Retiring Fort St. John police chief reflects on career, future of detachment

Insp. Mike Kurvers spent his first shift as an RCMP officer chasing down a kid who didn't want to get busted for open liquor.

Kurvers was fresh out of depot and posted to Moosomin, a small farming town on Highway 1 just past the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. And, much like high school, Kurvers was the new cop on the block and the challenge was to be expected.

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"When you go to a new place there’s always going to be a challenge, because you’re the new cop," Kurvers said. "People want to challenge you, test their boundaries."

The young man ran off from his friends, but it didn't take long for Kurvers to catch up and haul him to the back of his squad car.

"After that, I never had a problem. I gave them respect, they gave me their respect," Kurvers said.

"It was just one incident, minor, testing my boundaries. It was dealt with very quickly and fairly and that set the tone."

Twenty-eight years later, Kurvers spent his final day on the force in Fort St. John this week setting a different kind of tone: meeting with officers and assigning them responsibilities to ensure a smooth transition between his departure and when a new detachment commander arrives.

Staff Sgt. Steve Perret takes over the job in the interim.

"This place will run pretty smooth for the time being," Kurvers said.

Steep learning curve

As Kurvers leaves town to return to Victoria with his wife Shelley, the Alaska Highway News sat down with him to talk about his career and the challenges and opportunities facing his replacement.

Policing, as it turns out, is much like many careers — the training you get gives you a foundation of knowledge and skills, but there's a learning curve when it comes to putting it into effective, practical action.

"You’re new, and you have all these new powers of police authority, and it’s a steep learning curve," Kurvers said, reflecting on his first posting in Moosomin.

"Depot gives you the foundation of how to be a policeman, but it doesn’t really tell you how to deal with the public and deal with interaction and investigations. It gives you scenarios, the basics. In the real world you have to put all that stuff to work for you."

Kurvers has practically seen it all and done it all through his career with the RCMP.

From Moosomin, he transferred to Richmond and then Mission, spending 10 years in uniform, general duty policing. It was in Mission where he had his first opportunity to go to plainclothes, working in general investigations and major crimes.

Mission "was the end of the road for people from Vancouver," Kurvers said.

"Mission was way out there, very rural, so we had a lot of cars being dumped, stolen cars. We had Stave Lake and all these back roads, and every now and then a body would show up. That’s where we started learning homicide investigations," he said.

No logistics, no operations

From there, Kurvers spent time investigating fraud, money laundering, and other economic crimes when he was posted in the West Shore and Burnaby detachments.

He got his first taste of police administration in Richmond as a sergeant, dealing with human resources, procurement, records keeping. Operations doesn’t work unless you have the logistics behind it, Kurvers said.

"I actually learned a lot that served me well coming into this job, because you have to learn that administration side of the RCMP to understand the operational side," he said.

"As a constable or corporal, just give me the tools to do the job and go arrest bad guys. When you get to be a sergeant or a staff sergeant or even an inspector, you got to know how to get those things. You have to put in budgets, you have to go through procurement — how do I get these items to make the detachment run? It’s a different perspective."

In Richmond, Kurvers also spent time in general investigations and crime reduction, overseeing a bike squad and the emergency response team. But his best memory was working as a liaison officer for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and overseeing operations of events and celebrations there.

"I was very lucky. I don’t know if it was by design or being in the right place at the right time," Kurvers said, noting the city was host to Holland House, a perfect match as he was born in the Netherlands.

"It was two weeks of fun, I think I had one day off."

There wasn't much trouble either, he recalled.

"You’d be surprised — when an event like that comes to town people behave," Kurvers said. "Everybody’s in a good mood, you’ve got international guests. People put their best foot forward."

From Richmond, Kurvers went to work for the Island District in professional standards, and then went to work in the Federal Serious and Organized Crime unit, dealing with commercial crime and border integrity.

He took the top post in Fort St. John at the end of 2014.

"I’ve been lucky, very fortunate," Kurvers said.

"It’s a fantastic job, a lot of good experiences. I've done a lot things, seen a lot of things. Some moments I wish I didn’t see. Some of the things humans can do to each other are not so pleasant. you got to learn to deal with that stuff and not take it personal."

Question and answer

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alaska Highway News: What’s the role of a detachment commander; what was your average day like?

Mike Kurvers: Some days, it’s hard to say. You’re responsible for the administrative and operational requirements of the detachment. So, investigations. Typically, anything general duty-related, Staff Sgt. Perret deals with. We have a sergeant downstairs that deals with plainclothes. But, I still need to make sure they have all their needs, and that there's a budget, and resources and the tools to do their job.

