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Acting Detective Bryce Clarke goes over a cold case with Staff Sergeant Dave Christoffel while at work in the Edmonton Police Service headquarters. (JASON FRANSON For The Globe and Mail)
Acting Detective Bryce Clarke goes over a cold case with Staff Sergeant Dave Christoffel while at work in the Edmonton Police Service headquarters. (JASON FRANSON For The Globe and Mail)

breaking barriers

Quadriplegic police officer surmounts barriers in Edmonton Add to ...

It was among the city’s most notorious murder cases: three security guards dead, a fourth injured and a suspect on the loose.

A top-ranking inspector took the reins of the investigation into the University of Alberta shooting last month, with an army of officers helping out around the clock.

Among them was Acting Detective Bryce Clarke, whose job it was to review surveillance footage.

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“I ended up stumbling on some stuff that was really good. And it made sense to us after that,” says Det. Clarke, 39, hastily adding: “I played a very small part on a big team.”

But his story is unique. In another era, he wouldn’t have been there to review video late into the night. He wouldn’t have been there to celebrate an arrest the next day. He wouldn’t be a cop.

Instead, his career would have ended 11 years earlier with a dive off a backyard railing into a shallow pool. His C5 and C6 vertebrae snapped, rendering him quadriplegic – and, so doctors said at the time, ending his career. After all, very few quadriplegics had ever served as full-badge police officers in Canada.

A dive and a crack

The summer of 2001 had been a long one in Edmonton – riots broke out on Canada Day along the Whyte Avenue strip, forcing police to boost patrols for the summer. A young Constable Clarke was among them.

On Aug. 25, their last shift, Constable Clarke invited his fellow officers back to his acreage – one bash before it was time to return to the beats, desk jobs and suburban patrol.

The guests rolled in around 5 a.m. after a long night shift, and sat in the hot tub. Constable Clarke and another officer were competing to hold their breaths longer than one another, but Constable Clarke was tricking his rival – sneaking up for air, and ducking back under water as the other officer surfaced, breathless and furious that he’d lost. It was the hot water, his rival insisted.

Below the deck was a small above-ground pool – cold water. Constable Clarke had dived into it countless times, though his wife had warned him not to. “It’s like jumping into a freaking ice-cream bucket,” remembers fellow officer Sergeant Pat McCormack, one of about 10 who came to the party. “I’m like, is this guy nuts?”

The two breath-holders agreed to move from the hot tub to the pool. Constable Clarke climbed up again, and dove. He heard a crack; everyone else heard a splash. He was holding his breath, they figured. “I hollered out, look, Bryce is starting already,” Sgt. McCormack says. “Start the clock.”

The young officer, face down in water, heard them laughing and yelling. “And there was nothing I could do,” he says. He couldn’t move.

His body floated slowly into the pool wall, tilting slowly to one side, his hand floating to the top. Another officer jumped in and, to jolt the breath-holding officer, grabbed Constable Clarke. “And squeezes, and there’s zero reaction, right?” Sgt. McCormack says. “And I turn around and holler at someone, ‘911 right now.’”

The next moments were a blur. The smell of vomit and chlorine filled the air as Sgt. McCormack performed CPR. An air ambulance helicopter landed in the front yard and whisked Constable Clarke to hospital. Sgt. McCormack called the injured officer’s wife in Manitoba, where she was visiting her parents. “She said, ‘He’s dived in the pool, hasn’t he?’” he recalls.

Constable Clarke woke up a week later to the news he was a quadriplegic, one who wouldn’t walk or work again. “You hear all those things. And it’s like I went from having the world by the tail, to now – I’m the most dependent person out there,” he says. “It was crazy.”

After a lengthy hospital stay, he began an arduous journey of rehabilitation. His fellow officers donated money and banked overtime to help him. He needed regular care, home renovations, a new van and a $30,000 wheelchair. He suffered second-degree burns, after a worker set his shower too hot, and had two surgeries to treat pressure sores. It takes him, on a good morning and only with help, four hours to get out of bed and ready for the day.

In April, 2004, his wife of nine years walked into the bedroom – she said goodbye. “And I said, ‘Okay, yeah.’ I thought she was going for coffee. I said, ‘What time you coming home?’ She started crying, like, ‘I’m not coming home,’” Det. Clarke remembers. “I had no idea. She left. That was the last time I ever saw her. Never saw her again.”

He began to adapt. He has partial use of his arms, and came up with an idea for a “cuff” – a wrist guard with a four-inch tent peg sticking out, which he uses to dial his phone. He fashioned a cup-holder so he wouldn’t have to ask for help to drink a beer. He remarried. He dreamed up a bumper sticker: “I’d rather be walking.” And, to this day, he continues to exercise his legs, hopeful that medical advances will allow him to walk once again. (“I know he would love nothing more to be in a patrol car,” Sgt. McCormack says.)

As his life began to settle into a routine, he hoped to return to work, but couldn’t go part time without losing benefits.

Fundamentally, the police force faced a question: Could a quadriplegic resume work as a full-badge police officer? The precedents didn’t bode well. The leader of Edmonton’s police union, which fought on Constable Clarke’s behalf, has memories of his own colleague in southern Alberta, an officer rendered quadriplegic who has spent three decades fighting for benefits.

But Constable Clarke was offered a second chance at Edmonton’s gang unit doing desk work and being a spokesman – to other police forces or to schools, where kids assumed he’d been shot by a bad guy.

On Feb. 1, 2009, he was back on the job in downtown Edmonton – one of Canada’s first full-badge quadriplegic officers. “It was just a feeling of, wow, I think we accomplished something,” he says.

Cold cases and brains

These days, Det. Clarke evokes none of the serious, often dour vibe of a police officer. On the contrary, he’s almost bubbly. Earlier this year, he joined Rick Hansen for a section of his Man in Motion tour, and worries he won’t live up to the support of his colleagues. “I’ve got to give back. I’ve got to do something to prove I’m worth that support,” he says.

Two years ago, he took on cold cases – in a unit known as historical homicides, led by Inspector Stewart Callioux, the veteran officer who remembered him as an impressive recruit. Historical cases were perfect – all desk work, relying on brains.

“It’s the right thing. We are an example to society, we’re held to different standards and we’re viewed as leaders in the community. And we should lead by example,” Insp. Callioux says.

If he hadn’t been allowed back, now-Acting Detective Clarke would have pushed for any other way to get back in the door.

“I’d be involved here somehow. A civilian member, something. I’d have been a part of it – somehow,” he says, sitting in the lobby, back to regular routine after the University of Alberta case. “I’m thankful every day that I was able to come back.”

With that, he headed into the bowels of police headquarters, stopping only briefly for a hand opening a door. And then, back to work.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story reported that Constable Clarke was Canada's first full-badge quadriplegic officer. This version has been corrected.

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