COLUMN: A brief history of Nelson police staffing

As the Nelson Police Department seeks two more officers, we look back at a time when the entire force had two men.

A Nelson newspaper editorial reads: “For years the city has cut corners on law enforcement. Funds have not been made available to keep enough men on the force to meet the needs. Funds have not been made available to properly train officers in a profession that is growing more and more complex.

“If the city is not prepared to spend the funds required to run an efficient police force then it should turn the job over to the RCMP as many other BC municipalities have done in the past. The RCMP, at least, has the resources to train men to adequately meet the demands placed on them.”

The newspaper is the Nelson Daily News and the year is 1972, although the words might apply today if you agree with the police board’s contention that the department is underfunded and understaffed.

People often wonder why Nelson has its own municipal police department — the only one in the BC interior — despite not being among even the 50 largest cities in the province. The short answer is historical quirk.

Every other city that incorporated around the same time in BC had its own police force. In West Kootenay/Boundary alone, Kaslo, Slocan, Sandon, Rossland, Trail, Grand Forks, Greenwood, and Phoenix all had their own police departments, although they rarely had more than three officers, and frequently officers doubled as many other things, from dog catcher to tax collector.

One by one they disbanded and handed things over to the BC Provincial Police, whose members were absorbed by the RCMP in 1950. The lone exception was Nelson, even though it was district headquarters for the provincial police. Nelson also had an RCMP detachment enforcing federal laws, so at one time there were three different police forces in the city, although each had less than a handful of officers.

The Nelson Police Department was founded shortly after the city’s incorporation in 1897 and initially had a chief and constable who worked seven days a week. A second constable was soon added, but then demoted to night watchman, while the fire chief doubled as a police officer.

Turnover was high. The department went through four chiefs in its first six months.

The Nelson Miner of Nov. 22, 1898 noted: “Chief McKinnon has received instructions from the police commissioners that his hours of duty shall be from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. and from 2 to 3 p.m. every afternoon when there is business at the police court. Patrolman Thompson will be on duty from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and as chief of the fire department is liable to a call at any hour of the night.”

Over the next few years, the force vacillated between two and three officers, but didn’t get any larger until 1937, when it added a fourth member. It had five by 1940, six by 1950, and seven by 1960. Special constables — what we’d today call auxiliaries — were hired as needed.

The department began growing in leaps and bounds in 1965, coinciding with the retirement of its longest serving chief, although that wasn’t necessarily the cause. That year an eighth officer was added along with the first administrative support position. The force was then comprised of a chief, sergeant, six constables, and a clerk.

A ninth constable was added in 1966, a second clerk in 1967, a corporal in 1969, two more constables in 1970, and a sergeant in 1973, bringing the total to 14 plus two support staff. There were 15 officers plus three support staff by 1978, and 16 officers and four support staff in 1980.

A 17th officer was added in the mid-1990s, and there things have remained. The department is now seeking two more officers to bring its complement to 19, as well as another administrative position.

Yet it has been suggested many times that Nelson should turn its policing over to another agency — and here I am drawing on the work of historian Wayne Lutz.

The notion dates to 1926 when an alderman suggested the police department cost too much and wanted to know what the BC Provincial Police would charge. The Attorney General’s department promised to look into it, but doesn’t seem to have followed through.

City council looked at it again in 1959 and discovered it was saving about $10,000 a year by having its own force. The RCMP wasn’t prepared to take on the job anyway.

In 1966, city council unanimously passed a vote of confidence in its police force to vanquish rumors it would soon be replaced by the RCMP.

In 1971, the city had to think hard about keeping its own police force, as its headquarters in the old provincial jail on Ward St. was earmarked for demolition to make way for the present city hall. Council moved the police temporarily above a tire shop at the corner of Vernon and Stanley streets until they could share space in the Regional District of Central Kootenay’s new building on Vernon St.

But within four years, council was again studying the idea of contracting with the RCMP, even though it expected the costs to be about the same. Nothing came of it.

In 2007, someone suggested the city could save 30 per cent of its policing costs by contracting with the RCMP. The then-chief disagreed, saying the costs were actually much closer: about $115,000 per year per municipal member, or $113,000 per RCMP member with federal subsidies. (Needless to say, the figures have since risen.)

The two forces already collaborate extensively: they team up on local traffic enforcement, share jail cells and a victims services unit, and provide mutual assistance for special events. (The municipal department polices within city limits, while the Nelson RCMP, despite being headquartered in the city, look after the surrounding rural areas.)

So while the issue has been studied several times, it usually comes out as a wash. The costs are similar, but the advantage of having our own police department — and police board — is greater control over personnel and priorities. Officers also tend to spend most of their careers here, becoming deeply involved in the community, whereas RCMP officers are typically moved around every few years.

But with city council balking at a request for an extra $311,000 and the police board appealing the matter to the director of police services, the age-old question of whether we are better off with our own police force rears its head again.