A lot of time spent on human resources, transfers in and out. The process, talking about staffing, dealing with that issue. Dealing with concerns that come, public complaints at the front counter. Things that come up from E Division, things that are required, making sure they’re tasked and completed.

I need to do reports. If I get tasked with something from out of detachment, like direct a review or something, I have to take care of that. Usually it's a policy or some kind of something that’s happened elsewhere, and they want an external person to take do a review.

I put an ops plan in if we want seasonal policing, if we want to get a budget to get out on the rivers or on the lakes, I got to build those to get approval.

It’s a lot of planning. I’m not on the road so much. Human resources chews up a big part of time.

AHN: Do you miss the beat?

MK: Not so much anymore, but it’s taken quite a long time to get to that point. Staff Sgt. Perret and I, and even Sgt. Tyreman, when we go out we still enforce traffic and different things. When we’re going out, we’re writing tickets, we still get called to court. I was involved in a file where I did surveillance and I was called to court on that. So, we are still active on the operations side, not as much as we’d like, but we do.

Last year, I had Sgt. Tyreman and Staff Sgt. Perret working evenings with the watches, just to give that oversight and to see and show that we still want to come out at night. Put in simple terms, lead by example. I’m out writing tickets, stopping cars. People see that so they understand that we’re still cops.

AHN: What advice do you have for the new detachment commander?

MK: Step back, and watch and listen. The old storyline: don’t fix it if it isn’t broken. I don’t know what the new person is going to be like, everybody comes up with new ideas. I’m not the stakeholder of all the ideas. Communication is what we really have here. I talk to everybody and ask for input, and then I come up with a decision, and everybody has input in it. That communication really helps and gets buy-in to what the solution is.

AHN: What’s the biggest opportunity and challenge that’s going to be facing the new commander?

MK: The same challenge I had when i got here: keeping this place staffed. We are that northern post. We typically get recruits. The lateral interest is not that high here, except when it’s promotions.

When I first got here, the morale was not that good because of previous happenings. People did not want to come to Fort St. John, regardless. That’s changed. People are wanting to come here. When we have promotional opportunities, we have a lot of interest. That’s really changed. Part of that is the people that are leaving have been here for the change and the positives, so now they’re delivering that message wherever they go.

We do get reports back from down south that people like to work here now. It’s a good place to be. There’s a lot of opportunities here. It’s a nice town, we just got to send that message. I know Mayor Ackerman was trying to get on that bandwagon as well, trying to maybe go to depot and send a message that we got a lot of good stuff in the north. We got to send that message to the south because they don’t see past Hope.

AHN: Thinking back over your four years here, are there any cases that weigh on you, business that's been left unfinished?

MK: My role’s different here, so it’s not the operational side. I think the staffing and the morale part of it go hand in hand. I know there’s a continuous cycle of people coming and going, but having a process where we keep the staffing levels at a good level where it doesn’t affect the membership and the members on the road — that does a lot for morale because they’re happy to come to work, they’re not overworked, overburdened, and they know that we’re working for them to keep those staffing levels high.

That cycle has to keep going. There’s always going to be somebody transferred, we just got to get the body in, that’s the biggest battle.

AHN: Outside of staffing and morale, and looking at the detachment overall, what would you say is the biggest accomplishment while you were here?

MK: Everything revolves around staffing. When I first got here, we barely had a plainclothes section. Drugs was upstairs, reporting to the ops support. There was a lot of fragmented components; we had no municipal traffic, no crime reduction unit. We only had two people in plainclothes.

I sat back and watched and observed, to see how things worked and started making moves in how we could put our plainclothes unit together. It took some time but now it’s a sergeant with nine individuals, so you got 10 people in plainclothes. We have a dedicated crime reduction unit, we got a drug unit, we got a serious crime unit. We have two people on municipal traffic, which, again is something the city really appreciates because they are strictly municipal traffic within the boundaries of Fort St. John and they’re a very productive unit.

Same with our people downstairs: we want people that are self motivated, gung-ho, and a lot of our drug dealers and traffickers are under a lot of scrutiny from our teams, so we do displace them quite a bit. Disrupt and displace, that’s a good accomplishment.

Again, it’s about staffing and morale. Budget wise, pretty good, The city’s on board, (protective services director) Jim Rogers was really helpful in building this vision here. As you know we got the new detachment coming up here shortly, we’re still working on that.

I was able to convince them that we needed a couple extra sergeants because I wanted to have sergeants on the watches. So we have two positions already, and that will push another body on the road. We’ll have more resources on the road and you’ll see a lot more police presence. Visibility is a crime reduction strategy.

