Behind the Pearkes recreation building, a thicket of trees hides a camp in Cuthbert Holmes park, complete with a grey dome tent and a round bamboo chair. Unfortunately for the owner, it’s moving day.
A Saanich parks crew carefully hauls out muddy mounds of gear, and the tent and chair frame is piled into a work truck.
Saanich police officer Const. Doug Franklin spots a discarded hypodermic needle where the parking lot meets the brush. A parks worker with a long pickup tool deposits it into a syringe box.
“This is the third or fourth camp we’ve found in the park since September,” says Sgt. Alan Gurzinski. “It’s regular for somebody to be camping in here.”
Gurzinski and Franklin are one-half of the Saanich police department’s mountain bike unit, an all-weather four-officer squad that patrols parks and trails and hidden areas year-round.
Although it’s not the unit’s only mandate, monitoring and managing homeless camps in Saanich is a constant preoccupation.
“There are those to choose to (live) outside and don’t bother anybody,” says Franklin an eight year veteran of the force with 13 months in the bicycle unit. “We check on their welfare and don’t chase them out. But then we have prolific users who use the park as their Petri dish of hypodermic debris and glass pipes.”
It doesn’t take long for this day’s camp to disappear into the back of Saanich work trucks, and the owner, a known drug user, hasn’t appeared. The officer say hauling away someone’s possessions is a last resort.
Most campers are warned over a period of days to move on, but police patience is thin when it comes to consuming drugs a few metres from a recreation centre crawling with kids. Camping is illegal in all parks in Saanich.
“We think this guy panhandles at the (Trans-Canada Highway) and McKenzie. He knows not to camp here,” says Gurzinski, a 17-year Saanich officer who took command of the bike unit last September. “We give people the time and opportunity to move along, depending on how big the camp is. If not, we move them out and usually it’s quite a mess they leave.”
At any given time, the bike patrol keeps tabs on 20 to 30 homeless people living in the district, many who struggle with substance abuse, but who want to avoid the toxic downtown street culture
Officers hit the known hotspots every day – Cuthbert Holmes park is popular due to its size and dense brush – but police have found camps in every major park in Saanich, including Mount Doug and Elk-Beaver Lake, and in hidden patches of no-man’s-land along the regional trails.
The officers direct the homeless population toward help, but keeping track of camps is also part of crime prevention.
“With homeless camps comes crime to an area,” Gurzinski says, typically vehicle break-ins and property theft.
“We check to make sure they’re OK,” he notes. “We talk to them about how to get housing and how to look for jobs and work. Sometimes we bring them coffee and make sure they are fed and have water.”
“One guy named Bill set up camp for a while. There was no drugs or alcohol while he was here (at Cuthbert Holmes park). He was tidy and quiet. You’d never know he was here,” Franklin recalls. “Others leave needles, garbage and use the area as a toilet. And we have people walking their kids and dogs around here.”
The full-time bike patrol has been part of the Saanich department for a decade. Generally mild weather allows it to operate year-round, similar to the Victoria police’s nine-officer bike unit.
“Our guys deal with a decidedly different population than in the downtown core,” says Sgt. Steve Eassie. “It’s more residential and more trails, and some very large parks. They have to get around a fairly massive area.”
The unit added a sergeant to the ranks in September to help focus on different aspects of public outreach, such as connecting with neighbourhood groups on graffiti removal and conducting education and enforcement campaigns on cyclists who don’t ride with a helmet or lights at night.
On a main trail in Cuthbert Holmes park, people walking by smile and say hello. The bike officers often find themselves chatting with dog walkers and parents pushing baby strollers – people happy to see police in the parks. Some are less happy – one young man avoids eye contact as he pedals past as quick as he can. The officers recognize him as a known drug addict.
“The community engagement is great, it’s 95 per cent positive,” Gurzinski says. “It’s a positive thing for people to see us out there. People feel safer on the trails and parks.”
The officers say they enjoy interacting with the public and are passionate about cycling, but it’s the stealthy aspects of the bike patrol that make them smile.
Often they’ll come across people smoking pot in their cars in mall parking lots, for instance. “Their first response is ‘Dude, I didn’t hear your car,’” Franklin says laughing.
On the daily outbound traffic jam on the Trans-Canada Highway, the bike patrol quietly rolls along the road shoulder, checking drivers for cellphones and seat belt infractions, and occasionally catching people lighting up joints or drinking a beer.
“They are really shocked when they realize we are police. A lot of people try to throw their phone away,” Gurzinksi says.
“In the summer months drinking and driving is always an issue, and drugs as well,” Franklin says. “People are as comfortable in their car as they are at home. They’ll light up a joint and crack a window, and then we ride up.”
“A lot of people can’t believe we are all-weather,” Gurzinksi notes.
“I question it too!” Franklin jokes. “We’re just four guys passionate about cycling. There are cold days, but we dress for it and we’re good to go.”firstname.lastname@example.org