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THE (COW)BOYS IN BLUE

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“RIDING ALONG WITH THE CALGARY POLICE FROM 4 PM TO 4 AM DURING THE STAMPEDE”
Vice
July 11, 2014
WEB

The calls keep coming in. Some idiot gets caught trying to steal a car, and now the owner is beating the shit out of him. Another guy pulls a knife on a bouncer when he’s told that that he can’t take his three beers to go (he takes them). There’s talk of an overdose, updates from the World Cup, notices about impaired drivers, a woman on a bike being followed by a car, and someone who’s just bought a length of hose after losing his will to live. There’s a bar fight. Another bar fight. And another. And another. A 40-year-old male takes a spill down a flight of stairs.

“Alcohol and gravity don’t mix,” one of the cops says.

And—of course—someone’s always causing a ruckus at McDonald’s.

I’m with Constables Adam Kelly and Dean Bassett, covering their downtown beat on a Calgary Stampede Saturday night. Over a million people party in Cowtown every year for the event, which is billed as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” Think: midway rides, greasy eats, rodeos, western wear, twangy music, and a hell of a lot of beer. It’s essentially a ten-day city-wide country and western party. Women get pregnant, marriages end, and boots get broken in while cowboys compete for $2 million in prize money. The cops say that a Stampede night is like any other—times four. And they’ve seen it all: guys drunkenly riding horses down the street, escaped cattle, cowboy knife fights. The only thing that’s changed in recent years, they say, is the prostitutes: thanks to internet marketing, only fourth-tier sex workers walk the Stampede streets.

We’re hopping in and out of their police van on this 4 PM to 4 AM shift, answering calls, and patrolling priority areas. When we’re on the road, I sit between the cops and the van’s cage, with their big death-black 12-gauge shotgun and a clip of lead slugs directly in front of me. “It’s the best stopping tool we have,” says Bassett.

This is what it’s like: radio calls, running commentary, cruising to classic rock, then hitting the pavement and popping into bars—and a kid’s (unlicensed) lemonade stand. Kelly is cheery, affable, and a reader. He often keeps a copy of the Economist tucked into his ballistic vest, and he likes being able to explain his police world. Bassett has more of an edge and a penchant for biting sarcasm. He chides Kelly for liking Game of Thrones—he calls it “nerdy dragon shit”—and spent seven years as a journalist in Cranbrook, BC before joining the Calgary Police.  “For me,” he says, “it was the difference between covering a game and being in it.”

With pale eyes and complexion, buzzed light hair, stocky builds, and matching cowboy hats, the partners could be brothers—and they are, in a way. They don’t play good cop/bad cop as much as they take on the roles of decent cops, giving breaks where they’re due and treating assholes as they deserve to be treated.

“The beat is old school police work at its best,” Kelly says. “Our job is to walk and talk —we’re the face of the force.” Discretion, he adds, is the name of the game. If a guy has an open beer or a joint and he cooperates, they’ll let it slide. If the dude is belligerent, they’ll come down on him hard.

“We know our areas and we know the people in them,” Kelly says. “There’s no other kind of police work that I’d rather be doing.”

*

We’re strolling down 17th Ave—one of Calgary’s hipper drags. The bars are packed. Nearly everyone is in western wear—denim, boots, plaid, and cowboy hats—and guzzling pints of draft beer while shimmying to twangy country or pounding rock. It’s like the whole city is out, drunk, and on a bender. But the vibe is good—there’s a lot of laughter. And I laugh too: anyone with dreadlocks or some kind of counterculture look (not so common here in Calgary) gets this nervous flush on their faces whenever Kelly and Bassett walk by. I know that flush because I’ve felt it too: that expectant oh, shit, the cops are gonna hassle me paranoia anyone who holds vague anti-authority sentiments (or a small bag of weed) feels when the boys in blue strut by. But Kelly and Bassett just grin at those pale, frozen faces and keep walking, thumbs tucked into heavy tactile belts laden with their .40 calibre Glock pistols, twin clips, Tasers, pepper spray, radios, extendable batons, Maglites, and dual sets of handcuffs.

“Howdy, poe-leeeese!” someone shouts. “I’m from Montreal!” a kid slurs. “I’m just here to party. Stampede is ze best I ever saw!” As we continue walking, we come across a gaggle of typical Stampeders. “I’m behaving officer!” a woman in a miniskirt drunkenly giggles. Another woman tries to kiss Bassett. “We call them ‘badge bunnies,'” he tells me.

Two dudes—sans western wear—come right at us, beers in hand. They see the cops and freeze.

“Oh shit,” one says.

“Officer, I’m—”

“Pour ‘em out,” Kelly says.

