As we turn onto Third Street and pull over to the side of the road to park, RCMP Const. Dave Vunic issues a warning: “I’m going to have to ask you to stay in the car.”
“Is this vehicle bulletproof?” I ask, only half joking.
He quickly releases his seatbelt and is already opening the driver’s side door as he calls back over his shoulder: “You can just lock the doors.”
Although I am not in any danger, too much TV watching has turned a routine call into a Miami Vice scenario in my mind, and I reach over to press the automatic door lock.
In reality, this is simply official police business, and apparently a 30-minute ride-along that morning does not technically make me an RCMP member, so I have to wait in the car.
When I volunteered to do the ride-along with the North Vancouver RCMP bike squad, there were some things I expected to encounter, such as tight Spandex shorts and sore leg muscles, but neither of those things occured. Instead, my experience was dotted with a touch of the unexpected. For starters, I began and ended my journey in an unmarked police SUV.
While I sit in the vehicle on Third Street, Vunic is now inside the North Shore Lookout shelter joining his partner Const. Gary Johal and another member. They are responding to a call from a resident that someone else at the shelter has a warrant out for his arrest. As I wait, I watch two other RCMP members who arrive on scene in patrol cars deal with separate, seemingly unrelated occurrences. One officer is checking on someone sleeping in the back of a car, and the other is in a small parking lot on the other side of the narrow street, chatting with a young man.
About a minute after he leaves, Vunic returns. Not wanting to appear anxious, I quickly try to unlock the doors but the timing doesn’t work out.
He pulls the handle as I press the button, and the door doesn’t open. It takes two tries to synchronize. My plan to play it cool on my first police ride-along has officially failed. Vunic hops back into the unmarked SUV and reports that the call was a fake. The person with the warrant was not at the shelter. We head back up Third Street toward Keith Road, and as we pass the parking lot, I watch as the young man I noticed earlier is placed in handcuffs.
Just then a report comes over the radio: one person in custody. The arrest is unrelated to the original call about the warrant, but Vunic explains there are many possible reasons why it might have happened. I am reminded of something he said en route: police never know what they’ll encounter when they respond to a call.
It is a somewhat exciting ending to an adventure that begins earlier in the morning when I meet Vunic and Johal at the RCMP building on 14th Street in North Vancouver for my first official ride-along.
But this wouldn’t be a typical patrol in a typical RCMP Crown Victoria because these two constables are members of the RCMP bike squad.
North Vancouver RCMP first employed a full-time bike squad in 1992 following Seattle’s lead. Just like members in patrol cars, the bike squad are fully equipped, fully operational and capable of responding to any type of police call.
Although they occasionally receive some good-natured ribbing from community members asking how they transport criminals (on their handle bars?), Vunic explains that bike squad members generally encounter positive feedback. If they make an arrest, a patrol car will transport the person in custody, but bike patrols can and will respond to any calls in their area that come over the police radio.
When asked how they respond to an emergency without the sirens and lights of a patrol car, Vunic jokes: “The way we do it is I ride and Gary goes ‘wooooooo.’”
When on patrol, bike squad members have the same authority as a patrol car. In non-emergency situations, for example if they are pulling over a vehicle, they will signal to a driver, make eye contact, and tell the driver to pull over to the side of the road. For emergencies, they just get to the call.
“We get there as quickly as we can, as safely as we can,” says Johal.
A big part of the team’s work is proactive policing. Patrols target high-crime areas including back alleys, parks and trails in the City and District of North Vancouver. And this isn’t just a fairweather endeavour, patrols roll well into the night, rain or shine, year round. The bike squad also regularly checks in with businesses and community members.
“Visibility is a big thing of ours as well, just showing the community that we’re around,” explains Johal.
“It’s good old-fashioned police work, like street-level police work. That’s the part of the job I love; and Gary, he’s the same. We just like to be on the street, interacting with people,” adds Vunic, noting it’s kind of a social job. “We want to be approachable. If people are scared to talk to us or don’t want to talk to us, it makes our job that much harder.”
He says their presence on the streets prevents crime, and notes that criminal elements know the bike squad is floating around so that puts them on edge.
“Criminals can hear a police car coming just by the sound of the engine,” says Vunic. “We roll in (on bikes), we roll in silent and we’re right on them.”
Being able to sneak up on criminals is one of the advantages of being on bikes, explains Johal, adding a disadvantage is that members are a bit more exposed than they would be in a patrol car. But they always travel in pairs for safety reasons.
“We have a really good team we work with,” notes Johal.
Each member is assigned to the team for a three-year period, and both Vunic and Johal are entering their final year. It’s a popular assignment, and the unit generally favours applicants who have had experience in patrol cars, and who also have a reputation for working hard. Those who are chosen for the team participate in a five-day bike course that covers basic bike safety, road rules and mechanics, and includes a fitness test. Most members are cycling enthusiasts outside of work, including Vunic and Johal, and each member is assigned their own bike for the duration of their time on the team. North Vancouver RCMP has a partnership with Rocky Mountain Bikes, who assist with bicycles and bike-related advice when needed.
