Brandon Police Service Chief Keith Atkinson will soon be stepping down from his post as the city’s top cop. He came to the Wheat City six years ago after a lengthy career in Saskatoon. He and his wife, Terry Leech-Atkinson, plan to remain here after he retires, since she’s originally from Brandon, and the chief has always been a big fan of the city. (COLIN CORNEAU/BRANDON SUN)
What was it about Brandon that made you want to come here in the first place?
Well, I was actually married here in Brandon. My wife’s family is from Brandon and I’ve been coming here for many, many years — we’ve been married 29 years this year, so we’ve been coming here for a long time. I always enjoyed Brandon and I always thought it would be a nice place to police. In fact, actually, when I was much younger, I considered quitting Saskatoon and joining here as a constable.
Why did you think Brandon would be a ‘nice place to police?’
Well, Saskatoon was getting big — it was growing every day. And Brandon is a good-sized city. I remember reading a study many, many years ago that said once a population hits about 100,000, then crime is harder and harder to control. And of course, we’re well under 100,000, and that has proven, in my mind, truthful, because I’ve noticed our members are very good at knowing anybody new coming to town. If they’re a shady character, they’re on them right away and they address them rather quickly.
Well, that’s encouraging!
It is — very much so. Because in the bigger cities, a person can set up shop there and run pretty virtually under the radar for a long time until they get noticed.
That leads quite readily into my next question, which is — well, I think there are a lot of armchair quarterbacks out there — a lot of armchair newspaper reporters, a lot of armchair police officers, if you will. People often seem to think they could do better at a job than the people who are doing it. But a city of this size — we can only pay so many police officers, right? And are we adequately policed?
I think we’re adequately policed. You look at the averages — I think police-per-population, there’s more in Winnipeg and we’re behind the Canadian average. But right now, I think how we’re staffed is very efficient for the city. And it’s very much appreciated that the provincial government is helping us along. That’s good, because we are a growing city, and we couldn’t be policing it without that assistance that’s coming from the province every year.
I still think of Brandon as a very safe city. Perhaps unwisely, I do walk not late at night often, but still by myself when it’s dark, and in my neighbourhood, I don’t feel uncomfortable.
That’s good to hear! I feel that way, too! Brandon is a safe city. And I think what’s really good about Brandon is we have a presence, and almost every citizen knows a police officer in town. They know and trust them. And in the bigger centres, you might not have that.
I think people often don’t understand that, in the same way they lambaste judges, that both they, and you, are bound by the laws of the land and you can only do so much. But police and judges don’t determine the law that’s the politicians.
Correct. Politicians make the law, we enforce it, and judges interpret it. So that’s what our role is. But you know what? Since I’ve been here, the biggest complaints that I hear — judging from mostly council inquiries and things like that — are traffic complaints! The speed of traffic, reckless driving those types of things. I go on the talk show on the radio from time to time and people call in about traffic. That’s always a common theme. And that’s not unique to Brandon.
And it’s funny because people obviously get mad when they get a ticket — nobody likes getting a ticket, and everybody’s always got a good excuse as to why! But the whole thing is, we also get complaints about people’s driving.
There’s been some concern recently there seems to be a rise in gang activity in Brandon. Legitimate? Not legitimate?
There’s always been a gang presence here. There’ve been gangs from the day I got here. There’s gangs in every urban centre, and some smaller rural centres, too. Is there a rise in activity? I don’t think so. It comes and goes. I think recently, we’ve made some very good arrests, and a lot of those people who were most active in that lifestyle are now incarcerated. Our members do very good work, and when something arises that’s very frightening to the community, they try and solve it as fast as they can.
I’m anticipating what some people might say ‘if you know there are gangs, why don’t you do something about them?’ But you can only respond once a crime has been committed or something has been brought to your attention, yes?