AHN: What are the biggest challenges facing policing here over next 5 years?

MK: It’s hard to say about the legalization of cannabis yet, that’s going to be a whole new learning curve for everybody. We have to see what our powers of arrest are and we have to see how the public is going to react to that. We are in the process of training of traffic members to be drug recognition experts, division wide, but we do have them here, three in the office that we can rely on to those roadside tests for drug consumption.

As you know, we’re a post detachment, which means we’re split 90 per cent municipal, 10 per cent provincial. So, anything we do for the detachment or resources has to be split that way. That’s where the challenge comes in, because we have to petition the province for funding to keep this a post detachment.

There was talk of making just a municipal detachment and having another one for the rural and provincial resources. It won’t work in this environment. We need to stay together and work together. That’s the best approach.

AHN: What challenges do you see with social media. Everybody’s an eyewitness, posting things to Facebook.

MK: We’re well aware of that. We have policies for social media. We tell the members, you’re always on camera. We make sure we’re training people on social media, we try to get people on the media relations course, and work towards some reporting requirements.

Our interaction with local media is very important, I think, to keep those open lines and talk about things and make sure we have the right message. Positive stuff is good, some of the negative stuff we still have reporting requirements from our communications group, so we still have to follow those guidelines. 

AHN: The city is working on a new police headquarters. What other investments do you see needed here in the city?

MK: We need to grow as the city grows. This detachment has a 25-year plan to it, so it’s going to have the space to allow us to grow because this building has outgrown its purpose. It’s going to be on slab up, no more dungeon. Downstairs, there’s no lighting, you’re in the dark, it’s a bit difficult on the people down there. So it’s going to be above ground, and it’s projected to have the space to grow.

But, that’s resources and they need to keep up with the times. The city is pretty good at doing that, it’s the provincial side that needs to step up and provide those resources to keep up with demands, because our rural component is huge. We need to be able to cover those spots.

We have a new truck, which is rural truck, and we’re making people do patrols. We’re getting some positive feedback from Montney and Prespatou areas saying, 'it’s great to see you out there.' They had some concerns about impaired driving and different things going on, so we want that visibility. Again, I don’t know if its a direct correlation or not, but visibility is a crime reduction strategy because people aren't going to think about misbehaving when they see a policeman.

AHN: On top of rural policing, what about First Nations policing?

MK: We have two members, always have two members engaged in First Nations policing. They have community offices there in different band offices and they’re spending time there. They’re on the road a lot, but they do have community offices. They spent a half a day here, a day there, they do all the community policing. They’re very engaged with the schools and the kids, they go to all the functions, the meetings.

I go to meet the elders and the chief and council. I think two is enough for now, there may be a need for a third, but I think they’re meeting their mandate with the two of them. In the past, everybody who’s been in those positions has been really engaged with the communities. We meet with band chief and council all the time to see what their priorities, we do our annual performance plan and we go sit with them yearly and ask them what they want to deal with. It’s their choice.

AHN: What are you going to do now in retirement?

MK: People ask me how I feel, and I’m not sure how I feel yet. It’s going to take some time for that retirement to settle and click in. I have a family business I’m going to with my brothers; we’re contractors, commercial. It’s a family business, been around for 45 years. So, that’ll keep me busy. It’s not retirement, it’s just moving to a different job.

It’s going to be an interesting feeling. I just listen to other people and how they transition from work to retirement. It just takes awhile for that to settle in and sink in, and say, OK, I don’t have to report to the police station anymore, I don’t have to show up for work there.

With (my wife) Shelley, she’s already engaged with the art community in Victoria, getting back into it. That’s great for her, some different perspectives and art styles, she enjoys that.

AHN: Any farewell remarks to Fort St. John?

MK: People got to realize what Fort St. John has to offer. Truthfully, this is my northern posting. I used to joke, Mission was my northern posting because it was north of the Fraser River and because I hadn’t been past that. I had done Saskatchewan, but it was still southern Saskatchewan.

When I came here I really didn’t know what I was getting into. No one told me the insider information about the detachment, I came in and had to learn for myself. I had good support from the city, and mayor and council is really good.

The city has a good a lot of good stuff for families, for kids. If you’re a hunter or fisherman, or if you like the winter activities, it’s a great place. I ended up playing hockey with a lot of good people, senior hockey league with a lot of people that want to have fun. It was a good time.

There’s a lot of good people here. Like anywhere else, we have that element that are not so good. But I enjoyed coming here, I enjoyed the city. People have to give it a chance, they really do. They need to understand the north, and this is a very good place to do that.  

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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