At the start of every shift, the team meets in their downstairs office at the RCMP building to review warrants, files and plans for the duty period before completing a pre-ride inspection of the bikes.
The office is where I sit with the constables for an interview in the morning before heading out on our ride-along. While talking about the team’s bikes, which are hanging on a wall beside us, Vunic points out a bait bike used to help catch thieves. Not surprisingly, bike theft is another area of focus.
They let me borrow one of their team bikes and we head out on patrol, but first we have to drive to our start location as the constables correctly assess that the visiting reporter is not a regular cyclist. I ride in an unmarked SUV with Vunic to Capilano Mall where we meet Johal, who pedalled his way over. And although he left only a short time before us, he beats us there.
Just before we park, Vunic allows me to check off a bucket-list item when he briefly turns on the police lights, which look just as cool on the inside of the vehicle as they do on the outside. Unfortunately, he won’t turn on the siren because he doesn’t want to scare anybody.
After unloading the bikes, Vunic notices his has a flat tire, so I join Johal on a quick ride while he fixes it. We travel a short loop along MacKay Creek Park where we encounter a man named Steve. Johal stops to talk to him and he appears friendly and co-operative. The constable later explains that Steve has lived on the streets for 40 years, and although he is generally harmless, when he drinks he sometimes becomes belligerent as he did a few weeks earlier to a security guard at the mall. Johal says he has had to arrest Steve on occasion over the years, but they remain on good terms. They chat briefly about conditions that have been placed on Steve, including not allowing him to go to the mall after his recent incident there, and they agree to talk again later.
As we take a brief detour through the nearby trails, Johal shows me the spot where Steve lives: a patch of bare ground with a couple of shopping carts, a blanket, and some other odds and ends. The constables regularly check in with Steve, and when the weather turns they make sure he gets to a shelter.
As we return to MacKay Road, Vunic’s bike is fixed and he is now talking to Steve. I wait off to the side with Johal, as an RCMP cruiser slowly pulls up and parks on the other side of the street. The constable inside doesn’t exit the vehicle, and Johal explains that she was probably in the area and heard Vunic report on his radio that he was stopping to talk to someone. As part of their regular procedure, any nearby members will show up as support even for a routine call in case they are needed. Although I can’t hear what they are talking about, it appears that Steve and Vunic also part ways on friendly terms. The cruiser pulls away without the driver ever stepping outside the vehicle.
We reassemble our bike trio and pedal off around the area of Pemberton Avenue and Welch Street. We are looking for anything suspicious or out of the ordinary with vehicles, property or people. As cars pass by, the constables automatically check to ensure drivers are wearing their seatbelts and not using phones. After a short while on the beat, I start to feel like Officer “Ponch” Poncherello on the TV show CHIPS when I suddenly realize Vunic and Johal are pulling over to the side of the road to check out something I didn’t even notice.
A man and a woman are sitting in plastic chairs just off the sidewalk by some parked cars and are drinking from open beer cans. We stop to talk to them and it is immediately apparent that the constables are familiar with this couple. Once again, the conversation is friendly, and the male drinker lets me know that he calls Vunic “Super Cop” and Johal “Rickie Valens.” (I assume he probably means Ritchie Valens, a popular American singer whose life story was told in the movie La Bamba).
When I ask him why he calls Johal “Rickie Valens” he says, “I don’t know. He just reminds me of him.”
Although this couple has been ticketed in the past by the constables, they are let off with a warning this day. While talking about the people they meet on their regular patrols, both Vunic and Johal show a great deal of sensitivity to the issue of alcoholism. As Johal says about alcohol after talking to the couple: “It’s like medicine to them.”
The constables then check in with another man standing farther down the road. They chat briefly, and as we ride away Vunic explains that the man lives in a shelter and his roommate, who is also known to them, is in hospital for dialysis. The constables were just checking in to see how he’s doing.
All too soon, my brief career as a bike squad member comes to an end, and we pack up to head back to the RCMP building. Johal rides his bike while Vunic and I drive in the SUV with our bikes on the back rack. As we travel down Marine Drive, Vunic talks about the squad, and it’s clear he is proud of the work they do.
Just then, the call comes over the radio about the person with a warrant at the shelter. At first it appears Vunic is not planning to attend because he has a reporter in the car and other members are responding, until he hears that Johal is already there and immediately turns the car down Third Street to meet his partner.
It is a show of support that is reminiscent of the cruiser appearing as backup at the mall earlier in the morning, and it reflects something Vunic said before the start of the ride-along when we were talking about how the patrol cars and bike squad work together: “We’re all part of the same team.”
Contact Rosalind Duane at firstname.lastname@example.org.