The first pauses. “Do we have to?”

“Pour ‘em out.”

“Come on, officer—it’s Stampede!”

“Pour ‘em out.”

“Can I take one last sip?”

“No.”

“Just one sip?”

Kelly sighs. “One sip.”

They chug.

“Now pour ‘em out.”

“One more?”

Kelly gets angry. “Pour ‘em out!”

They pour. Beer seeps into the roots of a stunted sidewalk tree. “Leave the cans,” Kelly says. The dudes eye him suspiciously. “But we don’t want to litter,” one of them says.

“Leave them.”

“But littering is against the law, officer.”

“Just leave them.” Kelly’s losing his patience. “Someone will pick them up.”

“Fine, fine.”

They drop the cans, eye the cops, and start walking away.

“Happy Stampede,” Kelly says.

“Fuckers,” one of them mutters under his breath. Someone grabs the cans within seconds.

We come upon a dude sleeping on the cement in a frayed straw cowboy hat next to a greasy McDonald’s bag. Kelly wakes him. “Ahh,” the guy moans. “Ahh.”

He’s stinking drunk, so the cops call DOAP—the Downtown Outreach Addictions Program. DOAP works with the police and EMS, running a shuttle service to the city’s Alpha House shelter. “The folks at DOAP are worth their weight in gold,” Bassett says. “As soon as we find a guy like this, they’re our responsibility. They’re vulnerable, right? They could get robbed or assaulted, or they could choke on their own vomit. And it’s better for these guys to go to a shelter than spend the night in jail. Less paper work for us too. And they like the DOAP folks a hell of a lot more than they like us.”

The dude eventually sits up. “I’m fucking starving,” he says in a frog croak. He starts picking at his soggy fries. He tries to jab them into a little cup of ketchup, but misses most of the time. I’m standing there, camera around my neck. The guy registers my presence. “Who the fuck is he?” he says.

“He’s with us,” Kelly says.

“What the fuck is the camera for?”

“Don’t worry about the camera.”

“Is he fucking taking pictures of me?”

“He’s not taking pictures.”

I had taken a few pictures.

He gets up, swaying, shouting.

“What the fuck are you doing taking pictures of me, man?!”

Kelly turns from Mr. Nice Guy to hard-as-fucking-nails. He grabs the dude’s wrist, twists it, and pushes him up against the wall. They have a little talk and the guy drops to the ground, subdued, nursing his wrist. He lies back down, eyeing me, angry, while picking fries out of his crumpled bag and grumbling about his wrist and me. “You didn’t have to do that,” he moans. “Fuck.”

DOAP shows up. Two women in a minivan. They help the guy in. He seems relieved to see them. “Crazy night, eh?” Kelly asks one of the women. “Oh, It’s fun!” she says. She gives the cops hand sanitizer and rubber gloves before getting back in the van and speeding away.

We walk five paces—no more—and there’s another dude drunk and out and sleeping on the cement: a guy with a ratty goatee and a faded Mötley Crüe t-shirt. Dean calls DOAP and we wait. People pass by. Some laugh. Others try to take pictures. “What a loser,” one says. “Oh fuck,” says another. The chorus continues. “Check out this idiot.” “Poor dude.”

“Nothing to see here,” Kelly says. “He’s just Stampeded out.”

A group of British tourists ask Kelly to pose for a photo. He obliges while the dude lays dead to the world and snoring on his back. It takes DOAP half an hour to come this time, and there’s already another guy in the back of the minivan. The cops hook Mötley Crüe under the arms and drag his sleeping self to the sliding side door.

*

Last call at the bars comes just before 2 AM, then the streets are packed. People hail the police van, thinking it’s a cab. A drunk girl in cut-off shorts and a push-up bra approaches us at a red light and asks for a ride. “Sorry,” Bassett lies, “we’re going the other way.”

We get dozens of “Yeeeeeee-haws.” A dude flips us a middle finger, and Kelly and Bassett stop the van to give him shit. People puke, stub out joints, and chug beers on the sidewalk. “Pour ‘em out!” Kelly shouts out the window.

We drive by a guy contemplating climbing an electrified fence. “Darwin’s law,” Bassett laughs. “You can’t fix stupid.” We try to follow up on a 911 hang-up call (no caller in sight), then go to McDonald’s to take a statement from a belligerent little shit who says he got sucker-punched in line.

Back in the van, Basset raps about the beauty of the coming pre-dawn quiet. I ask the cops about Stampede fears and Kelly talks about getting clocked in the back of the head in a busy bar. Bassett is more blasé.

“Let me put it this way,” he says. “I’d rather take a gun call than deal with my ex-wife.”

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