What leadership looks like


By Bob Cooper

(A Prime Time Crime exclusive)

Recently, at a Coroner’s Inquest into the shooting death of an armed fugitive near Valemount, BC, the leader of an Emergency Response Team stood in the witness box and did something that, sadly, many of my contemporaries considered unusual.  He took responsibility for everything that happened.

Police officer expresses regret over shooting death at inquest

Not only that, but he did so without having any idea what the Inquest’s verdict was going to be and what recommendations would be made.  In British Columbia a Coroner’s Inquest cannot fix blame but their recommendations could damage careers.  The reaction of several retired colleagues was ‘Wow.  When was the last time you saw a boss do that?’

In fairness, over the years I’ve had some great bosses but we’ve all seen examples of upwardly-mobile NCOs and Officers who spent more time worrying about how this was going to look downtown than looking after their people and getting the job done.  Once the smoke had cleared it was every man for himself and all bets were off.

I’ve never met Dan Holt but I’ve heard nothing but good from people he’s worked with over the years.  We both served in the military although my service wasn’t nearly as long or as ‘interesting’ as Dan’s and we’ll just leave it at that.  

Dan was poached from the Canadian Army by my old partner Peter Ditchfield who, by that time, had served as the Inspector in charge of the VPD Emergency Response Team and was now the Deputy Chief of what became known as the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit.  Along with outstanding investigative ability and a wicked sense of humor, Peter was known for his ability to spot talent, myself being the possible exception.

In addition to his other skill-sets, Dan is an expert at surveillance and reconnaissance in rural environments which made him the perfect fit to lead this operation.  Having spent several years as a Hostage Negotiator and attending the Critical Incident Commander’s Course I’m very familiar with the procedures and strategies that ERT employs.  

What was drummed into us repeatedly was the strategy of containing the situation and allowing time to work in your favor.  We were also taught to always ask ourselves ‘What is the need to do something right now?’ before making a decision to escalate.  While the public’s view of ERT is governed by images of guns and armored vehicles the fact is that the over-arching objective is always the preservation of life and statistically, they almost always succeed.

What I see here is an operation that was meticulously researched, carefully planned, and designed to take John Buehler alive if at all possible.  At this point let me make one thing very clear.  Locating and arresting John Buehler wasn’t optional.  Some would rationalize that he was isolated so just go away and perhaps he’d calm down.  The careerists would hope that left alone, the local bears would resolve the problem for them but the fact is that Buehler was extremely dangerous.  Despite his relative isolation hunting season was just starting and soon the woods would be full and every one of those hunters would look like a cop.

One of the soundest decisions was the one to take Buehler away from the cabin to avoid a barricade situation.  Buehler was heavily armed and given his end-of-the-world state of mind, the presence of explosives and other munitions couldn’t be ruled out.  People like this tend to be well supplied for long-term survival which could have stretched a dangerous situation into days or weeks which would have been logistically unsustainable.

Finally, and with the greatest respect, I must disagree with S/Sgt. Holt’s characterization of the operation as a failure.  Every one of these operations has the potential for deadly force and although ERT employs a wide array of strategies and equipment to avoid it, in the final analysis the outcome is determined by the suspect.  All he has to do is drop his gun and surrender.  As I said to a reporter after an Officer-Involved Shooting years ago, ‘the Vancouver Police Department does not expect its members to risk their lives to save the life of someone who’s trying to kill them’.  They gave John Buehler his chance and he didn’t want it.

One of the greatest tributes I ever heard was at the funeral of retired Sgt. Rik Mulder who was a long-serving member and squad leader of the Vancouver Police Emergency Response Team and died far too young a few years ago.  One of the Constables who served under him said that if you went into a building with Rik Mulder you always knew you were going to come out again.

S/Sgt. Holt led his team into an operation which was fraught with danger in rough wilderness to capture a wanted man who was heavily armed, familiar with the terrain, and quite willing to shoot it out and he brought them all back out again safe and sound.  That’s the way it’s supposed to be and in my book that’s success.  Moreover, it’s the type of success borne out of good leadership.

Well done, sir.

*Bob Cooper is a retired Vancouver policeman.  He walked a beat in Chinatown and later worked in the Asian Organized Crime Section and the Homicide Squad.

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