachments seriously short of officers to serve that area’s needs. I certainly don’t mean it as a criticism of the OPP command staff, but it’s an unavoidable reality that when Caledonia became a priority issue, other areas of the province became less of a priority.

There is a reason why entities like transit agencies, universities and public housing corporations employ special constables. These specialized agencies are able to better concentrate on the specific needs of their employer, backed-up by the local police service for serious incidents.

One of the oldest, continuously-operating police services in Canada is a specialized police service; the Niagara Parks Police (NPP), who are responsible for approximately 3274 acres of parkland owned and operated by the Niagara Parks Commission. While NPP officers are actually special constables, they are an armed enforcement agency with officers specially trained in high angle rescue techniques. The NPP also have a marine unit that patrols the Niagara River, in addition to the Niagara Regional Police Marine Unit.

Now the issues of specialization of officers can easily be resolved by establishing specialized units within existing police agencies, such as what happened when the Hamilton and Toronto Police Services took over policing their harbour areas from the former harbour police agencies of their respective cities. However, sometimes this doesn’t work out as smoothly as the former unit.

Toronto Police established a Transit Policing Unit (TPU) in 2009, after the Toronto Transit Commission’s Transit Enforcement Unit (TEU) had their special constable status revoked. Although the TPU still exists today, the TEU regained special constable status in 2014, alleviating Toronto Police of some of the responsibilities that had been taken over five years earlier.

When Ports Canada Police was disbanded in 1997 after 154 years policing Canada’s federal ports, Vancouver Police claimed they could handle the security of the Vancouver Port with 10 officers, a task that was previously handled by 28 Ports Police officers. Although this number is bolstered by RCMP officers, Canada Border Services officers and security guards for the more mundane duties, along with improvements in technology like the 600 security cameras and high-tech patrol boats, the number of officers protecting the port is ultimately dependent on the demands and manning requirements for other locations.

For Ports Canada Police, port security was their sole function, and in a potentially dangerous environment like a port, relying on unarmed security guards as a back-fill can prove deadly, as happened on 27 September 1995, when an unarmed security guard hired by CP Railway for security patrols during track maintenance work in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, was killed. Twenty-year-old Jason Nicolichuk was stabbed to death while investigating three robbery suspects.

However, as with railway police, the bean-counters had been slowly chipping away at Ports Canada Police for years before their ultimate demise. By the time they were disbanded, Ports Canada Police had around 100 officers nation-wide, posted to the ports of St. John’s, Halifax, Saint John, Quebec City, Montreal and Vancouver. Twenty years earlier, there were around 400 Ports Canada officers nation-wide.

Handing off specialized policing duties to bigger agencies is not always better, and disbanding specialized police services like railway police, should be the last resort. The concerns of accountability should not be the reason that railway police are disbanded. That is an issue that can be dealt with in other ways.

Sources: https://torontosun.com/opinion/columnists/passifiume-time-to-re-examine-role-of-railway-police, https://www.primetimecrime.com/contributing/2004/20040809Latham.htm, “Under Siege – Canada’s specialized forces face a troubling future,” Canadian Police Association magazine, 1996, http://docs.legassembly.sk.ca/legdocs/Legislative%20Assembly/Hansard/23L1S/96-04-30.pdf, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/65026509/jason-nicholas-nicolichuk, https://www.portvancouver.com/about-us/topics-of-interest/crime-on-the-waterfront.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/railway-police-still-serve-a-vital-function/

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