Right. Freedom of association is freedom of association. People can associate with one another unless there’s a court order that says they’re not to see certain individuals. But when that happens, then we are very diligent. We check people who are out on court conditions, we check people who are on probation to make sure they’re abiding by the conditions that are imposed by the court. We do our very best that way. So when it comes to a point that something may be gang-related, the courts are very good — they prohibit people from seeing certain people in the group, and we then make sure that that’s happened.
What would be a major problem that we have right now, besides traffic?
I think one of the things that bothers me most is impaired driving. We make arrests regularly, there’s so much media, there are so many prevention programs out there, and people aren’t getting it. There are people who just insist on driving while impaired. And I don’t know what we can do to curb that. We’ve tried. We have special check-stop programs and the like, and there’s lots of advertising campaigns, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving is there, and we’ve got the ‘report impaired drivers on 911’ program, which has been very successful as well. So those things are there, and people should know the jig’s up, but we still get drunk drivers. And that’s a concern. Because it doesn’t happen often, but when there is an impaired driving collision that causes injuries or death, it’s usually the innocent people that it happens to.
That can’t be just a Brandon problem, though. It must be North America-wide or something.
I think in Western Canada, the numbers are higher than the rest of Canada. I think it goes back to our dependence on the automobile. In Western Canada, when you have vast distances to go, people are very dependent on driving. And in larger urban centres Toronto, Montreal you don’t need to rely on that you use public transport. And it’s funny when you talk to older people, they want to keep driving and keep driving and keep driving, because that’s the way to keep their independence. But in larger centres, that doesn’t happen.
Let’s change tracks here. Stereotypes. Police and doughnut shops. Completely unfair, but I suspect that stems from the days when those were the only places open late at night that folks who were on a swing schedule could access at weird hours.
Absolutely! I remember as a young constable, there weren’t 24-hour restaurants around, and the doughnut shops were there. And we have to thank — I think it was The Bangles that did the song ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ — ‘Where you talk to all the cops in the doughnut shops.’ So that’s where it really stuck, as far as I’m concerned, because until that song came out — and I’ve been around long enough — we never got bugged about the doughnut shops. And after that song came out, then it was there.
Does it rankle police officers now? Is it annoying?
I don’t think it bothers anybody. But it did rankle me, because there was talk at one time about this property that we’re on now, parsing it off and making it open for retail in front, and the topic of a doughnut shop did come up. And I said, ‘Well, then, you would have to be looking for a new chief.’ Because I wouldn’t be a chief of a police service that had a doughnut shop on the front of our property. I think that would just be embarrassing.
Are there any pet causes — things that are near and dear to your heart — about police work?
I’ve always found, in my whole career, that it’s the little things that make the biggest difference. The little cases that you solve. I look back when I was an investigator and — I’m going to get choked up here — but there was a case once where a woman was taken of all her life savings by a con artist. My boss of the day assigned the file and said, ‘You’re never going to solve this one.’
I met with the complainant — she was destitute. She had a young child, she was a single parent, and all of her life savings were gone — this guy just sapped the money from her. I was able, though investigation, to determine who it was. And I was able to charge him. It wasn’t the biggest crime in the world, but it was biggest crime to that individual. And after it was all said and done, I got a nice card from her just saying ‘thank you for hearing my plight when most people would probably just have dropped it.’
So it’s not the big caper — it’s the little ones. If you’re able to help them out and solve the crime, those are the things, in my mind, that are the biggest accomplishments.
What’s the motivation for most people to get into the policing profession? I’m presuming it would be to help the citizens. But is there trying to help the criminals find the right path, too? Or protection of society?
I think if you ask any police officer why he or she became a police officer, I think they’d say, ‘I want to help people.’
So any regrets about stepping down, or is the time right now?
I think the time is right. I’ve been here for six years. Every police chief has a shelf life. We’re in the new building — I’m very pleased. And I think right now, with the crime rates being at the lowest level in 2011 than they have been since they’ve been recorded here, and the new local police board — I think it’s an ideal time to turn over the reins to somebody new. I have no regrets — these six years have been a fantastic time.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition November 3, 2012