Armed only with a cellphone and a cat-like alertness, these near-invisible guardians of the night are the eyes and ears of the Whitehorse RCMP.
They collect no wage, they carry no badge but week after week, they are the unseen civilian eyes and ears of the territorial RCMP.
They are known officially as the Citizens on Patrol, a nine-person volunteer auxiliary tasked with supporting regular police patrols. In teams of two, in unmarked private vehicles, the patrollers scour the streets of Whitehorse on Friday and Saturday, reporting directly to the RCMP of any observed suspicious activities.
Using private vehicles, COPS participants are granted a level of invisibility not open to a uniformed RCMP officer driving a gleaming white police car.
“Generally we stay back far enough so we’re not obvious — we don’t want to be obvious,” said Balcaen.
“We will see things that they didn’t dream of seeing,” he said.
“I have sat and literally watched somebody breaking into a home … within a couple of minutes we got on the phone and the RCMP made an arrest,” said Balcaen.
“If a police car would have been sitting where we were sitting, guess what?”
The COPS role is strictly one of observation — they are not vigilantes. Intervention and confrontation is a job always left to the professionals.
While it never happens, the temptation to get out of the car and “take action” inevitably arises.
“There are times when I’m sure each and every one of us has had the urge to get out and smack the shit out of someone — but it doesn’t happen,” said Balcaen.
“It’s a very momentary thing, and it’s just a thought and it’s, I think, very human,” he said.
But emotions run both ways when patrolling the Whitehorse underbelly.
“There’s a number of occasions, especially with youth … there’s many times when I’ve had the urge to get out and just hug these kids because you know they don’t have a home life,” said Balcaen.
“But there’s absolutely diddly-squat you can do,” he said.
In their roles as patrollers, citizens are often brought face to face with a side of Whitehorse life that remains hidden to most residents.
“We see a lot of stuff that John Q. Average doesn’t see — most people aren’t touring streets and alleys at three, four, five o’clock in the morning,” he said.
The poverty, crime and social problems of Whitehorse are right before the patrollers’ eyes on a weekly basis — as are the difficulties of the Mounties tasked with managing the midnight chaos of the streets.
“There was a time when I thought I might like to be a policeman — but you couldn’t pay me enough money for their job,”
“I have personally watched these people bust their asses to try and get the criminal element off the street. Then they get into court and some hotshot lawyer, bleeding-heart social worker or a judge’s poor ruling prevails and these people end up back on the street again,” said Balcaen.
In the hands of a seasoned patroller, the skills of alert observation prove to be the most powerful took against crime prevention. Training for the patrollers is certainly in-depth, but most observation can only come from experience.
“You learn by doing — a lot of this stuff can’t be taught, it’s a learned thing,” said Balcaen.
As newcomers enter the program, they frequently miss things that jump out to veterans like Balcaen. It’s not that they can’t see it, it’s that they don’t know how to see it.
“It’s an inner thing that you get after a while,” said Balcaen.
“Many of the things that I used to think was normal, with a little observation we discover that it’s not so normal,” he said.
For instance, upon seeing someone staggering down the street — many would assume it was simply a drunk.
Upon closer inspection, a telltale bloodstain or limp could that the staggering individual is reeling from an attack — not the effects of alcohol.
“A guy and girl walking down the street, and they’re pushing each other, I used to think, ‘Hey, they’re madly in love and they’re jackassing around,’” said Balcaen.
“But hold back and observe a little bit and chances are; they’re not in love, they hate each other and they’re fighting,” said Balcaen.
Observation is not left solely to the domain of a patrol shift. Erratic drivers and potential vandalism consistently raises the suspicion of off-duty patrol members. As we speak, a cellphone with a direct line to the RCMP remains clipped to Balcaen’s jacket.
“It boggles me how many people can walk by situations — I can’t,” he said.
Ultimately, the motivation of the patrollers is humanitarian. The ultimate goal is prevention, rather than arrests.
“I am not out there to get people arrested, that is not my mandate,” said Balcaen.
“I would like to think that we’re a deterrent, and that we’re not a pain in the ass to people,” he said.
If the COPS make a call on a group of suspicious youth, the hope is that their call, and the subsequent RCMP intervention will prevent something harmful from ever taking place.
“Our group has been given credit on a number of occasions for saving a life,” said Balcaen.
Patrollers have called in people passed out on snow banks who otherwise would have frozen to death.
“On another occasion, we saw two youth hitting a third one,” said Balcaen.
“Long story short, if we hadn’t have called it in … it’s our information from the hospital that another 20 minutes and the young fellow would have been dead,” he said.
The aim is to be a tool for both sides. Protect those threatened by crime and prevent those who would fall into it.
“The drunk staggering down the street, most people would say, ‘Eh, they’re drunks,’” said Balcaen.
“Yep, they are, but they’re humans — and in my opinion, as long as there’s life there’s hope, so if there’s some way of getting them over another day, so be it,” he said.
“Do we make a difference? You bet your sweet ass we do.”