Years of understaffing have created a crisis for the Fredericton Police Force in the wake of the August shooting rampage that left two officers dead, says the force’s union, with a high number of officers now off work at any given time.
"We were running short-staffed for so long that it was running into a critical situation,” said Sergeant Sean Clark, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 911, which represents the Fredericton Police Force. He said the number of vacancies is high and that no section has a full complement of staff.
On Monday afternoon, Police Chief Leanne Fitch announced plans to bolster emergency-response capacity and hire 16 additional officers to help cover shifts for officers unable to return to work due to operational-stress injuries. The new hires are also meant to replace constables Sara Burns and Robb Costello, who were murdered while responding to the August shooting call in which residents Donnie Robichaud and Bobbie Lee Wright were also killed.
"The tragedy has, as you can imagine, placed a strain on some of the members of our team, with some who have not yet been able to return to full duties,” Chief Fitch wrote in a statement. “This will help to provide much-needed resourcing to our front lines, return officers to their former duties in a timely manner and restore services that are important to this community.”
However, while the union wants the new hires to be permanent, Fredericton’s chief administrative officer, Chris MacPherson, said the extra officers will be temporary.
"As things stabilize and officers come back to active duty, we will adjust and get back to our normal numbers,” Mr. MacPherson said. "We expect this could take two years to fully recover from the tragic events of Aug. 10.”
On Aug. 10, at 7:20 a.m., Fredericton police received a call of shots being fired at an apartment complex on Brookside Drive. Constables Costello and Burns were the first to arrive on the scene and were shot as they ran to assist Mr. Robichaud and Ms. Wright.
Matthew Vincent Raymond, 48, was later charged with four counts of first-degree murder.
The police chief was not available for an interview, but in response to questions from The Globe and Mail about whether the front lines were adequately staffed on the morning of the murders, Fredericton Police Force spokesperson Alycia Bartlett wrote in an e-mail that the primary response team was staffed according to the 2018 organizational plan – above minimum staffing levels. “Because the incident happened to occur during the shift change, we had additional immediate resources on scene.”
The killings shook the quaint, white-collar city of 60,000 to the core, particularly the officers’ colleagues.
Ten officers are currently off work because of physical injury, illness or operational-stress injury, according to Ms. Bartlett. She could not say how many of those absences are the result of the shooting, adding that it "continuously changes, which is to be expected after such an event. We anticipate that may continue for the foreseeable future.”
Sgt. Clark said the number of officers off work after the shooting increased by a "fairly large margin” and that at any given time the force is missing 10 to 15 members.
"We’re always encountering stress-related injuries just by the nature of our job, and that wasn’t recognized by the city, but it is now,” he said, referring to the additional $1.45-million the city has approved to hire extra officers. "It’s unfortunate that this incident had to precipitate that.”
From 2008 to 2013, the Fredericton Police Force had 115 members. In 2015, the number of officers was reduced to 105, where it is now. Sgt. Clark said the reduction came as crime, crime severity and the number of calls for service were on the rise. He said the city wanted to reduce staff to 93 members.
"The chief fought tooth and nail to keep us at 105,” he said, adding that the force has appealed to the city to increase staffing to between 125 and 130 to no avail over the past few years.
According to Statistics Canada’s crime-severity index (CSI), which factors in both the number of crimes and their seriousness, between 2016 and 2017 Fredericton’s severity measure jumped 17.1 per cent to 85.61, much higher than the national figure of 72.87. The city’s violent-crime index rose 30.4 per cent.
Statscan figures also show that New Brunswick’s police strength for 2017 was lower than the provincial and territorial average, with 162 officers per 100,000 people, compared with 185 across the country.
Sgt. Clark said the restructuring, which also includes moving some officers to front-line duties from other assignments, creates a safer environment for members and the public. As an example, he said that if only six or seven officers are working, as a minimum-staffing standard, and the force receives calls about an impaired driver and a robbery, there would not be enough staff on standby to sufficiently police the rest of the city.
"You don’t have adequate backup. Members suffer. The public suffers. You don’t have proper numbers on the street for your front-line service delivery. That’s the foundation of any security mechanism for a community,” he said.