Citizen’s Crime Watch

While getting my post secondary education and preparing for my chosen career path, I spent a couple of years volunteering with the VPD’s Citizen’s Crime Watch.  I was a wet-behind-the-ears college student who thought she was fairly savvy on the ways of the world (hey, growing up in East Van had to account for something!) only to realize there was so much more to learn.  It was a lesson well received and has stayed with me to this day – there will always be someone wiser and more experienced than you.  When they offer advice, listen to it.

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There were a few other college students sprinkled through the mix of volunteers at the regular Saturday night session of Citizen’s Crime Watch.  Our job was to be the extra eyes and ears for the police, and even though we drove our personal cars, we were connected to our ‘own’ police officer through a basic radio system plugged into the car’s lighter.  That night I was partnered with Suzanne, a fellow criminology student, and we headed out with a list of problem areas, at the top of which was a few blocks in the downtown core which had been experiencing a rash of theft from autos. We were instructed to keep an eye out for anyone or anything suspicious and report it back to our officer.

A couple of hours and at least one coffee later, Suzanne and I were prowling around parking lots, side streets and multi-tiered parking garages.  If memory serves me correct, her car a very used but relatively reliable Toyota Supra.  Attached to the roof with an industrial strength magnet was an impossibly large antenna, and if nothing else, it made Suzanne’s car look like a giant hybrid insect.  It was not the most covert set-up, but we believed ourselves to be budding sleuths and thought nothing of the obvious communication tower above our heads.

The headlights of Suzanne’s car arced off a cement ramp on our ascent to a roof top parking lot filled with cars.  Suzanne drove slowly and we looked out of our respective windows for anything untoward, my spidey senses telling me something was going to happen.

And something did.

The man was tucked up between two cars.  He was dressed all in black and most of his attention was on the driver’s door handle as he furtively worked the lock.  The passing of our car distracted him for a moment and he snapped upright, looked in our direction and quickly walked around to the back of the car to place himself between the trunk and the cinderblock wall in what appeared to be an effort to conceal himself.

Ever mindful of being spotted, we pretended to ignore him when we drove by and as Suzanne manoeuvred her car into an empty parking stall that afforded an excellent view of our suspected perp.  What we hadn’t considered was that if we had an excellent view of him, then he also had an excellent view of us.  Thinking back, the entire set up was like a bad cop movie where the supposedly covert surveillance is a dark coloured Crown Victoria parked across the street from the gang house.  Yes, it was that bad.

In any event, our perp obviously decided we were not a threat because he moved back around to the door and started to work the lock again.  From our position of ‘concealment’, Suzanne gave me updates that I, in turn, relayed via radio to our Crime Watch police officer:

“He’s got a screwdriver.  He jamming it into the lock on the driver’s door,”  I said.

“What does he look like?” our officer asked.

“He’s a guy, in black clothes, with a screwdriver,” I said.

“What’s the licence plate on the car?” he asked.

I gave it to him, proud of my ability to use the phonetic alphabet.

“Okay, there are other police units on the way.  Try and keep an eye on him until they get there,” he said.

“Alright.  Um, I think he’s seen us,” I said, “He’s walking towards us.”

“Does he still have the screwdriver?”

“Yes.”

At that point, it became clear our ‘perp’ was the owner of the car when he asked if we could call him a tow truck as he had locked his keys in his car.  He waved and walked over, tucking the screwdriver into his back pocket.  I raised the hand holding the radio mic in a reflex return wave, which, unknown to me or Suzanne, pulled the radio connector out of the car’s lighter and cut off our communication with our officer.  Not realizing our officer could no longer hear me, I continued to provide updates that the fellow breaking into the car was probably the owner and that he was quite friendly.  I asked our officer if he would call a tow truck for the man, and it wasn’t until I tried for a third time to elicit a response that I realized the connector had come loose.

I plugged the connector back in, and at about the same time the night came alive with sirens.  Our roof top positioning provided a wonderful view of multiple police cars racing into the block with sirens screaming and red and blues flashing.  I commented that it was too bad we didn’t have a real police scanner to listen to what action was about to unfold before us.  Our perp-turned-fellow-observer agreed and the three of us wondered as to what had drawn such a quick police response.  I got on our Crime Watch radio and asked.

“What’s going on by the parking lot we’re in?  There’s police cars everywhere,” I said.

“You guys is what’s up,” another volunteer answered, “You okay?”

“Yes. What do you mean?”

“We all heard the guy was coming at you with a screwdriver and then your radio went dead.  Officer S. has called out the calvary.”

Uh oh.

Tires screamed on concrete as responding police cars raced up the ramp towards us.  Officer S. appeared in a full out sprint, his gun drawn as he looked everywhere at once.  My heart plummeted to the bottom of my stomach as I considered my future in law enforcement had been as effectively unplugged as my radio connector.

I waved Officer S. off before he tried to deal with our new friend, who was now looking at us with a high level of suspicion and likely wondering what the heck the police wanted with two college kids.  Quickly, I explained what happened and took full responsibility for the technical blunder.  Officer S. first got on his radio to tell all responding police units to stand down, then he holstered his gun, shot Suzanne and me a heated look and leaned over and put his hands on his knees.  He took a couple deep breaths and then told us to never scare him like that again.

We got back into Suzanne’s car and drove down the ‘ramp of shame’ past several backed up police cars.  We were sheepish and embarrassed to have caused such a fuss, and I was trying to make myself as small as possible in the passenger seat to avoid being seen. It was no use.  A couple officers seemed amused, a couple looked down right pissed off, but one officer stopped us before we could make good our escape.

“You the two Crime Watch volunteers?”

We nodded.

“Don’t feel too bad.  At least you’re out here trying to help. And besides, that was the best call of the night so far,” he said, not without a touch of humour.

Relieved, we thanked him.

“Good job on spotting the guy.  Just find a better hiding spot next time,” he said.

************

Suzanne and I had been trying hard and we made a couple of mistakes, the biggest of which was our poor positioning when it came time to watch our suspected theft from auto suspect.  I consider it a mistake versus a poor decision, as we honestly believed we were in the best spot.  A poor decision would have been knowing there was a better hiding spot but not using it out of sheer laziness.

It’s okay to make mistakes – everyone does.  And while there is a difference between poor decisions and mistakes, it is important to define the line between the two.

Mistakes can often be avoided with proper training and preparation.  Mistakes are a great learning tool, as is the humbling experience of making one in the first place.  I’ve been there a time or two, and while my ability to find good hiding spots has improved, I fully realize I am not above making mistakes in the future.  The key is to keep learning from them.

Hopefully others can learn from them, too.

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